“The Less Traveled Road of Conviction”
The Reverend Gloria White-Hammond, M76, H06, gave a plenary talk at Tufts’ Day of Reflection, Commitment, and Action on June 19, the national observance of Juneteenth. This is the transcript of her talk; for full Juneteenth coverage at Tufts, please go here.
White-Hammond is the co-pastor of Bethel AME Church in Boston and trustee emerita at Tufts University. She is the founder and executive director of My Sister’s Keeper, and in 2008 retired from the South End Community Health Center, where she was a pediatrician for twenty-seven years.
On this day in particular, I’m reminded of a song that I first heard as a young schoolgirl. Everybody was singing it, but it was never featured on the American Music Awards, and never did win a Grammy, but from sanctified church pews to sin-stained bar stools, from segregated schools to integrated picket lines, from the backwoods of Mound Bayou, Mississippi to the towering projects of Chicago, Illinois, people were singing, “We shall overcome. We shall overcome. We shall overcome some day.”
I’ll never forget singing it on the evening of November 4th, 2008. A group of church folks gathered to watch the election returns. Our beloved eighty-five-year-old Grandma Hammond was there. The Alzheimer’s was pretty severe by then. Most days she couldn’t remember my name, but she just knew I had something to do with her son.
When I pointed to the TV screen and said, “That Black man is our next president of the United States of America,” she said, “Say what?” and she smiled. I teared when she locked her arms with me on one side, and my husband Ray on the other, and resurrected enough memory to join us in singing the freedom song that had fueled her generation’s struggle to push open the doors of opportunity to enable me to become a Tufts graduate. Oh, oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day.
The truth is that most of us never thought we would live to see a Black president. Indeed, some people declared his election as evidence that America was post-racial. But not so much. Most recently, I sang that freedom song two weeks ago, after a funeral procession of three hearses throughout Boston’s neighborhoods.
Our church hosted the memorial service to honor the lives of three victims of police and vigilante brutality. From their graves, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery remind us that this nation will not be post-racial until it is post racist. And so it is altogether fitting that we should gather on this nineteenth day of June—Juneteenth—for a day of reflection, and commitment, and action for racial justice.
While I regret that this dread pandemic precludes us from meeting together in Cohen Auditorium, I’m grateful for the privilege of having everything that I need to access this technology that enables me to speak to you—you personally—in the privacy of your personal space.
I’ve learned that racial justice work is long and arduous, and it begins at the level of the personal. Personal reflection fuels personal commitment, which determines personal action. Personal reflection challenges me to consider to what extent am I—my attitudes, my behaviors, my assumptions, my ways of doing and being that are just, I don’t even think about them—to what extent am I a reflection of the problem?
I believe that May 25, 2020, has the potential of being a watershed moment in our lives. Watershed moments are critical turning points in history that fundamentally change how people think about and do life. The day that ended with the George Floyd incident on the streets in Minneapolis began with the Amy Cooper incident in Central Park in New York City.
If the night video prompted us to ask, “What’s wrong with us as a nation,” the morning recording should beg us to ask another question, “What’s wrong with me? Where is the Amy Cooper in me?” I have my biases. I’ve lived long enough to recognize that we all have our isms—racism, sexism, classism, colorism, educationalism, and homophobism—isms of every ilk that show up when I’m threatened, or criticized, inconvenienced, or not on guard.
What does that look like in me, and who holds me accountable? Who are the individuals of the community that can call me on my “ism”? To what extent am I, with my well-meaning self, part of the problem? It begins with personal reflection. I’m at that stage in life where I’m no longer counting up, I’m counting down, and I can promise you that tackling your isms is an ongoing work with ongoing reflection. Having done that reflection work and doing that reflection work helps me to get a sense of my personal commitment.
Almost twenty years ago, I, as a descendant of slaves, was invited to bear witness to modern-day slavery in southern Sudan. I subsequently spent over ten years advocating on behalf of the great people of Sudan, and South Sudan, and women in particular who were victims of genocide, not only in that region, but around the world. In Sudan, it had been facilitated by the now-overthrown president, Omar Bashir, for whom the ICC subsequently issued an arrest warrant for murder and crimes against humanity.
Initially, my work really focused on this elaborate underground railroad to facilitate the freedom of slave people, enslaved people, primarily women and children. To be honest, my earliest trips were filled with fear, not because of the external fear that’s imposed by traveling into a war zone, but quite honestly, because of the fears of inadequacy that loomed large within me. This kind of work will provoke your deepest fears.
One day, on my second trip, it was a particularly difficult day. You know, remember that book you read, [Alexander and the] Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day? It was one of those days. I encountered a little boy, an eleven-year-old cow herder, whose face was rendered utterly grotesque by a former master who, when the boy lost a cow, the master took an ax and chopped off the boy’s nose. It was pretty awful-looking.
That night, I lay in the loneliness of my own tent tossing and turning, crying out, and crying out to God that this work was too hard, and I don’t think I have what it takes to do this kind of work. It was a watershed moment for me, but I think the witness of those who had come before me, the people who learned of their freedom on June 19th, and the whole cloud of witnesses that followed them, that fought so desperately.
It was always interesting to read the slave narratives, as I was curious to know why, when people had options to just die, kill themselves, throw themselves over the boat in the middle passage, what were they thinking about? Inevitably, they were thinking not so much about themselves, but they were thinking about me. I suspect somewhere along the way, in the days when they endured the abuses associated with slavery that we’ve heard so much about, they were thinking about you.
They were imagining that one day their children, and their children’s children, and the children and their masters, might have a sense of consciousness to reverse the injustice that they as enslaved people were experiencing. That was a watershed moment for me. I think people often think that when you take up this work, that you make a determination, and you go forward steely-minded and determined. It’s not so much the case.
When I was trying in that desert to decide what I would do, I thought about Martin King and what he called this kitchen table experience. It was early in the days of the month when he boycotted. At the end of the day, he had tallied up the number of threats that he had received. His wife and small child were asleep in the other room. He sat at a kitchen table and had to decide which path to pursue, the well-trodden path of convenience, or the narrow, less traveled road of conviction. He made a choice, and we know that choice that he made, and the rest is history.
In this work, you will have your kitchen-table moments, and you will wonder whether or not you have the capacity to endure. You will remember the heroes and sheroes who endured. You’ll remember the Harriet Tubmans, and you’ll remember the little girls who died at the 16th Street Baptist Church, and you’ll remember George Floyd, and you’ll remember Trayvon Martin, and you’ll confront the difficult circumstances. You’ll make the personal commitment and you’ll do the work.
We certainly found the work to strengthen the courage and commitment to do the work in Sudan. That’s when I found my voice as an activist. And I learned how to protest, and how to make signs, and send emails, and lobby my legislature, and ensure that the voices of these individuals were heard. That’s what Martin King did. We’re so glad they did because not only can I claim a Tufts degree. At the beginning of this week we had a victory for LGBTQ folks, and at the end of this week, I think we might have a victory for immigrants. Because of their work we have victories for women in the workplace and for the disabled. When we focus on our bucket of work now, we and those who come after us, we all win.
Finally, personal reflection with personal commitment, informs personal action. One of my heroes is Brian Stevenson, featured in Just Mercy, the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Alabama. Brian tells the story of one of the most egregious cases that he ever had to handle. It involved the brutal murder of a young white woman, which remained unsolved for several months. We’ve seen this drill. The pressure was building up to find somebody who was responsible. Finally, the police charged a Black man named Walter. He had no previous record, and it didn’t matter to them that at least thirty people could testify that he had been selling fish dinners from his church at the time of the murder. Walter was convicted, and although the jury recommended life in prison, the judge set the sentence aside and said, “Let’s give him the death penalty.”
EJI was asked to consult about the case. Over the several months that ensued they discovered that the police had made tapes of their conversations with the man who was the principal witness against Walter. On the tape, the man could be heard declaring that the police were asking him to convict an innocent man, and he didn’t feel right about it.
The tape went on to show that the man was threatened by the police with the possibility that he would be charged with the murder at some point if he didn’t point out Walter. As if that weren’t bad enough, EJI also discovered that there was a written report of a policeman who had noted in his work logs, that at the time of the murder, he was at Walter’s church buying a fish dinner.
Armed with the evidence, Brian went to court, and the people of that little town were ready to stand with him as he defended Walter. When they got to the court, there was a metal detector, and just beyond it was a big German shepherd. The prosecutor and sheriff had largely packed the church with white sympathizers, and so members of the church community could not get in. They decided to wait outside, and they elected a representative to go in on their behalf.
Stately, elderly, Mrs. Williams, well-known and well-respected in the community, honored that she’d been asked to represent her church, she walked into the court through the metal detector only to encounter that German shepherd dog. Brian Stevenson recalled watching her as she attempted to move forward only to find that she was stuck, trembling, and finally crying, as she turned and ran away, ran out.
The trial went forward, and as he left, he found Mrs. Williams still outside waiting for him. She said, “Mr. Stevenson, I’m so sorry, and I’m so ashamed. I let you down, and I let Walter down. I let this whole community down. I wanted to move forward, but my feet just wouldn’t budge. Every time I looked at that dog, I remembered the March on Selma, and the way they set the dogs on us. Every time I looked at that dog, I remembered Birmingham and the people that were savaged by those police dogs.”
Despite Brian’s attempt to reassure Ms. Williams that everything was all right, she said that she would be back tomorrow. Early the next morning Brian got a call from Ms. Williams’ sister saying that Ms. Williams had stayed up all night praying, praising, rejoicing, crying out to the Lord, “God I trust you. I ain’t afraid of no dog.” Sure enough, when it was time for the courtroom to open, she walked up the stairs. She went through the metal detector. There was the same German shepherd, but a different Mrs. Williams declared in a loud voice, “I’m here, and I ain’t afraid of no dog.”
With confidence, she walked to the front of the courtroom and sat down behind Brian’s table. She leaned over and declared, “Attorney Stevenson, I’m here.” He answered, “Yes, Ms. Williams, you’re here, and I’m so grateful.” She said it again. “Attorney Stevenson. I just want you to know that I’m here.” He found himself getting a little worried about Ms. Williams. She certainly seemed louder than usual and didn’t seem quite like herself, but he answered again, “Thank you, God. Yep. You’re here Ms. Williams.”
When the judge entered the court and everybody rose, Ms. Williams stood up. When everybody else sat down, she remained standing and declared for a third time, and a final time. She looked around the courtroom, “I’m here, and I ain’t afraid of no dog.” It was then that Brian realized that Ms. Williams wanted that courtroom to know, she wanted the heavenly hosts to know, and the forces of evil, of racial injustice, to know that she was here. She was present, and she was accounted for, and she was committed to serving the cause of racial justice, and she wasn’t afraid of no dog. In this work, we will encounter dogs, dogs from our past, dogs from our present, some that we conjure up and magnify, and some that are real.
And I want to encourage us to take the action, to figure out what needs to be accomplished. What’s my piece of the work? What are the measures I will use to ensure that I follow through? Not just policy statements, not just fine speeches, but what are the sustainable, measurable objectives that signify real change in addressing this issue of racial injustice. It’s June 19th, 2020, and it’s been a long 400 years.
I end with the words of Martin King in his final book, Where Do We Go From Here? Having surveyed the history of this country and the experience of black people, he noted that, “we are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We’re confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with lost opportunity. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, the time is death to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, ‘too late.’”
It’s too late for George Floyd. It’s too late for Ahmaud Arbery. It’s too late for Trayvon Martin. [But] on this Juneteenth, I (we) invite you to draw from the wisdom of the song(s) sung by slaves probably on the Juneteenth in Galveston, Texas in 1865. Declare as we stand on this side of the twenty-first century: “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around. Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around. I’m gonna keep on a-walkin’, keep on a-talkin’, walkin’ up the freedom trail.”
This is the faith in action, the commitment in action, that we must take into our personal lives, in our homes, in our classrooms, in our neighborhoods, in our churches—anywhere and everywhere that we might have an opportunity to stand up, to do the right thing.
This is the kind of faith and action that we have to take to the polls in November 2020, as we cast our votes and argue our cases before town meetings, and board meetings, and legislative committees, and expert panels. This is the kind of determination, having done the reflection, the commitment, and the action that must sustain us throughout the difficult days ahead. If, as one humanity with all of our differences, we choose this course—faith and action—we shall overcome. Thank you!