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Exploring black history transcends race


1:00 P.M. EST Feb. 17, 2011

The Rev. Gilbert Caldwell. A UMNS photo by Maile Bradfield.
The Rev. Gilbert Caldwell. A UMNS photo by Maile Bradfield.
View in Photo Gallery

Paul wrote in Romans 7:15 that “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate.”

I paraphrase that statement as a way of addressing our flaws of omission and commission on many matters, including race. Black History Month is with us because, for a variety of reasons, black history has been ignored, revised or distorted too often in our history books. We find it difficult to explore honestly the reasons a study of black history makes so many of us uncomfortable.

We know it is essential to be historically correct about the issues in England that energized the efforts that established the United States. We understand Israel exists in the main because of the history of the oppression of the Jewish people. However, there is difficulty for some people in admitting the existence of American slavery made necessary the abolition movement and the reality of racial segregation provoked and evoked the U.S. civil rights movement.

If we do not remember accurately the negatives of the past, reminds Spanish-American philosopher, essayist, poet and novelist George Santayana, we may repeat them. Failure to remember the negatives deprives us of the opportunity to celebrate the magnificent progress we have made as a nation since slavery and legal racial segregation.

Journey to racial justice

Whatever our politics or our responses to the politics of President Barack Obama, every American should have rejoiced at his election as an expression of our national journey toward racial justice.

I prefaced my address/sermon at the Martin Luther King Jr. service at Asbury United Methodist Church, Atlantic City, N.J., by giving examples of our racial history that now seem so contradictory and foolish that we want either to cry or to laugh.

There was a time, for example, when blacks were forced to sit in the back of buses and the front cars of trains. The rail passengers who sat in the front cars breathed in the fumes from the coal and wood that propelled the engine. What did colored and white restrooms look like? How did “white” and “colored” water in water fountains taste?

Harry Golden, a journalist in my home state of North Carolina, with tongue in cheek, suggested “vertical racial integration.” He observed that whites and blacks had no difficulty standing together in lines, but when they sat, the gene that inflicted and infected the segregationist took over (my words, not his).

Today those few people who speak of Islamic terrorists as a way negatively to brand all of Islam would never speak of the Ku Klux Klan as Christian terrorists who reflect negatively on all of Christianity. When viewed through the eyes of faith, we can only see the reality of our biased and bigoted contradictions as childlike foolishness.

Sins of omission

Most of us, in moments of candid introspection, acknowledge we have committed sins of omission (silence) when we should have spoken and acted. I have admitted times I should have challenged segregation, but I quenched the spirit by remaining silent.

Students and leaders from Youth 2007 make a pilgrimage to the former Woolworth's store in Greensboro, N.C. A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose.
Students and leaders from Youth 2007 make a pilgrimage
to the former Woolworth's store in Greensboro, N.C.
A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose. View in Photo Gallery

I finished college in 1955 and did nothing to challenge segregation in Greensboro, N.C. However, in 1960, four young men from my college created history by sitting in at the Woolworth's lunch counter I avoided because of its practice of racial segregation.

I believe Black History Month provides a special opportunity and challenge for those of us who claim commitment and adherence to the Christian faith. We can ask ourselves how and why those who seek to follow Jesus and claim to be “people of the book” (the Bible), in the past and some in the present, use the Bible and circumvent Jesus to justify their racial bias and bigotry.

However, as I point a finger of blame at those people, I know, in the past, on matters of gender, I pointed three fingers at myself. Once I used the Bible to justify my opposition to the ordination of women, just as some used the Bible to support their racial biases.

I remember my grandmother Mama Irene’s saying, “There is so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us, that it doesn't behoove any of us to talk about the rest of us.” And I admit the good and the not-so-good within me.

I suggest that a deeper exploration of black history, rooted in the discipline of prayer, will touch those places in our lives that transcend race. I believe the introspection this prompts will touch our consciences and transform our lives.

*Caldwell is pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church, Atlantic City, N.J.

News media contact: Barbara Dunlap-Berg, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5489 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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