Tag Archives: kelly miller smith

The Teacher

IMG_0452“I had my first racial insult hurled at me as a child. I struck out at that child and fought the child physically. Mom was in the kitchen working. In telling her the story she, without turning to me, said, ‘Jimmy, what good did that do?’ And she did a long soliloquy then about our lives and who we were and the love of God and the love of Jesus in our home, in our congregation.  And her last sentence was, ‘Jimmy, there must be a better way.’ In many ways that’s the pivotal event of my life.” – Reverend James M. Lawson

It took me nine days to read a 700+ page book from cover to cover. The bulk of that was made possible by a cross-country flight that included an unexpected six-hour layover, but it was the captivating story and skilled story-teller that really did the trick. I would steal a few pages when I awakened each day, and at bedtime, and any time possible in between.

When we accepted the opportunity to move to Nashville, I stumbled across The Children and purchased it immediately. I am fascinated/humbled by the civil rights movement and wanted to know the history of my new community, of course, but more than that, Halberstam wrote one of my all-time favorite books (October 1964), and I could not believe that he was a young reporter for The Tennessean assigned to cover this story when it happened.

The book cover states, “On the first day of the sit-ins in Nashville, Tennessee, eight young black college students found themselves propelled into the leadership of the civil rights movement, as the movement—and America—entered a period of dramatic change. The courage and vision of these young people changed history.”

Our move has been hectic but good, and I had been simply intimidated to open the cover and start on such a hefty book. But wow, all it took was reading the first page. I was immediately embarrassed not to know the significance of what occurred in Nashville. I knew of the horrific murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi, of Rosa Parks in Montgomery, the Little Rock Nine, Freedom Riders, the Selma marchers, and the murder of Dr. King in Memphis, among other famous events, but I was stunned to discover that what took place here in Nashville was at the heart of it all—because “the children” (aka college students)—were the heart of it all.

I knew some of Diane Nash’s heroism but had no idea that John Lewis started his amazing journey in Nashville, and I was especially shocked to know that the infamous Marion Barry was a part of that early group. I somehow knew nothing of Jim Bevel or Bernard Lafayette, Rodney Powell or Gloria Johnson, Curtis Murphy or Hank Thomas. But I will never forget them now.

However, what may have had the greatest impact on me was not one of the children—but their teacher, Jim Lawson. Lawson is now ninety years old and lives here in Nashville. Some of my new friends have met him, and though I am envious of that honor, it is almost too much to imagine.

Lawson grew up and attended college in Ohio as a young man with deep faith and convictions. Lawson was fascinated by Gandhi and conscientiously objected to serving in the military, which for his time in history, sent him to prison for two years. Afterward he was a Methodist missionary in India where he studied Gandhi more deeply and then returned to pursue graduate work in religion at Oberlin College. It was at Oberlin in 1957 that Lawson met a like-minded (and aged) visiting speaker in Martin Luther King, Jr. He told Dr. King of his plan to pursue graduate degrees and then come to The South to work for reconciliation, but Dr. King told him that he was needed now and not to wait.

So Jim Lawson moved to Nashville, where he started teaching nonviolence training workshops to a small and eclectic group of college students—who changed the world.

There are a thousand things to note about Jim Lawson’s life, not the least of which being that he was the Memphis pastor that hosted Dr. King’s fateful trip, and I am sure that many have wildly different opinions about the stances he has taken along the way. But what I will never get out of my mind is Lawson teaching that group of young college students there in Kelly Miller Smith’s church in Nashville. He absolutely knew the dangerous road these “children” were embarking on—and did not hide it from them. How did it feel to know that? But it was the road to a better way, so he taught them anyway.

I live in a different Nashville today because of Jim Lawson’s courageous teaching. But Nashville, as with any other city, is nowhere near what Lawson described as the “beloved community” that inspired his teaching. With his example forever imprinted on my mind, I hope in some small way to teach courageously, too.

Freedom is Respect

As I reflect on last week’s inaugural (and wonderful) Diversity Week at Pepperdine Law, the following passage from my hero, Will D. Campbell, comes to mind.

“The civil rights gains we have made are largely cosmetic,” my old friend, Kelly Miller Smith, told me just before he died. One would have expected to hear those words in earlier times, when the gains of black people had been more modest than it seemed to me they had been during his lifetime and mine. He had been a pivotal figure in it all. Buses and taxicabs, schools, restaurants, theaters, parks, swimming pools, as well as participation in the political process had all been desegregated since he and I had come to Tennessee from Mississippi in the rigidly, segregated decade of the fifties. He from a black church in Vicksburg, I from a white university in Oxford. His little daughter had been one of the nine brave children who faced the violent mobs to begin the slow and painful process of integrated education. The church he pastored for thirty-four years was headquarters for the massive sit-in movement. Quietly or obstreperously, whatever the situation indicated, he negotiated with mayors, governors, merchants, and owners such issues as employment, housing, fairness, and decency in general.

All that he had been party to and more. Yet here he lay, a few weeks from death, saying that all his efforts had produced no more than a cosmetic coating over an inveterate malignancy as socially lethal as the one claiming his life. I protested with a roll call of the improvements he had presided over. He listened in his usual smiling, affable manner as I listed them one by one, beginning with public transportation in 1956 and concluding with his being a dean and teacher in one of the most prestigious universities in the South where he could not have been more than janitor not many years earlier.

“But they still don’t respect us,” he said sadly. After a long pause for needed oxygen, he continued. “Look at the television shows. Listen to the rhetoric on the streets. They still don’t respect us.”

His words were a startling awakening. How far I had missed the point of it all. How dissimilar the promised lands two Mississippi men had envisioned. To grant the truth of his words would be to acknowledge that the years of both of us had been wasted. He spoke with approval and gratefulness for the things I recited, but as he did it became clear to me that the one thing which was behind all else was never his. Respect.

Freedom is respect.

– Will D. Campbell, Forty Acres and a Goat 269-70 (2002).

That is what gave me great joy this past week—the giving and receiving of respect.