This month’s “Window Gazing” — a monthly column from Pastor Alan Sherouse in our newsletter. Read the entire February newsletter here.
February 1. It’s a date that resonates in Greensboro, and more broadly throughout the history of the movement for civil rights and human rights. Today marks 60 years since North Carolina A&T students Ezell Blair, Jr., Frank McCain, Joseph McNeil and David Richmond walked to the Woolworth’s in Greensboro, initiating the lunch counter sit-ins. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would later say this single action initiated the “second wind” of the civil rights movement.
Ezell Blair — who now holds the name Jibreel Khazhan — was first inspired to join this work in 1958, when he was a 16-year-old student at Dudley High School and part of an overflow crowd listening to a speech by Dr. King on his visit to Bennett College. King spoke of voter rights and nonviolent resistance, and shared his own call to ministry and the work of justice. Then, ever the Baptist preacher, Dr. King issued an invitation. As Khazhan describes, “He said: ‘Who amongst you will join us?’ I couldn’t see him, but it was like thunder when he spoke. He reached a crescendo. He reached our consciousness. I said to myself: ‘I’m going to join you!’” (“Martin Luther King, Jr. Speech…” in News & Record, Aug 27, 2013).
If we’re listening, such invitations crescendo throughout the course of our lives. I recalled one such call recently. It’s been a practice of mine in recent years on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to reread his inspired “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written in 1963 amidst the Birmingham Campaign with its coordinated sit-ins and marches against racism and segregation. Dr. King and other leaders were arrested on April 12, Good Friday, for marching after an injunction forbidding “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing.” He spent Holy Weekend in jail and on Monday, April 16, he sent his letter.
As I read, this time I especially noticed a passing reference to a “Reverend Stallings.” I learned the name, Rev. Earl Stallings, over the summer. After referencing my experience of worshipping at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in a sermon, our own Esther Matthews said to me, “You know, my cousin, Earl, was right in the middle of all of that!” Earl Stallings was the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Birmingham in 1963. He was one of the eight downtown white pastors who sent the “Call for Unity” to Dr. King, urging him to steer clear of Birmingham, encouraging him to accept gradual change, and telling him to let them handle things. These eight pastors were the initial “white moderate” audience to whom Dr. King was writing.
However, after King’s arrest, Rev. Stallings felt regret about his letter and his hesitation to join the work. So the following Sunday — Easter Sunday — he was the only of those pastors to follow through on a pledge to open the church to black worshippers. This action prompted a dramatic walkout of half the white worshippers and led to threats from community members. It also led Dr. King to reference him in his letter from jail: “I commend you, Reverend Stallings, for your Christian stand this past Sunday, in welcoming Negroes to your worship service on a nonsegregated basis.” I’ve long known that the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is written to those who resisted extremes and preferred middle ground; those who, in Dr. King’s terms, preferred a “negative peace” that is the absence of conflict rather than a positive peace that is the presence of justice; those who were leaders of a Church and churches that disappointed him. But the letter was also written to those he calls “notable exceptions” — people of faith and goodwill, who found the ability to change, to leave the safety and status quo and join more fully the work of justice and transformation.
Reverend Stallings’ action on Easter Sunday 1963 ultimately initiated tension in his church that led him to resign within the next couple of years. But tension can also be a creative force in the hands of God who makes things new. In 1970, Winifred and Twila Bryant — a mother and daughter who were black — asked to join First Baptist Birmingham. When their membership was voted down, 250 people left First Baptist and started Baptist Church of the Covenant, which today, celebrates 50 years as one of the leading multiracial and justice-oriented churches in our denomination and throughout the Southern U.S.
“Who will join?” We Christians recognize the question. We first heard it crescendoing from a lakeshore in Galilee: “Who will follow me?”