Thoughts from the Jefferson Davis Highway

Tom Stites
October 29, 2017

While I was doing research for this blues sermon – with some fine Piedmont blues playing on the stereo – I took a break to make sure my email didn’t get too backed up.  The first thing I clicked on was the daily email I get from The New Yorker magazine.

The subject line immediately caught my eye.  White Supremacy in America, it said.  I clicked, and found links to six New Yorker pieces, some fresh, some old, and I was quick to open one by James Baldwin, from 1962, entitled “Letter from a Region in My Mind.”  I’ll quote from Baldwin’s piece before we’re done.

Reading Baldwin’s words sent my mind in a new direction, and this sermon along with it.  The result is as much personal testimony as sermon.  So:  Let me tell you a story.

As Michael mentioned in his introduction, I have the honor of being a member of the UUA President’s Council, a group that comes together twice a year to hear presentations about what the UUA is up to and to give feedback to the top.  One of these gatherings is at the annual General Assembly and the other is a retreat.  In 2015, the retreat was in Montgomery, Alabama.  Why?  It was the 50th anniversary of the great 1965 voting rights march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery.

Two UUs gave their lives in Selma, a minister and a lay person.  The minister was the Rev. James Reeb of Boston, one of more than 100 UU ministers who heeded Dr. Martin Luther King’s call for clergy to come to Selma. Reeb was clubbed to death by white thugs after eating dinner in a black-owned restaurant, and the national uproar over his murder gave President Lyndon Johnson the leverage he needed to get Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act.

The UU lay person murdered was Viola Liuzzo of Detroit, who was shot to death after the march while driving her car, a volunteer ferrying black marchers back to Selma from Montgomery.

Here’s a side note on contemporary white supremacy:  You’ve probably heard of Reeb and Liuzzo, who are white, but have you heard of Jimmie Lee Jackson?  He was a young black voting-rights activist who was murdered by a white policeman not far from Selma.  It was his death that inspired the great march, but while the white UU martyrs became famous the black martyr is little known in the broad culture.  That’s a bit of the white supremacy that’s baked into our culture, doing its work subtly.  White supremacy doesn’t always march with torches.

So Selma is an important place for UUs.  In my decade working on the UUA staff I was often dumbstruck in the presence of ministers who’d risked their lives alongside Reeb by answering Dr. King’s call.  I’d never been to Selma, this place so crucial to civil rights history and to how we UUs understand ourselves.  The President’s Council retreat offered me my chance.  I made a plane reservation.

The meetings were fruitful.  At dinner we were addressed by Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, who I was amazed and moved to learn was among the founders of the UU Fellowship of Montgomery.  Our ranks are enriched by the presence of this bold and courageous man.  But the story I’m moved to tell you this morning begins when the council members loaded into a bus outside our Montgomery hotel and headed toward Selma.

The bus took the same 50-mile route the marchers did, along U.S. Highway 80.  U.S. 80 is part of the Jefferson Davis Highway, so designated by the Daughters of the Confederacy, the group that has erected hundreds of the statues to Confederate leaders all through the South.  U.S. 80 is also known as Dixie Highway.  I’m sure you’ve heard the song Dixie – Way down South in the land of cotton, old times there are not for gotten . . .

Boy, are they not forgotten.  William Faulkner said of the South that there, “The past is never dead.  It isn’t even past.”

How true is this?  Just yesterday, the news tells us, white nationalists converged to march and chant their hateful messages in Shelbyville, Tennessee.

I confess that when the bus left Montgomery behind and the cotton fields of Lowndes County started appearing alongside U.S. 80, I cringed, thinking of how these very fields were once part of slave-labor plantations.

One of our stops was a marble roadside monument that marks where Viola Liuzzo was murdered.  The original marker was vandalized and had to be replaced, and the new one got a steel fence around it.  That too was knocked to pieces, and the third monument was enclosed in seriously sturdy steel bars.  Nobody has mustered the force it would take to knock this one down, but some contemporary good ole boys have defaced it by firing bullets between the protective bars to chip away at the marble.

A little farther down U.S. 80 is a little museum called the Lowndes Interpretive Center, and what I learned there still has a serious grip on me.  To be frank, I thought I knew a lot about the civil rights movement.  I’m so old that by 1965 I was already working in newspapers, and I avidly read about what was happening in the South. But I was hardly prepared for what I learned in this museum.

In 1965, Lowndes County’s population was 80 percent black.  Eighty-six while families owned 90 per cent of the county’s land.  Does anyone care to hazard a guess how many black people were registered to vote in Lowndes County in 1965?

Zero.

I learned at the museum that in 1965 blacks in Lowndes County largely lived and worked on the old plantations where their slave forebears had lived and worked.  And they largely were living in the same plantation-owned quarters that the slaves had lived in.  Since they were sharecroppers and no longer slaves, they got paid.  But they were paid not in dollars but in scrip.  And the scrip could be spent at only one place – the plantation store.  Would you be surprised to learn that the plantation owners set the store’s prices so high that its sharecroppers were always in debt to them?

So do you think that the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery in Lowndes County?

It gets worse.  After the Voting Rights Act was law, the black people of Lowndes County began to register to vote.  What happened then?  The plantation owners evicted anyone who registered.  Their whole families were put out, with no place to go and without a cent to their names.

A civil rights organization responded by buying an 18-acre tract along U.S. 80 and brought in tents large enough to house the displaced families until permanent housing could be found.  It’s on this tract that this fine and heartbreaking museum now stands.  Among its exhibits is one of the tents and its furnishings – and a framed clipping of what is apparently the only national news story ever written about this sordid chapter in the history of white supremacy.

And I’d grown up thinking that slavery was over.  I was past 70 when I learned that it didn’t end in Lowndes County till I was already out of college and working as a journalist.  Wow, were my history books inadequate.  That, too, is a symptom of the white supremacy that’s subtly baked into our culture.  Do you think today’s textbooks are any better?

In the interest of time I’m going skip telling you about my experience when the bus got to Selma, which is about as forlorn a place as I’ve ever seen.  Today’s service is about the blues, so let’s approach U.S. highways on another level.

U.S. Route 61 is often thought of as the blues highway.  It runs north and south through the Mississippi Delta, and it was along this road that the fabled bluesman Robert Johnson supposedly made his deal with the devil – to be able to play the guitar better than anyone, in exchange for his soul.

But I’m here to testify this morning that U.S. 80 is also a blues highway, an east-west blues highway.  Construction of the Jefferson Davis Highway began in the 1920s and extended from Virginia, through North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, and New Mexico, and terminated in San Diego, California.

It ran throughout the lands where slaves and their successors sang as they worked in the plantation fields, singing the call-and-response “hollers” that flavor the blues.  It was the creative spirit finding a way to keep the spirit strong while living under a system of violent oppression.  As I said in an earlier blues sermon from this pulpit, oppressors can take almost everything away from their victims – but they can’t keep them from singing.

Please take a moment of silence now to consider the blues.

(Harmonica:  first four bars of Now’s the Time)

Think about the field hands, how they suffered at the hands of plantation owners. 

(Harmonica:  second four bars of Now’s the Time)

Think about white supremacy.  Think about the fact that right now, in 2017, there are Americans whose thinking hasn’t advanced much from that of the Lowndes County plantation owners who evicted their workers for registering to vote.  And think about all the subtle ways white supremacy still shapes the everyday lives of all Americans.

(Harmonica:  final four bars of Now’s the Time)

In this moment, remember that we are religious people whose First Principle – our primary principle – is that all people – ALL people – have inherent worth and dignity.

In these times, what does that call us to do?  Each of us, in our own particularities – what can we do, what action can each of us take, to contain and reverse the white supremacy of our time?  Remember that white supremacy is not just the ugliness of the marchers in Charlottesville and yesterday in Shelbyville; white supremacy is baked into every institution in our nation.  It’s everywhere we go, including right here in very white Newburyport. Remember that there once was a special place in our balcony reserved for Newburyport’s slaves. There weren’t many, but they didn’t sit downstairs in the box pews with their owners.

Can the blues guide us as we find our best path this challenging time?  Is there something we might do as a congregation?

When the blues first emerged, mixing the field hollers of the slaves with an amalgam of African and European musical forms, it was, in the words of Vijay Iyer, the jazz pianist and Harvard professor, “about people coming together in pretty dire circumstances, and – sort of against all odds – creating beauty and changing the world.”

The blues is not only the lament of a man who ain’t seen the greenback on a dollar bill for so long, as Lark sang it to us, but it is also a door that opens to hope.  The blues is sad lyrics sung to music that makes you want to get up and dance.  It is deep and complex.  It has important messages for all of us, if only we cock our ears just right.

I promised you a quote from James Baldwin’s New Yorker piece, and that’s how I’ll close. He wrote these words in a very personal essay in 1962, before Selma, before the Voting Rights Act, before Lowndes County’s plantation owners did not free their slaves but evicted them.  Baldwin writes about growing up in Harlem in the 1930s, and jazz and blues has a part.  His essay is a harrowing tale of finding one’s way as a black male in a world dominated by whites.  It is a reminder that growing up black in the United States is always a challenge.  It was a challenge in the heady days of the Harlem Renaissance.  I’ve not had the experience, but friends assure me that it’s a challenge today.  Baldwin writes,

Perhaps we were, all of us—pimps, whores, racketeers, church members, and children—bound together by the nature of our oppression, the specific and peculiar complex of risks we had to run; if so, within these limits we sometimes achieved with each other a freedom that was close to love.

I remember, anyway, church suppers and outings, and, later, after I left the church, rent and waistline parties where rage and sorrow sat in the darkness and did not stir, and we ate and drank and talked and laughed and danced and forgot all about ‘the man.’  We had the liquor, the chicken, the music, and each other, and had no need to pretend to be what we were not.

This is the freedom that one hears in some gospel songs, for example, and in jazz. In all jazz, and especially in the blues, there is something tart and ironic, authoritative and double-edged. White Americans seem to feel that happy songs are happy and sad songs are sad, and that, God help us, is exactly the way most white Americans sing them. . . . Only people who have been ‘down the line,’ as the song puts it, know what this music is about.

From this service this morning, let us take a deeper sense of the blues out into a world that is in such deep need of its complex message, and let us take a deeper sense of our First Principle, and may we use them to be more powerful as we do all we can to heal the hurts of our country and its people.

(Harmonica: blues turnaround and resolution)