taking the words of Jesus seriously


Click here to read Part 1.


At the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, we sat together in a former slave warehouse and talked about how our history of racial injustice led to mass incarceration in the 21st-century. We heard about the legal lynching of black men in Alabama through the death penalty and the work EJI has done not only to represent men wrongfully convicted, but also to share their stories. Ray Hinton, who was released after 30 years just weeks ago, told us the story of how he crossed over. He looked at the young white man who’d worked on his legal team and said, “My mamma died when I was locked up. These people are my family now.”


Well, I haven’t been to heaven but I think I’m right–
Been down into the South–
There’s folks up there both black and white–
Been down into the South.


Across the Alabama state line, in Southwest Georgia, we paused at Koinonia Farm to let our spirits catch up with our bodies and consider what it means to be caught up in this story of faith-rooted struggle. Black and white have been living and working together at Koinonia Farm since 1942. Clarence Jordan, one of their founders, called it a “demonstration plot for the kingdom of God.” In the early 50s, when Dr. Jordan was better known than the young Rev. King at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the two developed a friendship. Interracialism went hand-in-hand with nonviolence for Jordan. These were gospel truths at the heart of Koinonia’s life. As King learned nonviolence while proclaiming it to Montgomery and then America, he and Jordan argued about what it looks like in practice.


Koinonia Farm turned out to be a good place for us to discern the practical implications of nonviolence today.


Is a boycott necessarily nonviolent? As the Montgomery Improvement Association was organizing one, Jordan and Koinonia were suffering another of a different kind. No business in Sumter County would trade with them. When the KKK blew up their roadside farm stand and shot up their homes, local authorities accused Koinonia of doing it themselves… to attract donations. A boycott, Jordan knew, could be extremely violent.


What, then, is the heart of nonviolence? How do we tap this force more powerful to face the unspeakable evil in ourselves and in our world?


Part of inhabiting these stories is learning the roles we play—parts we were born into and can never simply walk away from. Jordan knew he was a white man, just as King knew he was black. Nonviolence isn’t discerned in a vacuum. It must be embodied.


We work-shopped Rosa Park’s sit-in. It’s one thing to remember this as the “simple act” that started the modern Civil Rights Movement. It’s another to consider what it must have felt like to the other white passengers, to black passengers who were trying to get home and feed their families. To the bus driver. To the police.


A young white man who’s been learning to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement talked about what it felt like to play the officer. “I had no choice; if she was going to challenge my authority, I couldn’t back down. I went into ‘enforce’ mode.” He felt more violent than he liked to think of himself as being.


This is not a convenient truth to face. Does nonviolent direct action stir up violence? Are we really called to do things that make people more uncomfortable in a world already fragile and broken?


Yes, the killing of unarmed black people is wrong. And, as today’s young activists are helping us see, this is but one symptom of systemic violence against black life. We face an almost unspeakable violence, deep at the heart of who we are.


But how will we ever get to justice if we can’t trust the system? Don’t direct actions to “shut it down” just make things more complicated? Where do we who believe in freedom draw the line when those desperate for change destroy cop cars and set buildings on fire? If nonviolence is a more militant way to challenge the system, how can it challenge the new Jim Crow?


I ask Bob Zellner if, during the 60s, he was ever accused of creating more violence through nonviolent direct action. I know the answer. The better question would be, which time?


Take February of 1962, a few months after Bob’s first freedom ride. He rode with fellow SNCC field secretary Chuck McDew to see about a friend who’d been arrested in Baton Rouge. For inquiring about their friend, they were arrested and charged with “criminal anarchy.”


A white man questioning white supremacy, Bob was separated from Chuck and sent to the white section of the segregated jail. There guards goaded his fellow inmates to teach him the racial norms he and Chuck were challenging. After the white inmates nearly beat Bob to death, he was moved to solitary confinement, where both he and Chuck were tortured. Their nonviolence seemed to enrage the officers, expressing violence from within them as a doctor might express a wound. Somehow, they found courage to press on, unsure of their future. They sang freedom songs together.


A year and half later, at the March on Washington, organizers told SNCC not to sing freedom songs—they didn’t want to incite fears or stir up a riot. Bob and Chuck sang anyway, leading their friends in a song they’d written on the drive back from the Baton Rouge jail.


Well, I haven’t been to heaven but I think I’m right–
Been down into the South–
There’s folks up there both black and white–
Been down into the South.


When Dr. King delivered his now famous “I Have a Dream” speech, it wasn’t the dream that caught their ear so much as the exhortation. “Go back to Mississippi. Go back to Alabama. Go back to Georgia.” In short, go back to the South.


Go back, Bob did. And he’s been going back ever since. Once you’ve been down into the South, nonviolence isn’t as neat and simple as it seemed when you learned about it in a US history class. But it feels real—and incredibly powerful. Especially as you learn to sing it, right up into the present.


Learn more about how you and/or your organization can have a Freedom Ride experience with School for Conversion.


About The Author


Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is a celebrated spiritual writer and speaker. Together with his wife, Leah, he co-founded the Rutba House in Durham, NC, where he also directs the School for Conversion (www.schoolforconversion.org). Jonathan works closely with the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II to spearhead The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. Jonathan's newest book is "Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion" (InterVarsity Press).

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