I was reminded of this poem recently during a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Hughes wrote it in response to the white nationalist riots that occurred in the summer of 1943 in Beaumont, Texas, and Detroit, MI.–Rose
(30 minutes) President Obama delivers remarks from the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, marking the 50th anniversary of the marches from Selma to Montgomery. Rumor has it that Obama wrote most of this speech himself. We glimpse the best of Obama and the best of the American story. (Read the transcript here.)
Who was Edmund Pettus? See here. Learn why this bridge in Selma is part of a long contest of wills in America.
The president quotes Langston Hughes, Emerson, and Walt Whitman, so I’ve included the sources for those quotes below:
“We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.” From the 1926 essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” by Langston Hughes
“Not gold but only men can make / A people great and strong;/ Men who for truth and honor’s sake / Stand fast and suffer long.” From the poem “A Nation’s Strength” by William Ralph Emerson (not Ralph Waldo Emerson)
“The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon. We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough.” From Natureby Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” From Song of Myself by Walt Whitman
The Ballad of Mary’s Son
by LANGSTON HUGHES (1954)
It was in the Spring
The Passover had come.
There was feasting in the streets and joy.
But an awful thing
Happened in the Spring –
Men who knew not what they did
Killed Mary’s Boy.
He was Mary’s Son,
And the Son of God was He –
Sent to bring the whole world joy.
There were some who could not hear,
And some were filled with fear –
So they built a cross
For Mary’s Boy.
In 2002, I interviewed civil rights leader Ruby Sales for Sojourners magazine (see Long Train Runnin’.) Ruby is one of my heroes in the faith. She’s a courageous, funny, generous, fiercely committed sister in the struggle for justice. She now directs the SpiritHouse Project in Columbus, Georgia.
I was very touched by her reflection on the life of Ted Kennedy, set in the historical context of the fight for justice. She asks: What is it about a White upper class senator’s life that touches me as a Southern Black woman who grew up during segregation and economic exploitation …? Read her answer below. Ruby Sales is My Kinda Christian.
A Generational Narrative by a Black Woman on the Life and Legacy of Senator Edward Kennedy–by Ruby Nell Sales
This morning I awakened to the sound of news reporters telling the world that Ted Kennedy died just as the night turned into morning. As I heard Senator Edward Kennedy’s voice booming from the television the words “For those whose cares have been our concern… The Hope Still Lives, The Dream Shall Never Die…” when he lost his bid for president in 1980 – my eyes filled with tears that carried with them the hopes and dreams of a generation and community of people of all colors who imagined a new day in America and worked hard to achieve it. As I thought about this man who lived a life committed to “making a better world,” it touched the grief and celebration that run throughout the lives of my generation who rode and still rides a long train towards justice. In many ways, his life reflects the hills and valleys of our lives… our “victories and our defeats.”
This morning in a very special way, I remembered my young brothers and sisters in the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee and local communities throughout the South who worked unrelentingly to advance democracy during the heat and violence of White supremacy without thinking of money or benefits. We lived and worked from freedom houses that lacked hot water, inside bathrooms and sturdy foundations to protect us from the violence and terror of White night riders. Most of us were young. We were idealistic. We were Black, White and Brown. We were determined. Despite generations of America’s broken promises of democracy, we still passionately believed in the dreams of our mothers and fathers: that America was large enough for everyone regardless of race, sex, class, color or creed.
Believing this, we put our youth on the line to make real their dream. We were wounded at the core of our young selves under the weight of White lies, White racism and White violence. America’s bad faith, violence and oppression fractured us into tiny unclaimed bits which lay on the road from Mississippi to Alabama to Washington to New York to Los Angeles. Yet, like Ted Kennedy, many of us did not die or lose our will to struggle. We kept on believing, working, and struggling despite hearts that were broken by White men who killed our relatives and murdered our friends. I admit that sometimes we did not always carry our grief well or wisely. However unlike the Trumpet blowers of White Supremacy and injustice, we harmed ourselves more often than we did others. Unlike them, love rather than hate stirred our passions and ignited our imaginations. Even as we watched right wing communities vigorously and intentionally roll back the gains of the Southern Freedom /Civil Rights Movement, like Senator Edward Kennedy, we “kept the faith” and found it over and over again despite the hopeless despair that the right wing communities spread throughout America like a dirty blanket. Because their language and ideals lacked hope, moral authority and meaning, they stole our freedom language. They called death squads in Nicaragua freedom fighters. Even in the midst of this grand theft, we knew like Senator Edward Kennedy that they might steal our language and images, but they could not kill this dream that still burns in us. Continue reading “‘We Will Continue to Sing’: Civil Rights Leader Ruby Sales on the Life of Ted Kennedy”