I’m from Alabama. And white. And a man. And a Christian. You know, we white southern Christian men are not the most highly esteemed these days. I can walk in a room of mid-westerners and merely open my mouth, let my southern drawl waft across the room, and bam—just like that—my IQ goes down a full fifteen points. Let a mid-westerner merely hear me say hello, and sometimes they start giggling.
“Poor thing,” it seems they’re thinking. “How cute. But what a dolt. ” They’ll put their hand over their mouth, trying to decide between one of two replies: “where are you from?” and “I just love your accent.” It doesn’t matter that I have a Ph.D. The drawl just dumbs you down: You talk that way, you can’t be too smart.
But just this past week, all the sudden I feel special again. Donald Trump did a big speech down in Alabama. A really great speech. Thousands of people came out. He talked about political stuff: something about how bad unions are; about building a wall, out of concrete; and something about sons of bitches who won’t stand up for the national anthem. And he said had he lost the election, that he might have moved to Alabama.
And he said Alabama is a special place. That he loves Alabama.
And all the sudden I felt special again, warm all deep down inside.
The President got me thinking about some of the special people in Alabama; like Rosa Parks, one of the most famous Alabamians, indeed one of the most famous Americans. I remember that special Alabama day when Rosa Parks said she was tired, “tired of giving in,” “tired of being treated like a second-class citizen.” When the white bus driver told her to get up and give her seat to a white, she wouldn’t stand up. She just kept her seat, and said “why do you all push us around?” And she got herself arrested. That special, quiet woman started a revolution, by her not standing.
Seems to me that some of the most morally significant moments of my life have come when trying to decide when to stand, when to sit, when to take a knee. I tell my students that some of the most morally significant moments of their lives will come when they must decide whether to speak up or shut up. Rosa Parks also said: “God has always given me the strength to say what is right.” I have a lot of respect for the Rosa Parks kind of religion and politics, those folks who say their prayers and then decide not to stand when they’re told they have to; who teach us how to talk about the principalities and powers and the over-reach of wealth and might; and who teach us to pay attention to the way state-sponsored violence and imprisonment devastates communities and families. Seems like it’s those folks who are always getting called names, getting arrested. You never know. Do that too much and you might just get called an SOB, or some such.
Then I started thinking about Harper Lee, another special Alabamian, author of To Kill a Mockingbird. And that made me think of her protaganist, Atticus Finch, lawyer who defended a black man accused of rape. Atticus justified doing what all the white folks in his Alabama town thought was a scandal by saying this: “The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box."
That quote reminded me of another special Alabamian, a very real and very brilliant attorney named Bryan Stevenson who keeps showing us down in Montgomery how Atticus Finch knew better than lots of people know today. I wish every well intentioned soul of every sort of political persuasion would read Stevenson’s devastatingly beautiful book Just Mercy, so we could raise up some more Stevensons and Finches and Rosa Parks in the world.
I love it when Atticus says, “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand.” Or, “You just hold your head high and keep those fists down. No matter what anybody says to you, don’t you let ‘em get your goat. Try fighting with your head for a change.”
Lord knows we need more of that, that fighting with your head, using our brains to fight for justice and mercy and decency and kindness and generosity. Our brains, and our mouths, brains that find creative, non-shrill, persuasive ways to speak on behalf of the poor and the immigrants and those who can’t speak for themselves. We do indeed need people who can unearth the fake news, who can call demagoguery what it is, and use the counsels of the gospel to sow seeds of mercy in a world full of hostility.
When I remember the Atticus Finches, it spurs me into my King James Bible-spouting, prophesying mood: Woe be it unto us if we are but partisans in a world full of partisanship. Woe be it unto us if we but sow the seeds of yet more hatred, more hostility, more demeaning speech. Use your heads, that’s what I start saying up on my soap-box to my students: use your heads; be courageous; be creative, brilliant, winsome people who contribute to the peace of the world.
Speaking of winsome souls, I was also reminded of Helen Keller. There in my hometown in Talladega, we had the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind. I still remember my fourth grade Alabama history class when we learned about Helen Keller, that deaf-blind child, frustrated because she had no way of communicating with the vast world outside her mind, until her patient teacher Annie Sullivan one day put water on Helen Keller’s hand, then used sign language to spell W A T E R into Helen Keller’s hand, and then a great revelation rolled over Helen Keller, and her brilliant mind and gentle heart blessed a generation.
I wondered what the beautiful blind-deaf woman might say to this powerful man in Alabama talking about security and strength and walls and concrete. Maybe we already know, ensconced in one of her most famous quotes: “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”
Speaking of nothing, she knew the dangers of wealth and power: “It is hard to interest those who have everything in those who have nothing.”
And—this was not a fact touted in our fourth grade text-book—she was rather a fan of the unions, and the working man. These days when we have a lot of people wagging their tongues about their big-ol’ missiles and their big-ol’ guns, threatening to “totally destroy” whole nations, I was reminded of one of her famous lines to the workers of her day, encouraging them to go on strike: “Strike against war, for without you no battles can be fought. Strike against manufacturing shrapnel and gas bombs and all other tools of murder. Strike against preparedness that means death and misery to millions of human beings. Be not dumb, obedient slaves in an army of destruction. Be heroes in an army of construction.”
So, yes, I’m thankful for President Trump’s great, really great speech in Alabama. Reminds me of some of these beautiful, creative, human beings who are really special, nurtured in that same Alabama soil.