Monday, January 18, 2016

Albert, Martin, Jim......and me

I was born in 1962.  My childhood memories of the Civil Rights Movement and MLK are vague, if they exist at all.  Though born in St. Margaret's Hospital, about 4 blocks from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, and raised in Wetumpka, only miles north of the Alabama Capital, I simply was too young to know much at all about the tumultuous nature of events in Marion, Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham in those days.  Even now, when I travel to Montgomery and walk along Dexter Avenue, it's hard to imagine the struggle of those days in any visceral manner...try though I may.

I wish I had one single story...of seeing him on Dexter Avenue where I shopped often with my grandparents, or of hearing him - if only briefly - in some public setting.  Mostly, for me, MLK is a figure of history...and a great deal of malicious gossip.  In fact, the whole Movement was a distant concern or area of interest for at least the first half of my life.  Said with no pride, it's the simple truth. I didn't know much and didn't know to care much.

How all that changed is a longer story, but on MLK Day I am grateful for two happenstance friendships that brought me as close to the man, the movement, and all the conflicting forces that surrounded it.  My two friends were literally and figuratively on opposite sides of each other...and thus on either side of Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the Spring of 1999 a group of black and white people of faith began conversations in Marion, Alabama, about how we might work together to help nurture hope in Perry County - some would say the "capital" of the Alabama Black Belt.  The group of 15 or so included Albert Turner, Sr., a life-long Perry County resident.  Albert, a bricklayer by trade, was in the "thick" of the activities of the SCLC, MLK and called the "Night March on Marion," which probably saved the life of imprisoned minister James Orange, but also led to the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, the "straw that broke the camel's back" and led to the Selma to Montgomery March.

It was Albert who, after hours of meeting and discussing with black leaders our hopes, looked across the table at Dr. Wayne Flynt and said, "You know, Dr. Flynt, I've always wanted to work with you on something."  I was the convener, but Wayne was the man of gravitas, the historian with the soul of a prophet, the white face and voice of social justice so often seen on Alabama television and in other media.  And it was a huge step for Albert Turner, who spent most of his life deeply ensconced in the belief that no plan hatched by white people could be expected to serve the Negro cause.

And, it was Albert nearly a year later - when months of arduous gestation seemed about to birth Sowing Seeds of Hope and official roles were necessary - it was Albert who looked across the table at me and said, "Mr. Gray, you've led us this far.  I think YOU should be our president."  It's hard for me to describe what that moment meant to me.  Not because of the position.  There were a number of people in the room capable, probably more capable that I to fill the role.  But because of the friendship, the genuine friendship that had grown across age, across race, across time.  I always called Albert "MR. Turner" because, despite my early protest, he refused to call me "Mart", instead smiling and greeting me "MR. Gray."  By Spring 2000 we had shared many hours together and had several ex parte conversations about any number of subjects.  We liked each other.  We REALLY liked each other.  Each time we met, he always wrapped my small white hand with both of his and greeted me joyfully.  And each time we parted, he patted my shoulder with a paternal word to "drive carefully" on my way home or "go find something good to eat."  And always, always smiling.

It was THAT Albert Turner who I looked forward introducing to my son Will on April 14, 2000...the day before "tax day."  Will was in 4th Grade and studying, at least in part, the history of MLK, the Movement, the March.  As we pulled onto US Highway 80 that afternoon, I talked with Will about the march, the route, and what few stories I had garnered along the way.  "Will," I said, "there are people in Perry County who know this history, who lived this history.  And they won't be around forever.  I want you to meet them in the months and years ahead.  I want you to get to know them, to hear THEIR stories."  Soon we were passing over and beyond the iconic Edmund Pettus Bridge. Will's eyes got big at the sight, almost as if seeing the Brooklyn or Golden Gate bridges for the first time.  As we continued through downtown, NPR news played on the radio.  Unbeknownst to me, Albert had been hospitalized a few days earlier with an abdominal bleed.  I nearly froze as the commentator said with little animation, "In late breaking news, Albert Turner, Sr. - long-time Civil Rights Activist and lieutenant to Martin Luther King, Jr., died in a Selma hospital today."

I couldn't believe it.  I really couldn't believe it.  Will didn't understand it all, but he knew Dad went from being chatty and excited to strangely just moments.  Though Albert's efforts and enthusiasm were already too strongly woven into the fabric of our efforts to be broken by his sudden death, the silence of his loss still impacts me today.  God bless, Mr. Turner, God bless!

About a week later I drove to Marion for Albert's Memorial Service.  The auditorium at Francis Marion High School was full as speaker after speaker shared stories - most still unknown to me - about Albert's life.  Minister James Orange.  Martin Luther King, III. Thomas Gilmore, the first black sheriff of Greene County.  The stories.  The community.  The lack of malice or grudge.  It was that night I learned Albert was the "guy under the white hat" standing right behind King and John Lewis in the Bloody Sunday photos.  It was that night I learned Albert was also a mule-handler and led the mules that pulled Martin Luther King, Jr.'s cortege through the streets of Atlanta.  It was that night I learned my friend Mr. Turner was a man of greater courage and commitment than I had ever before imagined. was that night I held hands along with the hundreds gathered as we sang "We Shall Overcome" to end Albert's service.  Never before nor since have I felt as close to the Movement - as close to Martin as I'll ever be this side of Eternity.

After that night I began to see another friendship very differently.  Not less, but different.  Just a few years prior an Elba native had returned home.  Jim Clark, who grew up just a couple of blocks from our church, came home.  I had heard people refer to the "Clark" house for years.  We do that in small towns - and large, really.  But never had I asked...and never had anybody said.

Young Jimmy Clark of Elba, Alabama, had served in the U.S. Army during WWII, came back and settled into the cattle business when another "local Elba boy", Big Jim Folsom, appointed him to fill the sheriff's position in Dallas County.  Jim Clark.  Sheriff James Clark.  The world gets real small sometime.  But now Jim was home.  And just another member of our congregation.  I can't honestly say how long he had been back in town when I put together who he was.  People give people their space.  And so they did for Jim.  Whatever he chose to share about Dallas County, Selma, and other darker times in Jim's life were his to tell - when he wanted, how he wanted, IF he wanted.

And he had no need to tell much.  Outside an occasional reference to visiting his "old friend" Jim Smitherman, then-Mayor of Selma, he didn't say much of anything to me about those days.  I read other places of his reaffirmation of politics and position in those days, but we never discussed it.  I was Jim's minister, not his prosecutor nor a journalist nor a part of the persecuted.  Jim was affable. He could be charming.  He seemed sincere, if not always completely transparent.  But in the Spring of 2000, I had been confronted with the truth.  As surely as my new friend Mr. Turner had Martin's "back," my somewhat longer friend Jim had been his antagonist.  I know for many friends who see Jim only through the lens of history, that may seem way too fair, too kind.  But Jim was a sheep in my flock.  And even if inclined, calling out "wolves" is above my pay grade.

In Jim's first years back home, we interacted often.  He was regular in church attendance and involved himself in Senior Adult activities for which I had responsibility.  In his last few years, our paths separated not by choice but rather circumstance.  But even then, I thought of Jim as friend.  Had he called, I would have answered...and done my best.

Now over a decade past both of these friendships, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day carries more significance for me.  Whether by chance or God's providence, I consider myself richer for the experience of knowing both of them....Albert and Jim.  And for having to consider all the complicated implications of two figures so wrapped around the legacy of MLK.

Theologian/philosopher/civil rights activist/contrarian Will Campbell was challenged by his calling to love the "blacks and the kluxers", his words.  He said you couldn't love Jesus and hate either.  As I think today about its meaning, its Patron King...I know there is much to be done, much to consider.
There are people, God's children, on both sides of the bridge.  Albert, Martin, Jim.  It's late in the day...but there is tomorrow.  And...there is hope.  And...there's me.  I've got some more thinking to do.