George Floyd: what can I do?
Public Issues Enabler Steve Tinning recalls the actions of a minister in 1960s Selma as he reflects on how he, as a white man, can respond to the death of George Floyd and to racial injustice
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility
Like many of you, I watched in horror last week the footage of four white policemen pinning George Floyd to the floor, one kneeling on his neck, while he cried out “I can’t breathe” until he passed out and soon after died. It is the latest in a number of widely reported instances of police brutality and racism in the USA and has led to protests and civil unrest throughout America.
I am a white Baptist minister, 4000 miles away and I’m left thinking, “this is an inexcusable act of yet another black man dying at the hands of a white person of power – I’m sickened and horrified – but what can I do?”
The truth is, this is nothing new. Tragically, my previous experience teaches me that I see it on the news, I think “surely this time something will be done”, the news comes and goes, my mind wanders in a different direction, towards another injustice somewhere else in the world, and then an almost identical story breaks – every bit as tragic and unjust as the last. Each time the black communities hope and pray that this will finally be the tipping point towards America waking up to its systemic racial discrimination, but each time their hopes are dashed, and the pain and the anger of injustice multiplies.
It is impossible for me not to think back to racial injustices of the past and think, what was different? How were the monumental strides forward for civil rights in the 60s achieved? What can we learn from that struggle? What can I learn from that struggle?
Someone less well known in the story of the Selma voting rights demonstrations of 1965 is the Revd Joe Ellwanger. The Revd Ellwanger is a retired Lutheran minister who, at the time of the marches, was the pastor of the largely African-American St. Paul Lutheran Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Having come to know Martin Luther King Jr., Revd Ellwanger responded to his call, became a community organiser, and planned a demonstration in Selma on 6 March 1965. One of the most significant offerings Revd Ellwanger brought to the table was the colour of his skin – he is white.
On the evening of 5 March 1965, Joe and his wife Joyce (who was pregnant at the time) got little-to-no sleep. They’d sent out what was the first call for white southerners to join them on the march in support of the civil rights movement, but they didn’t know how many, if any, would join them. Neither did they know what to expect at the march - the KKK had actively targeted the homes of some sympathetic white households and there was a good chance they might get arrested.
Come the moment, 72 white demonstrators, from numerous backgrounds including mainline Baptists, gathered and marched down Broad Street towards Selma’s courthouse where they hoped to hold their action. As they turned the last corner they were met by a quite unnerving sight – to their right were around three to four hundred white men with bats, clubs and pipes, to their left, across the road, were a similar number of black men and women. Between the two groups, in the middle of the road, blocking the protesters way to the courthouse were seven or eight sheriff’s deputies.
As Joe Ellwanger approached them, he was all too aware they had the power to let them by or to turn their backs and let the mob attack. One deputy stepped forward, stopped the group and said to Joe, “I have a telegram in my hand from Dr Homrighausen, do you know him?” Joe replied, “Yes, of course” – Dr Homrighausen was the President of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, a figurehead similar to a Bishop.
“Well,” said the deputy, “I have a message from him, he says… Reverend Joseph Ellwanger does not represent the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod in any way in his actions in Selma today… what do you say to that?”
Joe replied, “Dr Homrighausen is entitled to his opinions but we’re here today to stand in solidarity with our black brothers and sisters who have been struggling here for two months to simply be able to vote. We have come to support them and we’d like to move forward to the steps of the courthouse.”
Then he held his breath as the deputy deliberated what to do. The group had received non-violence training so knew how to protect their bodies but at that moment no one could be sure they’d be leaving that street alive – Joyce described the scene of one man shaking next to her but choosing to face his fears despite having had a cross burned on his lawn just weeks before. By the grace of God the deputies moved aside, they held their demonstration on the courthouse, the mob shouted “Dixie!” (a racist slur) while the black men and women sang “We shall overcome!”
Mercifully the events on 6 March ended without violence, but the following day, “Bloody Sunday”, saw 17 civil rights demonstrators hospitalised and many others injured by troopers on horseback at Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Revd Ellwanger was amongst a group of 16 church ministers who met with President Lyndon Johnson demanding swift change for voting rights in the south. The collective efforts of Martin Luther King Jr., the community organisers, including Joe Ellwanger, and all the demonstrators eventually persuaded the President to right a wrong that had discriminated against the black population of America for decades.
On reflection of this inspirational story, and considering the current systemic racism rife in America and the UK, I have come to realise the following:
Social Media platitudes and words are not enough – I need to listen more, talk less and not be afraid to explore any questions I have with my black brothers and sisters.
Taking a stand in solidarity alongside the oppressed means taking action and it can come at a great cost.
I am glad to be part of a Baptist family that has shown efforts in the past to acknowledge and apologise for its involvement in historic racial injustices and I believe would only encourage my efforts to stand alongside the oppressed in current day battles.
The diversity of the Baptist family can be a tremendous platform for solidarity, and we must find ways for those of us who are white Christians to acknowledge our privilege, to express repentance for any racism and apathy in our past and find sincere and active ways to join our black and minority ethnic brothers and sisters, in the UK or further afield, in their fight for justice.
I hope this is something you might feel moved to consider. If so, there are all sorts of paths you might like to take.
To start, I’d commend to you the new Just Aware training resource which aims to raise awareness of prejudice, discrimination, racism and its debilitating impact on the people with whom we live and work. We are hoping to pilot this online in the next few weeks and then it can be delivered on request to groups/churches around the country. Details will be published on the Baptists Together website shortly.
‘Community organising’ is an excellent process of bringing people together to take action around their common concerns and overcome social injustice. If you are serious about tackling injustices in your area, perhaps you could consider linking your church to a local community organising alliance – or even be trained in community organising yourself? CitizensUK is one organisation you might like to speak to about this (citizensuk.org)
If you’d like to explore ways to give an overt welcome to people of a different ethnic heritage to your own, you might like to consider exploring how your church might become a Church of Sanctuary (churchofsanctuary.org/resources). You could also look into campaigning for the rights of refugees (Safe Passage (safepassage.org.uk). Or perhaps explore forming a community sponsorship group to welcome a family of refugees into your community? (resetuk.org/community-sponsorship)
Finally, there are numerous books/articles with which you might like to familiarise yourself. Amongst others, Baptists Together would recommend a 2017 book called Journeying to Justice - Contributions to the Baptist Tradition across the Black Atlantic. Edited by Professor Anthony Reddie, Wale Hudson-Roberts and Gale Richards, it has contributions primarily from Black American, Black Caribbean and Black British women and men, but also some from White women and men. It may help people better understand some of the historical context of today's events through a 'Baptist lens.'
If you have not come across the article from my friend and colleague Wale Hudson-Roberts entitled 'I can’t breathe...', I’d implore you to find the time to read it soon.
Image | Donovan Valdivia | Unsplash
The Revd Steve Tinning is Interim Public Issues Enabler, Baptist Union of Great Britain
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