In Michael Walzer?s tribute to Fred Shuttlesworth, he recounted a trip he took with Jeremy Larner to the civil rights leader?s church in Montgomery. Here are Larner?s own recollections of that trip.
I remember when Michael phoned and asked me to accompany him, and when I hesitated, having arrived in New York only a few months before, he said, ?Jerry, this is one of those moments that change history!? I made arrangements with the New Leader for what turned out to be my first piece of freelance journalism.
Mrs. Parks? historic refusal to give up her seat on the Montgomery bus had happened in 1955. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference was formed by Martin Luther King, Jr. and other Baptist preachers (including Shuttlesworth and Ralph Abernathy) after the boycott in Montgomery won an amazing victory?and those who went on the Freedom Rides (including Bayard Rustin) had taken tremendous physical beatings. But nothing had captured the public imagination or ignited widespread action until students on a number of black college campuses in the South independently began sit-ins in 1960.
The fire hoses and mass arrests in Birmingham were still three years in the future (and ?freedom summer? four years). Still, the atmosphere was hot as a dry forest, waiting for a careless match. The sit-ins were polite and nonviolent, despite vulgar provocations, and required rehearsal and discipline from the young activists. The students we talked to were in a state of high excitement, which the threatening mobs that greeted them only seemed to increase. No one, however, could have predicted the wild ups and downs that followed?not unlike the wailing rise and fall of the spirituals we were to hear in Shuttleworth?s church that night?which have changed so many things for blacks in the United States, yet left the inner cities largely unchanged. They remain much as they were described in the Kerner Report of 1968, which famously found us to be ?two separate nations.?
We are no longer ?two nations.? We are now one nation, kind of integrated, badly led, and astonishingly confused. Except in the big-city ghettoes, a world unto themselves, however they may be packaged for pop culture (best brought to life on the stunningly real TV drama, The Wire), where matters are different and worse.
IT WAS baking hot, electrically hot, that spring night in Birmingham. I remember an aura of fear as we were driven out to a small brick church on a dirt road on the outskirts of town?fear amplified by darkness, since the streetlights were out of service in that part of town. High spirits seemed to burst upon us as we entered that old building, where we suddenly plunged into an ocean of noise and feeling. We felt we had come into a safe place, only a few years before the church bombings and burnings.
I remember Shuttlesworth?s oratorical ease and skill as he rode the powerful tide of that crowd, how he became one with it in the call-and-response of working-class black churches, and how he specifically spoke of the gospel of social action, an idea that freed southern blacks to speak of their own lives: their hopes and fears and anger and determination in relation to an America where they had been treated, in an oft-repeated phrase, as ?second-class citizens.? Shuttlesworth?s remark that night that ?Dwight D. Eisenhower has sat down on the stool of do-nothing!? may seem quaint to us now, but had he said it casually at that time in downtown white Birmingham, he might have paid with his life.
While the FBI was feared outside the church, their presence was laughed at inside. I looked around for the ?other white faces,? and, among the writhing, heaving tumult of the crowd, I could not spot them.
After Shuttlesworth?s sermon, he introduced us from the stage and insisted we come up and sit there?to our reluctance and embarrassment, as I remember. We may have been fellow activists, but we had not done anything worth talking about (except for Michael?s leadership in organizing Boston?s Emergency Public Integration Committee, which picketed Woolworth?s in the North). We were more comfortable in the roles of observers and questioners, and so we remained, before that night and after.
I?ve never heard anything like the spirituals that were sung that night. The entire congregation sang full-voiced and a capella, keening high and low in swooping runs that made me think of Africa–because they were unlike any ?spirituals? that reached the North, unlike anything I?ve heard since.
The guest preacher who spoke after Shuttlesworth (I wish I could recall his name!) enacted out the entire Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. I can still see, as vivid as a movie sequence, this little man delicately tip-toeing across the stage, as if the first false step would bring the waters of the Red Sea crashing, improvising the entire drama, playing all the roles?the Pharaoh, the Israelites, the Egyptian soldiers who followed them and ?got drownded??while wrenching every drop of the political significance of freedom. We could not help feeling the symbolic importance of ?the Israelites? (and the perceived safety of their descendants in America) to descendants of former slaves who believed in the Gospel.
And this congregation most definitely believed! They were up on their feet and totally identified with the preacher, giving him that audience feedback now familiar via black preachers who went into politics in the years that followed. It felt as if he were drawing the sermon from the crowd, and they knew exactly each step and couldn?t wait for it. They were crying out, trembling with passion and joy. Michael turned to me and whispered that this was the greatest sermon he?d ever heard in his life.
And then came the crunch for us: Shuttlesworth turned and asked ?our guests from the North? to say a few words, as in, to follow this unsurpassable performance that we thought had drained the last drop from the congregation.
Michael writes that he knew we were to speak that night. I thought he was as surprised as I. Is it possible he remembers this wrongly? I was shocked and panicked. I hadn?t the slightest idea of what I could say. Luckily, Michael, as my senior, spoke first, and came through amazingly. (Could it be he was prepared for this? I still prefer to believe not.) He said what he had said to me on the phone, only better, and it had the effect of spreading a hush through the crowd.
We had come a thousand miles, Michael said, to see history happening before our eyes. We had come because we had heard of the bravery of a people long downtrodden rising to claim their freedom?and I like to think he added, as he very well may have?as the Israelites rose in Egypt. And they should prepare themselves, he said. Because the whole world was hearing about what they were doing, and soon the whole world would come to see!
Brilliant! If not quite up to the level of what they?d heard before. Michael sat to well-deserved applause.
I would have passed, but this was not an alternative. God only knew what masses of young northerners the congregation imagined me commanding. Luckily I thought of an old cliché I?d heard that day.
?I?ve heard a lot of talk about God tonight,? I opened. Cries of jubilation greeted me, unnervingly exciting. ?Yeah, brother!? I felt the power of the crowd responding to me, as if I were sixteen, revving the motor a powerful new car.
?I?m here to tell you?…what?…?I may know less about God than any man here.?
These hollow words were greeted by sudden hush…the sound of the aghast congregation drawing in air. Cries of ?No! No, brother!? But they were playing along with me, knowing I was setting them up.
?But I know one thing.?
?Yes, brother, yes! Tell it!?
?That…God helps those who help themselves!?
This brought me my applause, and I could sit down. In the heat of that crackling evening, it worked. Perhaps I did not fully acknowledge to myself, at the time, that I did not believe a word of it.
We traveled on, met many of the heroic students who were later beaten in various places (and a few killed) and sent, time and again, to jail, as were the leaders, King and Abernathy, whom we heard preach in their own churches. But the spotlight, such as it was, was on, and things would never be the same.
When I returned from the South, King and Montgomery were mainly what I wrote about. It happened that King?s church was more the middle-class dress-up-on-Sunday kind we usually think of.
But Shuttlesworth and Montgomery are the visceral memory that is by far the strongest for me, that in fact got me thinking of the triumph and tragedy of the whole civil rights movement, as it existed in the glory and agony of Martin Luther King, and which died around 1965, after riots in various cities began and talk of violence became fashionable on the left, perhaps inevitably but drastically limiting what Martin Luther King once dreamed we would achieve.
Readers of Dissent can go back to the winter issue of 1973 and read ?To Speak of Black Violence? for my thoughts on that. They have not changed much, except that I now think a lot about how extreme ideas can be packaged and sold in our economy without being taken seriously except as consumer commodities.
And I think how young people in the ghetto can turn on their TVs and imagine themselves as powerful ?celebrities? of various kinds. But not that many can imagine themselves educated grownups out of the ghetto and living the American middle-class life, where children see the same images but think of them differently, as items for their own entertainment.
But that is a long and complicated story, one which may take a whole generation of writers to tell, if ever it is acknowledged and told at all.