I was sitting in an air-conditioned hotel room in Little Rock, Arkansas, as Philando Castile sat bleeding to death in his car. I was getting ready for an important day of meetings, and I’d put myself on strict social-media lockdown to stay focussed. So it wasn’t until the following afternoon, when my meetings were over and I was in the back of an Uber car, driving through the thick Arkansas humidity back to the cool comfort of my hotel, that I finally read the news.
Being away from home meant I was free to read longer, and more in depth than I otherwise would have that night. I had spent part of my travel time out to Little Rock reading about the death of Alton Sterling, which had happened just one day earlier. The customary cycle of commentating and social media back and forthing about Sterling’s death between my longtime white community of friends, and my growing community of African American friends, had barely abated. Now a new cycle was starting before the previous one had even slowed down. It was almost too much for my mind to process, or my soul to bear.
The next day, I had three hours before I needed to be at Clinton Airport for my flight back to San Jose. I noticed that my route to the airport would take me past a high school that was designated as a National Historic Landmark. My curiosity was piqued – could anything historically significant come out of Arkansas? A couple of clicks laid my ignorance bare. With all the questions swirling in my mind in the aftermath of Philando Castile’s death, it seemed providential that I just happened to be four miles away from one place that might offer some answers. I decided I should visit.
Little Rock Central High School was the school of the “Little Rock Nine” – the three African American boys and six African American girls who were the first black students to attend one of the largest and most highly regarded all-white schools in America, in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Brown vs. the Board of Education in 1954. That ruling declared that “separate but equal” segregated education was a violation of the 14th amendment of the Constitution. But Arkansas civic leaders were determined to ignore the ruling, and maintain the racially segregated status quo.
When the NAACP helped register the nine students before the beginning of the 1957 school year, Arkansas Governor Faubus deployed the Arkansas National Guard to forcibly prevent the students from entering the school on the first day of class. President Eisenhower then sent in the 101st Airborne Division to force the Arkansas National Guard to stand down, and ensure that the nine students would be escorted in safely.
For nine months, the Little Rock Nine attended classes under the presumably protective watch of the 101st Airborne Division. But the reality of what they experienced was almost unimaginable. They suffered relentless psychological torture and physical abuse by students. Teachers and administrators ignored their pleas for help. The soldiers and other law enforcement agencies who were their security detail did little beyond what they had been forcibly ordered by the Federal government to keep them physically protected.
Several of them finished high school elsewhere, but the majority endured, and eventually graduated. Little Rock Central High School was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1982. In 1999, the Little Rock Nine were awarded Congressional Medals of Honor, the highest offer given to civilian American citizens, in recognition of how their courage and determination, in spite of their youth, catalyzed a nation toward greater awareness and action in the fight for civil rights for African Americans.
I walked into the Visitors’ Center having never heard one word of this chapter in America’s civil rights story. I had spent my high school years overseas, and my college years at a conservative Christian liberal arts school. Over the past several years, I had grown increasingly uncertain about the scope, and especially the slant, of my understanding of American history, let alone the church’s role in it all. But I didn’t know yet how much I didn’t know.
The LRCHS Visitors’ Center sits diagonally across from the still-operating school. A collection of exhibits are positioned strategically near large windows, so you can see the school and its sidewalks in the near distance, and envision the dramatic events unfolding as you learn about them.
The entire center is riveting, but it was the moments I spent standing in front of this picture of Elizabeth Eckford that I’ll never forget.
She is walking away from her new school after being turned away from the entrance by the Arkansas National Guard. The picture stands in the exact middle of the center. On a wall to its left are quotes from judges and politicians, referencing landmark rulings and arguments in the years leading up to that day, some of them referencing God or the Bible. To its right, only slightly further away, is another enlarged photograph, this one of Emmett Till’s mother gazing at the mutilated face of her son as he lays in an open coffin. Also close by is an exhibit dedicated to the role of the new media of television in bringing this event directly into the living rooms of ordinary Americans.
The tapestry of thoughts that ran through my mind as I took in that scene were woven from the innumerable threads of providence that brought me to stand in front of it. My oldest daughter was the same age that Elizabeth Eckford was then. My middle daughter was the same age as Emmett Till was when he was lynched. The white woman with the face contorted in rage resembled any number of the women at my youngest daughter’s private Christian school (including me). I gazed at the passive faces of the military officers in the background, and at the adjacent pictures of television newscasters delivering live commentary from nearby sidewalk corners. With the morning media coverage of Diamond Reynold’s horrifying commentary recorded on her iPhone and posted on Facebook so fresh on my mind, it suddenly became crystal clear how the same confluence of factors at work in America in 1957, were working themselves out in identical ways in America in (then) 2016.
Before I headed to the airport, I stopped at the gift shop and bought books for each of my daughters, and one for myself titled “Warriors Don’t Cry”. An autobiography of another of the Little Rock Nine named Melba Beals, it reads like the memoir of a survivor of a POW camp. Tears streamed down my face, unchecked, as I read it from cover to cover on the flight home.
All of the same themes I had observed in the Visitors’ Center as I stood in front of Elizabeth Eckford’s picture, repeated themselves in Melba Beals’ story:
- The institutional entrenchment of unjust laws and abusive authority structures, buttressed by Biblical language and ideological blackmail
In the aftermath of the Civil War, the battle for the segregated South shifted to America’s institutions – law courts, schools, police forces, and churches.
- The prophetic power of visual media
Mamie Mobley insistence that her son’s casket be left open so that as many people as possible would be confronted by the horror of his death lead to the picture that was the visual spark that ignited the Civil Rights movement in earnest.
Two years later, ordinary citizens watched history unfold via the televisions in their living rooms, as the Little Rock Nine made their way home through an epithet- spewing mob via the new media of live television.
- The unfathomable courage and resolve of black women (many of them Christians)
From the mothers and grandmothers of the Little Rock Nine and their advocates like NAACP chapter president Daisy Bates, to women like Mamie Till, Rosa Parks, JoAnn Robinson and others, black women both endured and resisted immense political and personal pressure to push forward the work of racial equality and justice for African Americans
- The passive (and active) complicity of white Christians
Judges, politicians and pastors deployed Biblical language and theological arguments as offensive weapons against integration. Professing Christians absorbed them, and embraced entrenched racism and segregation as “biblical”. Christian dissenters and desegregation advocates were marginalized, labelled as liberals or heretics, so that many ordinary Christians capitulated to pressure to remain silent in the name of keeping peace.
Those themes have emerged yet again this past week in the aftermath of Officer Jeronimo Yanez’s acquittal in Philando Castile’s death, as new video and still images of the incident and its aftermath, and commentary on it, are rolling through social media.*
Whatever thinking, reading, writing, and social media interacting I’ve done on topic of the gospel and racial reconciliation since then was birthed from what God did in my mind and heart over those two days in Little Rock, Arkansas.
The term some groups use to describe my experience is being “woke”: the scales of ignorance have permanently fallen from my eyes so that I now see what African Americans have been testifying to for so long. It’s not a term I’m comfortable using. Wobbly grammar aside, I don’t know that it’s the most appropriate term culturally for a forty-something white lady from Silicon Valley to adopt for herself. But beyond that, it’s the way many people treat “wokeness” as a binary state – one in which you live completely, or not at all – that prevents me from embracing it, at least for myself.
My evolving understanding, and awkward, imperfect attempts to speak and act consistently with the gospel in all this feels more akin to how Neo felt in the famous red pill/blue pill scene in The Matrix.
I’m barely beyond the disorientation of waking up, covered in the slime of my ignorance, surrounded by a legion of others still unconscious. Gracious new friends are helping me build muscles atrophied from lack of use. My eyes hurt, because I’ve never used them before. And that’s about as far as it feels like I’ve come.
As I’ve lurched and stumbled through dialog about race and the gospel in the digital world of social media, and the personal world of my local church contexts (both the one I’m in now and well as ones from previous seasons of life), I’ve found myself in the same place as other white Christians in times past. I’ve experienced the subtle, and unsubtle, criticism and distancing by other white Christians, and heard the suggestions that I’ve “gone liberal” and fallen in with the so-called gospel-diluting “SJW”s. I’ve felt the tiny stings of social media unfollowing and mutings, when I’ve shared stories in the hopes others might finally be persuaded in the same way that stories persuaded me. Remembering the immeasurably worse my black sisters have endured, and continue to endure, convicts me when I’m tempted to silence, and simply spurs me to ask God to increase my faith and give me courage like theirs.
A different hurt comes from a place my reading hadn’t lead me to expect. When white Christians like me take a step forward in advocating for racial reconciliation or restitution, whether a small one on social media, or a slightly bigger one involving collective action, our attempts are sometimes met by some black Christians with cynicism, judgement, or a barrage of “so what are you going to do right now”s and “not enough”s. When you’ve discovered that some of the pillars of your understanding of the gospel are rotten, and you’re doing your uneducated best to replace them, the extra burden of law and guilt we’re given to wear weighs us down, and tempts us to quit. Remembering the far worse burdens my black brothers and sisters have borne for centuries without quitting, and the gospel of grace which gives all of our burdens to Jesus, spurs me to keep going anyway.
The lament over the acquittal of Philando Castile’s killer was the biggest and loudest by Christians I’ve yet observed. It gives me hope that we may be living in what future generations of Christians might look back on as the real Great Awakening of the American church.
But it will require many more Christians to embrace the gospel in asking for God to reveal our blindness, to take the sins He reveals of our collective indifference, willful ignorance, and complicitness to the foot of the cross and leave them there,
and then ask Him to give us the grace to speak, and to act, precisely because so many generations of our forefathers and mothers would not.
*I’ve declined to include the video or still images of Philando Castile’s death, to respect both the African American community who are so constantly traumatized by these images, and the LEO community struggling to work under the dark shadow the unrighteous acts by some cast over the honorable and sacrificial service of the rest.