A man rises up to stand behind the pulpit. The dark mahogany behind him frames his white face. He pauses to arrange his notes on the podium and looks up at the congregation.
Voices call out to him. “Tell the story. Tell it, preacher!”
If ever a truly “white” man existed, it was my father. His hair was dark, thick and wavy (until he began early on to go bald), but his skin so fair that he could not sit in the sun for more than a couple of minutes without burning. At the beach my memory of him is sitting beneath the umbrella, particularly later in life, and yet somehow always going home with a tan.
American culture proclaimed him “white.” He was born into a farming family in Virginia that could, if they chose to, trace their lineage back to Norfolk, England. The first Shipp came to the shores of the American colonies as early as the mid-1600s. My dad was brought up during the Great Depression years of the 1930s and the war years of the 1940s, raised by a family and a community that was segregationist. The rabid racism of many Southerners was mitigated by his own parents’ tendencies toward fairness, but he was still raised to believe that “everybody should know their place.” The Declaration of White Supremacy.
Now he stands in the pulpit and looks out over the dark mahogany pews and the sea of uplifted Black and Brown faces that surround and support his wife and children, welcoming and embracing us.
“Tell the story,” they encouraged him in church after church across the state of North Carolina. And he did. He told the story of his journey from the segregated society of Princess Anne County, from believing in segregation himself. He told the story of the troubling witness of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)—born in 1957, the same year that he was licensed to the gospel ministry in the Southern Baptist church—and its dynamic leader, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He told the way Rev. King challenged his prejudices, even as the Department of Philosophy and Theology at the University of Richmond, VA, challenged his fundamentalism, and how his education both in and out of college had led him to the conviction that—just as Jesus had answered when asked the question point-blank—the two most important commandments in the Torah were to love God and to love your neighbor as you love yourself. Anything, Dad declared, anything that did not stand up to the rigor of those two commandments, was contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
“If God is our Heavenly Father,” he preached, “then we are all children of God, and that makes us all brothers and sisters.”*
“Tell it!” the people cried out. “TELL the story!” “Amen! A-MEN!”
In pulpit after pulpit, my father confessed that, not long before Dr. King was assassinated on a motel balcony in Memphis, he had had to sit himself down and admit to himself, “Wesley, what really bothers you about Martin Luther King is that he’s just a better Christian than you are.” In that moment, he said, he resolved either to take Rev. King’s message to heart, or to get out of the ministry altogether. And yet, even then he still believed, as did so many well-meaning white liberals, that “these things take time. We don’t want to move too fast.”
He paused, took a breath, lowered his voice. “But when Rev. King was gunned down on April 4, 1968, I came to the conclusion,” his words slowed, took on weight, “that if a man like that can be killed for preaching the way he did about love, then we’re not moving too fast. We’re moving too slow.”
The shouts of the congregation rolled up to the pulpit in a mighty wave of encouragement. “Well?!” “My Lord, my Lord.” “Tell it, preacher. Tell it!”
I hear those voices today. Tell the story. Tell it!
When I first told a friend, a classmate from those days more than 50 years ago, about my plan to write this story, she said to me, “You have to write it. It’s a reckoning.” Swept into the current of her encouragement, I thought of my father standing in the pulpit, buoyed by the faith and resilience of Black Christians across NC.
The truth is, whether or not this story turns into a reckoning is beyond my power to decide. The truth is, my work is the work of bearing witness. My work is to tell the story.
The story is still unfolding. It will continue to unfold as I continue to come to terms with my own whiteness, with all the ways in which white supremacy and unearned privilege have molded my life, sanding down the edgy demands of Love and Justice.
Which demands, by the way, end up in the same place. Because true Justice is grounded in Love. And true Love compels us to work for Justice.
And we’re still moving too damn slow. When hair-trigger judgments sentence Black men and Black women to death, when racism and white supremacy still form a creed widely celebrated by a flag and backed by the threat of assault rifles—when white people like me, and perhaps you, remain silent and safe behind our whiteness, we are moving too slow.
Tell the story. I hear the echoes of my ancestors. Tell it.
And that’s exactly what I intend to do.
*I use here the non-gender-inclusive language that he used in that day and time.