Thursday, April 15, 2010

Privilege and Gratitude

On days like today, I am reminded of how privileged my life has been. I am blessed to live in a country where I can worship freely, choose my own career, live in a safe community with food abundantly available, and free to vote and speak as my conscience dictates. And I am aware that none of these privileges came without someone paying a high cost and that someone was not I. I am also privileged to live in a day when my children go to school with children of other races, other religions and other political beliefs. Our lives are richer because of our exposure to people who are different from us and we are also allowed to know how in so many ways we are all alike. And that privilege also came at a high price for many—some even within my lifetime.

As a child of the south, I do remember segregation. I don’t remember bathrooms and water fountains that were designated for “colored only,” but perhaps that is because my preschool and elementary years were spent in the DC area and Dallas respectively. But I do remember when my school (Jefferson Davis Elementary) was desegregated. And as much as I would like to think I would have been willing to say segregation was wrong and work to change it, I’ll never know because I have never been in the position to have to do so.

And as a child of privilege, I cannot imagine what it is like to be truly oppressed and to live in fear of harassment or arrest of even death simply because of the color of my skin.

All my life, I’ve heard the stories. Of Emmett Till and the Civil Rights Workers in Mississippi. Of the Strange Fruit hanging on the trees. And of the Scottsboro Boys. But I’ve heard them safely from a distance. A distance I am more than glad to maintain. And I’ve heard them with a sadness, but a sadness of hearing an old, sad story that has nothing to do with my life and with my family.

Today, I had yet another privilege. I had the privilege of sitting in the sanctuary of the former Joyce Chapel UMC as the deed was passed from the Northeast District of the North Alabama Conference of the UMC to the Scottsboro-Jackson County Multicultural Heritage Foundation to be used as the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center. With great joy, I watched as District Superintendent Tom Bell handed over the deed to Sheila Washington.

The ceremony was wonderful. I loved the music, the prayers and just the sense of accomplishment. Shelia Washington and some of the other people present have been working for 17 years to make this museum a reality so that we won’t forget and hopefully never repeat the discrimination and cruelty that allowed those young boys to be so mistreated. And one of the most touching moments in the ceremony was toward the end when a representative of the anonymous family that contributed half the money toward the museum came forward to speak. The family is a Jewish family who lives in New Market, who gave the money in memory of the Samuel Leibowitz, the Jewish attorney who defended them, and in honor of Sheila Washington and her efforts to bring the museum to life. I wish I had a copy of their statement but one of the points the donors made was that during segregation many Southern Jews were quiet about the injustice, but they pointed out that remaining silent never works it only emboldens the oppressors. So the gift was in memory of those like Samuel Leibowitz who did speak out.

The Bible is very clear on issues of justice—the people of God must speak out. Today, I thank God for those who, throughout history, have spoken up on behalf of the oppressed. And today I pray that if I am ever called to do so myself that I will have the courage, perseverance, and wisdom of a Sam Leibowitz or a Sheila Washington!

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