Sermon Illustrations on Segregation
Baal In America
I know most Americans today do not worship Baal, but when I look at the church in America, I fear that we have our own Baals that demand our worship. I see so many people bowing down before prosperity theology and the idea that God just wants to make us wealthy and happy. I see people entrapped by the “-isms”—racism, sexism, ageism, classism, and so many others—that divide our church, choosing first to obey and revere these divisive systems rather than the God who has called us to be reconciled to one another and to be one in Christ Jesus.
Perhaps people today aren’t declaring their allegiance quite as bluntly as the elder’s mother in the Mississippi Delta story I told earlier, but as we look at our churches, we cannot deny that they are divided by ethnicity, class, and age. We surround ourselves with people who are like us and value like-mindedness over genuine love and care for our neighbor.
“Christians:” Worshiping God in Equality
Christ followers were first called Christians at Antioch—about fifteen years after the birth of the church at Pentecost. There must have been something remarkable about this particular group of believers—something that caught people’s attention and caused them to come up with a new name for those who previously had been known simply as “Followers of the Way.”
What was happening at Antioch that was deserving of such special recognition? Acts 13:1 lists some of the leaders of this church at Antioch, and if we pay attention, we see that these deacons and other leaders represented various ethnic groups. They came from very different backgrounds, but there they were, worshiping and serving God together in equality.
They were living out what Paul describes when he writes, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new!” (2 Cor. 5:17 NKJV), and “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28 NKJV).
Heroes Depend on Others
People like me, Martin Luther King Jr., and a few others sometimes earn a hero status for things we did during the civil rights movement, but really the daily, faithful acts of ordinary black and white folks made the movement what it was. The many people committed to marching and boycotting—who got no recognition but, rather, rocks thrown at them—were instrumental in tearing down the social walls of segregation.
I am thankful for my chance to be a leader, but I cannot tell my story without acknowledging how much I depended on others. The names of many humble and courageous people might never be known, but the stories I tell are representative of their indelible work. During the mid-1950s boycott in Montgomery, Mother Pollard, an old lady with blisters on her feet, was asked at the end of a march if she was tired. She responded by saying, “My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.”
The Devastation of Residential Segregation
More people of color than whites live in the city of Dallas and in the city of Fort Worth. But they are more likely to live in poorer inner-city areas while whites live in the more affluent suburbs. Dallas and Fort Worth are not anomalies. In every large city where I have lived, minority areas of town contrast with more affluent suburbs. Even if enough affluent blacks move into a predominantly white neighborhood, we know that whites will move away and perpetuate residential segregation.
It is not just whites’ historic racism that disadvantages people of color, it is their contemporary reluctance to have neighbors of color. Racial residential segregation is as American as apple pie. If residential segregation is only about people living with their own kind, why should Christians care about it?
The problem is that the economic gap between whites and blacks can partly be attributed to residential segregation. Residential segregation has been called the “linchpin of American race relations.”
…Residential segregation influences school financing because most school districts rely heavily on property taxes. If the homes in a school district have a high economic value, then the schools in that district are likely to receive the money they need. If the homes are not worth a great deal of money, then the schools will struggle to find adequate resources. Because of white flight, money has fled the minority communities. Industry and social services are less likely to be located in the inner city than in the more prosperous white suburbs.
Homes in inner-city neighborhoods are less likely to hold their value. In order for property taxes to adequately fund the schools, poorer homes must be assessed at a higher tax rate. The higher tax rate is laid on the very people who can least afford it. The result is that schools in poorer neighborhoods fail to get the funding they need to do an adequate job of educating children.
Notice that the educational funding system, not individuals themselves, discriminates against people of color. To my knowledge there is no group of whites sitting in some smoke-filled room trying to figure out how to keep people of color from going to better schools. Fifty years ago, we would have seen that type of racism. Today’s racial discrimination is more institutional and less individual, but the effects are equally devastating.
Taken from Beyond Racial Gridlock: Embracing Mutual Responsibility by George Yancey Copyright (c) 2006 by George Yancey. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
The Narrative of Racial Difference
In this excerpt by Bryan Stevenson, the civil rights attorney and author of Just Mercy, explains the origins of racial identity and difference, necessitated by a slave-based (American Christian) society and economy:
The whole narrative of white supremacy was created during the era of slavery. It was a necessary theory to make white Christian people feel comfortable with their ownership of other human beings. And we created a narrative of racial difference in this country to sustain slavery, and even people who didn’t own slaves bought into that narrative, including people in the North. . . .
So this narrative of racial difference has done really destructive things in our society. Lots of countries had slaves, but they were mostly societies with slaves. We became something different, we became a slave society. We created a narrative of racial difference to maintain slavery. And our 13th amendment never dealt with that narrative. It didn’t talk about white supremacy. The Emancipation Proclamation doesn’t discuss the ideology of white supremacy or the narrative of racial difference, so I don’t believe slavery ended in 1865, I believe it just evolved.
It turned into decades of racial hierarchy that was violently enforced—from the end of reconstruction until WWII—through acts of racial terror. And in the north, that was tolerated. And so we are very confused when we start talking about race in this country because we think that things are “of the past” because we don’t understand what these things really are, that narrative of racial difference that was created during slavery that resulted in terrorism and lynching, that humiliated, belittled and burdened African Americans throughout most of the 20th century.
The same narrative of racial difference that got Michael Brown killed, got Eric Garner killed and got Tamir Rice killed. That got these thousands of others—of African Americans—wrongly accused, convicted and condemned. It is the same narrative that has denied opportunities and fair treatment to millions of people of color, and it is the same narrative that supported and led to the executions in Charleston [South Carolina].
Corey G. Johnson, “Bryan Stevenson on Charleston and Our Real Problem with Race,” interview with Bryan Stevenson, The Marshall Project, June 24, 2015.
Pious Irrelevancies and Sanctimonious Trivialities
In his now famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. offers a scathing rebuke of his white clergy colleagues, whose inaction caused him much frustration:
I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare:
“Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.
In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.
Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” African Studies Center, University of Pennsylvania.
The Beauty of Integrated Schools Done Right
In Mendenhall, where the schools have actually integrated, we are seeing real equality form in the hearts of members of this new generation, and it is enriching for the entire community. When the schools stay separate, people in the community don’t learn how to talk to one another. We don’t learn to overcome our differences and get along. We don’t learn to love. We may think we are keeping the peace by creating separate schools. In reality, we are taking away from a deeper peace that can come with developing close relationships with those of a different skin color.
A year after schools in Mendenhall became fully integrated, it came time to vote for the high school’s homecoming queen. The school had about four hundred black students and only three hundred white students.
Not surprisingly, a black girl won the title because of the majority of black students. The next day, though, the principal expelled the girl who had won, claiming she had once stolen from a white lady she had worked for years ago and was unfit for the title. However, the following day all of the black students stood up and walked out of the school in protest, along with a good number of the white students. The white teachers and principal may not have realized it, but a year of attending school together, playing basketball together, and learning to live and study with one another had changed those students’ hearts. Integration may come with a cost, but when it leads to reconciliation, it is worth it.
He’d Be Wrong!
Reporters Alex Alston and James Dickerson tell a sad story about a church that sought to integrate its ranks: The Mississippi Delta was in a tizzy over rumors that blacks might show up at white churches to worship. Some white churches hired armed guards to keep them out. Other white churches considered allowing them to attend services. One Delta congregation, a Presbyterian church with deep cultural roots, was split right down the middle. Half of the deacons voted no; the other half voted yes.
After a contentious meeting to resolve the stalemate, one of the church elders hurriedly left the meeting to deliver the news to his mother, a firm believer in old-time segregation. “Well, what did you decide?” she demanded. “We decided to let them attend services.” “You know I’m very much opposed to that!” “I know, Mother—but think about it this way. What would Jesus do?” “I know good and well what He’d do,” she huffed. “He’d say, let ’em in!”
She paused a moment, pondering the implications, then added, “But He’d be wrong!” Even though most Christians wouldn’t make a statement as bold as the elder’s mother, I don’t think many Christians believe reconciliation and integrated worship are central to the gospel and to our lives as Christians. But it is. We need God’s Word to help purge us of these sins that keep us apart. And it grieves and frightens me to the core to hear a Christian declare that maintaining racial separation is a higher value than imitating Christ!
John Perkins Children: Among the Very First Students to Integrate at an All-White School
Six of my children—Spencer, Joanie, Phillip, Derek, Deborah, and Wayne—were among the first black children to attend the all-white school in Mendenhall. But while they were there, their white teachers did not treat them the same way they treated the white children. Phillip’s teacher wouldn’t allow him to answer questions in class. For two years Spencer went to the school and no one talked to him. The seat next to him was always left empty, and as far as people at school were concerned, both his first and last name were a racial slur.
Whenever one of my kids did make a white friend, it wasn’t long before that friend would come to school and say, “My parents said I can’t play with you anymore.” Phillip was probably hurt the most by his school experience. Because he was sickly, I had always given him a lot of love. He grew to expect that other people would love him too. When he went to the white school and the people treated him with hatred, the rejection almost destroyed him.
I didn’t even know several of the stories until many years later because our children had tried to keep some of the hatred and rejection they had experienced from hurting me and Vera Mae too.
Deborah remembers some of this well and says, My first day in class with all white students, I walked in and was assigned my seat. Of course, everyone was staring. Even the teacher seemed to be a little shaken presenting her lesson plan. Confidence was rarely a problem for me as a kid, with three athletic older brothers, but this day I was all alone. Not one student said a word to me, nor did I see a smile.
It seemed that I could feel their eyes while reading their thoughts. I was alone on the playground. I ate lunch alone. If I got on the monkey bars, the kids got off. When I jumped on the merry-go-round, my classmates jumped off. I would hear people say, “My dad is going to kill your dad.” This was my life in first grade, only six years old.
The end of the day, the school bell would ring, and I would pack my books under my arm and walk toward the big magnolia tree where we were to be picked up and wait—alone. One afternoon, as I was standing there, two white older boys who must have been in third or fourth grade slapped my books out from under my arm. The books spread out on the ground. As I stood in slight shock, I told myself not to cry. Before I could bend down to pick up the books, the two white boys reached ahead of me and were starting to pick them up. As I glanced over my shoulder, I saw two of my older brothers standing behind me. I stepped back. The white boys picked up my books and returned them to me. My brother told me not to tell Mom and Dad about the bullies.
John Perkins’ Childrens Convictions
I’ll never forget one Sunday in 1964 when a bunch of kids met up together and decided they were going to integrate the movie theater in Mendenhall. This was fairly early on in the integration efforts, but they had a pretty good idea that integrating meant going to jail and getting beaten up. The kids tried to keep it a secret because they knew their parents wouldn’t want them involved.
But word got out, sending numerous parents into a fearful panic. They feared not only for their children’s safety but also for their own livelihoods. People whose kids went to jail for trying to integrate a whites-only facility risked losing their jobs, their insurance, and their homes. I attended the meeting, not to try to talk them out of anything, but to listen.
My eldest children—Spencer, Joanie, Phillip, and Derek—were there. Vera Mae and I wanted the kids to go even though, like the other parents, we were concerned for their safety. We didn’t have to worry about the other threats because we didn’t work for white folks, the bank didn’t have a lien on our house, and our insurance agent was a fairly decent white man.
At the meeting, I listened to the organizer talk to the kids. He told them the truth—they might go to jail, get beaten, or, worst of all, killed. Finally, he said, “It’s time to go.” The way he said those words was as powerful as if he were saying, “Even if no one comes with me, I’m going.”
As I recall, Spencer, who wasn’t more than eleven at the time, was the first to stand and go with him. (Although it may have been Joanie—she was always a rebel.) Derek also was a rebel, and Phillip would do anything Spencer did. All four of my children, along with fourteen others, tried to integrate the theater.
That event was a pivotal moment in my life. I had to make a choice, and that choice revealed a lot about who I am. If my kids are ready to give their lives for the cause, I’m willing to let them do it. Some parents might not have agreed with that decision, but my children understood that some ideals are important enough to risk their lives for. I was proud of them for that stance. The theater owners must have also recognized the determination of these young protesters. When they heard the kids were coming, they closed the theater. Permanently.
Separate But Unequal
Desegregation was one of the big goals of the civil rights movement. “Separate but equal” in the South became “separate and unequal.” The disparities were in things as small as water fountains and as vitally important as education and health care. In fact, when we black patients were sick, we had trouble getting to see a doctor. We had to be to the doctor’s office by 8:00 a.m., because if we weren’t, other black patients would get there first, and we might not get to see the doctor that day. If a doctor did see us, it would always be in the afternoon after the white patients had left.
People would sit all day at the doctor’s office and still not see the doctor that day. Our time meant nothing to them. In the case of an accident, or if the doctor had to rush to the hospital, none of us black patients got treated. We had to return the next day and start over again. Appointments didn’t exist for blacks.
My son Phillip had polio as a child, and we learned that we could get some of his medication through the March of Dimes. They told us they had a representative in every county and sent us to a health clinic in downtown Mendenhall, Mississippi. We had to go in through a back door and wait for hours in a separate waiting room to get my little boy’s medicine. I didn’t think about it too much. That’s the way things were, and the important thing was to take care of Phillip.
Tearing Down the Dividing Wall
In 1973, Voice of Calvary Ministries, the ministry Vera Mae and I started after we moved back to Mississippi in 1960, opened a health clinic in the black section of Mendenhall. We had an X-ray machine and all new equipment. We were thrilled about our clinic, but we had barely gotten it open before a terrible flood caused thousands of dollars of damage to our equipment and the facility.
We needed to find a location on higher ground. The white doctor who had run the clinic up by the courthouse had died, and according to his wishes, his widow was to sell the building only to someone who would use it as a medical clinic. The property was located uptown, in the white section of town, and no property had ever been sold to a black person there before.
The widow sold us the building because we convinced her we were committed to using it to provide health care for the community. I’ll never forget the day we took possession of that building. We paid her $75,000 cash, and she deeded the clinic over to Voice of Calvary.
As soon as we had the keys, a bunch of us went inside. The first thing I noticed was the wall that divided blacks and whites. Many times I had stared at the wall from the black side. For the first time, we were able to look at both sides of the wall, and it confirmed what we had already assumed: the white side had nice, beautiful paneling; the black side was bare and worn.
The stark contrast was symbolic of how everything we blacks had was inferior. I picked up a sledgehammer and started slamming it against the wall with all my might.
We tore down that dividing wall in less than thirty minutes. It felt good! It also reminded me of something the apostle Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:14–16: Christ has made peace between Jews and gentiles, and He has united us by breaking down the wall of hatred that separated us. It was an emotional experience, and I didn’t care that we had ruined nice paneling that, under other circumstances, we would have reused. From that time on, we determined there would be only one waiting room—open to blacks and whites.
When I visit Mendenhall, I love to watch people going into that integrated clinic. I smile because it’s in the shadow of the courthouse. Tearing down the wall in that health center was for me what refusing to give up her seat on that bus must have been for Rosa Parks. That is something I look back on and think, Because of what we did, things are different. Life is better now. To this day, every time I see the building, it brings me great joy to know that the wall that once separated the races came tumbling down.
School Segregation Continues
Today the public school system in Jackson is about 98 percent black. Some of this resegregation came about simply because of where people live—after all, the population of Jackson is about 80 percent black. But about 20 percent of Jackson’s population is white. So where are those white kids going to school? Most of them attend private Christian academies, many which were established in the ’60s, after schools were forced to desegregate.
Academically, these academies are among the best schools in Jackson, so I understand why parents want to send their children to them. I don’t want to condemn that choice, and as I mentioned before, I still question my own choice to send my children to integrate the schools in the early ’60s.
I do not believe our children should be used to make political statements or pacify the guilt parents might feel about having the ability to send their children to better schools. However, I also see an undermining of the purpose of integration, resulting from decisions to move children out of the public schools. The most obvious sign is a weakened resolve by the community to see that all children receive a top-notch education. A separate and unequal education. Many Christians who send their kids to private schools don’t understand how this decision affects the quality of education for black children. It’s a major blind spot.