Reverend Callen’s Soliloquy – a Poem and Thoughts

by on December 22nd, 2010
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Written February 1996

On February 1, 1956, in Alabama
Four black churches were burned
And a black boy died.
Martin Luther King Jr. said,
“One day we shall win freedom,
But not only for ourselves.”
“And the walls came tumblin’ down.”

In 1957 in Little Rock, Arkansas,
Big and little pharaohs,
With the hardness of their hearts,
Were exposed to a global view,
And thanks to the media,
There was a turning point in the south.
“Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt land.”

On June 21, 1964 in Neshoba County Mississippi
The murders of three C.O.R.E. workers
Caused a spiritual and a cultural revolution
That moved a nation and has lasted for 32 years,
“A soul force…of peace and love,” King said.
“The big wheel run by faith,
And the little wheel run by the grace of God.”

On April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
“To our most bitter opponents, he had said,
“We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering
By our capacity to endure suffering”.
“Swing low, sweet chariot,
Comin’ for to carry me home.”

In 1996 the Skinheads say,
“White supremacy exists.
God did not intend colors to mix.
Let’s not get too radical with
God’s lover over this.”
“It’s me, it’s me, it’s me, oh Lord,
Standin’ in the need of prayer.”

Since the first of the year
In a nine day period,
In Mississippi and Alabama,
Twenty-three churches were burned
Because their parishioners
Were the descendants of former slaves.
“He’s got the whole world in His hand.”

In 1996 how does love begin?
By looking beyond the melanin of skin
To see what lies within.
The history of God’s holy grace
Is the kaleidoscope of the human race.
“Free at last, free at last,
Thank God almighty, we’re free at last.”

It seemed impossible that it could be 1996 and from the pulpit, and our Minister, Rev. Don Callen could be talking about churches burning in Alabama. Yet he was. My generation cut their teeth on the Civil Rights Movement. On Dec. 1, in 1955 when Rosa Parks wouldn’t give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, I was six years old. Living in a largely caucasian community in Ottumwa, IA it was almost incomprehensible to me at the time how anybody could be thrown in jail for refusing to sit in the back of a bus. I sat on the floor in front of my parents recliners watching the evening news and asking questions while they tried to explain it all to me.

The first Freedom Riders left Washington D.C. on May 4th, 1961. Since I was born in 1949, I was twelve years old at the time. By then, I knew who Martin Luther King Jr. was. Between King and Parks, and the news media, I knew something momentous was going on, that the Supreme Court had ruled against segregation, but in the south state and local governments were virtually ignoring the Supreme Court decision. I was old enough my children’s librarian allowed me to check out Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind,” and read it so I could halfway grasp what had brought about the long line of demarcation that separated the north and south right into the twentieth century.

Most of the alarms going out across national news outlets about the mob attacks when the Freedom Riders’ buses arrived in Anniston or Birmingham or Montgomery, Alabama, and about the brutal beatings they were suffering didn’t even filter back to us until some of the Freedom Riders were thrown into the Mississippi State Penitentiary where they wound up in the Maximum Security Unit.

On June 21st, 1964 F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover placed a telephone call to the recently sworn in President Lyndon Baines Johnson about locating the burned shell of a vehicle three C.O.R.E. social workers had been driving from Philadelphia to Meridian, Mississippi. When the car was found adjacent to an Indian Reservation, the burned out car was actually pointed the other direction from Meridian. The F.B. I. proceeded with an intensive investigation to locate the perpetrators of the crime, and to determine what happened to the three missing C.O.R.E. workers. Eighteen men were accused of murdering the three missing social workers but state prosecutors wouldn’t try the case. In 1967, when they failed to charge the suspects for murdering them, the Federal Government stepped in and prosecuted seven men on federal conspiracy charges.

By the time King was assasinated on April 4th, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee, I was nineteen years old and it was personal. I was doing traffic surveys for the city of Ottumwa, IA that summer before King was killed. I spent anywhere from six to eight hours outdoors every day, five days a week. As a result, I had a deep tan. One Wednesday morning in August my supervisor pulled up at the corner or 4th and Jefferson and told me to pack up. He was moving me to another location.

I asked him, “How come? I’m not finished with this one.”

He told me, “Because the woman who lives in this house called the mayor and told him to get that ‘nigger’ off of her corner.”

I was stunned. I was hurt. When I got over those first two initial responses, I was burning mad. Initially, my first thought had been, “I may have some Native American Indian DNA in my blood, but I don’t have any black blood in my family tree that I know of.” However, in short order, I was overwhelmed with outrage that it should make any difference if I did. This was 1967 and the Civil Rights Movement was twelve years old. People had died for my right to stand on that corner and do my job regardless of the color of my skin or my ethnic background.

I’m passionate about these words in the United States Constitution, “That all mean are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among them are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…”

We must remember what those who went before us suffered so those words have meaning in our lives right now. We can do that by picking up King’s banner of non-violent activism, by standing firm on the foundation these crusaders created for us and by continuing to advocate for personal rights and personal freedoms on the legacy these valiant activists have left us.

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