Radiant Stars of Love and Togetherness
A sermon based on Amos 5:10-24
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on January 15, 2017
by Rev. Scott Elliott
We have a proud history in Mount Vernon and at this church about being a part of the underground railroad movement when Americans helped enslaved Americans escape.
We were a part of a secret system of escape that ran through the streets and alleys of this town. WE consider the underground railroad heroic, but at the time, it was frowned on and illegal, making it quite risky.
Our founders actually formed this as a resistence church a part of that anti-slavery movement. Our window of a Black David facing Main Street since 1895 is dedicated to those founders and their anti-slavery friends.
For the first three decades of our church’s existence the unfairness and inequalities of slavery outweighed the unpopularness and unlawfulness of working to free fellow Americans from awful, sinful and cruel enslavement based on skin color.
We know today that skin color ought not to have anything to do with equality. That’s a scientific fact, and a cultural mantra for most now, but in the slave culture of our nation’s first nine decades skin color was the difference between being considered human and chattel, being free and slave, being equal and unequal . . . being treated fair or unfair under the law.
In the progressive churches of the slave era (including this one and others in this town) those differences based on the skin color of Americans were rightfully considered unholy, inhumane and worthy to stand against so that the abhorrent oppression of Americans with dark skin color would end.
That Abolition movement, the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution (thankfully!) ended slavery. Those Amendments were meant to finally vest in Americans with black skin the God-given rights Americans with white skin enjoyed. But, within a dozen years southern and border states began Jim Crow – laws and cultural rules that intentionally and systematically denied those God-given rights to Americans who were the least bit Black.
This created a very unfair and unequal post slavery anti-black America in many states and towns. Any American who was any part Black could not share any use with any Whites in many public accommodations; from hospitals to theaters to restaurants to bathrooms to beaches to pools to parks to bus seats to train cars to schools to drinking fountains. If an American was known to have a drop of Black “blood” they were barred from enjoying things most of us take for granted– the right to use all public facilities.
There were denials of other rights too, like access to justice and voting. Some states even banned Black and White Americans from social interaction like doing boating, sports and board games together. Even churches and cemeteries were separated. Jim Crow made unfairness and inequality lawful, and culturally acceptable. And violation of the laws and cultural rules did not just result in tickets, real terrible violence ensued. Whites physically beat Black Americans and could get away with it because the criminal justice system was all-White. “Violence was instrumental for Jim Crow. It was a method of social control. The most extreme forms of Jim Crow violence were lynchings.”1
In America, a racial caste system continued to exit after the Civil War, supported and enforced by the legal system, as well as by infamous vigilante groups like the Klu Klux Klan. This weekend we honor Rev. Dr. Marin Luther King, Jr., a heroic pastor and peacemaker and leader of a remarkable non-violent civil rights movement that stood up to Jim Crow and the systems and vigilantes that enforced it. And Dr. King knew that he was not the only leader nor the only hero in that movement. He wrote in his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” 2 that
One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy two year old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: “My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest.” They will be the young high school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders, courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience’ sake. One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.” (Rev. Dr. King)
We tend to think of Jim Crow as only existing in the south, but it existed elsewhere. We may not want to hear it, but parts of it existed here in Knox County. Dr. King and other national and southern civil rights heroes helped to bring Jim Crow to an end. But there were heroes locally too. I want to lift up such a hero, Dr. Ellamae Simmons.
Since I arrived here I have heard stories of Black Americans in most of our lifetimes in this town – during Jim Crow– having been refused entry to the community pool and having to sit in segregated seating at the movies. I have heard about the Klu Klux Klan having influence in this county. I heard those stories mostly from long time White citizens. One would hope that it was not widespread, but apparently that was not the case. In her amazing book, Overcome: My Life in Pursuit of a Dream, Dr. Ellamae Simmons describes Jim Crow’s ugly existence in Mount Vernon, and Ohio for decades of her life. Dr. Simmons grew up on East Pleasant Street. She was first stung by the fact that the color of her skin adversely affected her when another 11 year old said “Ellamae, I can’t be your friend anymore, My mother says I’m not supposed to play with colored people.” (p. xv).
This was not racism limited to one or two families. Dr. Simmons recounts that the public places her friends hung out at were segregated places that she could not frequent– like snack shops, restaurants, the pool and parks.(p xvi-xvii). She recounts her father giving White and Black children a hay ride to an ice cream parlor that gave the White kids cones, but refused to provide cones to the Black kids. She tells how her father was not allowed access to white collar jobs; or restaurants that he taxied White fares to. (p.11).
And there were worse things, terrifying things. Dr. Simmons reports the entire family hiding inside their house at 110 East Pleasant Street when a hundred Klu Klux Klan marched down the streets of town. She reports the family watching the glow of a burning cross at the fairgrounds. She reports instances of Klan neighbors right next door having robed Klan coming and going. (p. 26). The Klan even held a cross burning at a park directly across the street from her home, the acrid smell of gasoline that soaked the cross for burning filling the air.
To this day the smell of gasoline reminds Dr. Simmons of those frightening childhood events . . . IN MT VERNON, maybe seven blocks from here? Despite having stellar grades at Mount Vernon schools Ellamae Simmons was refused admission to Ohio State’s nursing program, a program her family and many other Americans with black skin supported with taxes. OSU’s terse one line rejection letter read “We have no facilities for training colored girls in our school of nursing.”
But Ellamae didn’t give up, she attended a segregated nursing school in the south. Then served in WWII as an Army Lieutenant and was asked by our nation to be one of eight Blacks who historically fully integrated an Army unit. After the war with the G.I. Bill she got into Ohio State for a bachelors and masters program, but had to push and push to become the first Black American female to integrate OSU campus housing. While later denied acceptance to OSU’s medical school, she did not give up, earning an M.D. at Howard. She then became the first Black female allergist in the nation, and the first to integrate a huge medical system in California.
Dr. Ellamae Simmons is a local hero, a civil rights leader who climbed over Jim Crow to help transform the world, not just for herself, but for all of us. Dr. Simmons’ astounding achievements leapt over the high hurdles Black Americans faced. While heroically blazing trails required tenacity and courage and gifts for sure, it also required other Americans willing to buck the culture of oppression and discrimination.
Dr. Simmons story is remarkable and she was not alone in efforts that took place all across America to take down the oppression and violence of Jim Crow’s unfair and unequal treatment of Americans who were born with skin of a darker hue. It makes little sense to most Americans today that anyone can be treated unfairly because of skin color, but it took Rev. Dr. King and thousands of other heroes, like Dr. Ellamae Simmons to courageously push and move our culture to take down Jim Crow.
It took Americans with black skin generations to push and pull and drive the engine of justice to finally run over first slavery, and then after another hundred years to run over Jim Crow. And you know what? Just like in the underground railroad movement, Americans with white skin had to step up and join in working to remove injustice and unfairness and inequality based on skin color. Americans of all colors made a difference between some Americans being considered human and chattel, being free and slave, being equal and unequal, being treated fair or unfair under the law.
In the strange way of the unique American racial caste system of the slavery and Jim Crow White Americans were vested with the God given rights all deserve, but Black Americans were not. And it required not just the oppressed Americans, but Americans of all skin color to work to change things– Blacks and Whites. Dr. King noted that he “had hoped that the white moderate would see this need.” But he was disappointed when even by 1963 White clergy were still not on board cautioning a need to wait and not rock the boat. Dr. King pointed out the reason for his disappointment:
Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.
But Dr. King also knew and was grateful for those Americans with white skin who joined in
I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers in the South have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still all too few in quantity, but they are big in quality.
Dr. King went on to write that “Unlike so many of their moderate brothers and sisters, they [the acting Whites] have recognized the urgency of the moment and sensed the need for powerful ‘action’ antidotes to combat the disease of segregation.” After writing about his “major disappointment” in most White churches not acting Dr. King pointed out the “notable exceptions.” and how
they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment . . .
As Dr. King pointed out acts by Americans with white skin mattered. For all of Dr. Simmons’ monumental efforts and courage and stamina, and brains and talent White teachers in this town had to care to help her succeed. White professors and White medical folks and White Army officers and White OSU administrators and White politicians had to work for change.
Just like Dr. King and the movement he led, Black Americans wanting and deserving and striving for the God given rights of every American was not enough, not enough to end slavery and not enough to end Jim Crow, not enough to end systemic racism. Americans with all manner of skin color joined in to put down slavery and Jim Crow and it mattered. In places like this church clergy and laity alike had to join the community of civil rights advocates, not just in their thoughts and not just in their words in church on Sundays but in their actions out in the world.
Dr. King summarized the goal of such church work like this
Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.
(Today we might better call brotherhood, togetherness).
We have come a long way. Most Americans today abhor racism and want equality for all, what an amazing difference. But we are not yet all the way through the “dark clouds of racial prejudice.” Nor has the “deep fog of misunderstanding” fully dissipated. We still have fear if not drenching, still lingering in America. But thanks to Dr. King. Dr Simmons and Americans who challenged and challenge racism, the hope is more real and ever closer that “the radiant stars of love and [togetherness] will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”
Rev. Dr. King often quoted the last part of the text we heard in our lesson today. It calls us as a people of God to – first and foremost– “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” May we as church, as Christians, continue to work to break the dam of racism until justice fully rolls like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.
1. Much of this information in this section of the sermon, and the quotes on Jim Crow, were taken from a “Jim Crow Museum Homepage” note written by Dr. David Pilgrim, Professor of Sociology Ferris State University, in 2000, Edited 2012 http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/what.htm
2. The Dr. King quotes in this sermon come from A Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2017 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED