I grew up in the South. I also grew up during the Jim Crow era. I asked a lot of questions and made a lot of white folks very angry when I did. I hated the “separate but equal” hypocrisy and I was never, in my heart of hearts, sympathetic with the illogic of racism as I knew it. As a teen I was called into the senior pastor’s office and told to stop spreading racial unrest among the youth of the church. I was threatened and reprimanded by an angry and imposing authority figure. I learned there were deep feelings about race in Memphis and I had better be careful.
With this background I watched the recent appearances of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in Selma, Alabama, with more than passing interest. The significance of this particular Sunday of March 4, as many of you know, was the 42nd commemoration of Bloody Sunday, the day when Alabama state troopers beat civil rights marchers who tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge to enter the town of Selma in 1965. I entered the University of Alabama in the fall of 1967. The impact of that infamous date was huge on that campus. Only months before my entrance Governor George Wallace had boasted of “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever” while he stood in the door of the admissions office at the university, seeking to forbid the enrollment of our first two black students. I also stood with several black students on nasty occasions while they were verbally abused, and even pushed around, by racists. It was a bitter and ugly time but it was a time that needed change as well. I thank God for the Civil Rights movement and still regret that the white church did so little to help it back in the 1960s.
John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at “encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening.”