An apology after half a century

‘At the time, the Tuskegee Methodist Church was in its heyday, and was deciding who could receive the love of Christ and who couldn’t. They were letting one group of folks in the door, and asking another to go find their own church.’

By Jacqueline White Kochak

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the Tuskegee News on June 22, 2006, as part of a four-part series.

Dr. Martin Luther King observed some 40 years ago that the most segregated hour in America is 11 a.m. on Sunday morning. That spells trouble for Tuskegee’s handful of historic white churches, whose members struggle to keep their congregations alive as the city’s population exceeds 95 percent black.

On June 30 (in 2006), the Tuskegee First United Methodist Church made a dramatic gesture to bridge the gap between Tuskegee’s handful of white residents and the rest of the city. The church’s 18 or so members were already equally divided between blacks and whites, and on that day the congregation reached out to the people of Macon County by hosting a community-wide concert featuring the Three Inspirational Tenors, renowned in the region for their Christian and message-oriented secular music.

Tuskegee, AL, USA - Cities on Map Series
The struggling, historic Tuskegee, in Macon County, is located just a few miles from the thriving city of Auburn.

The free concert in the church’s sanctuary was meant to be more than a pleasant evening for residents. The performance was an apology to the community for events that took place nearly half a century ago, when white members physically barred the door to blacks who wished to worship in the church.

“…we knew that in order to move on and rid ourselves of the blot of racism we had to confess the sin so that God could then forgive and cleanse us of our unrighteousness,” pastor Kent Cecil wrote in a grant request to the United Methodist Church’s Alabama-West Florida Conference.

Although the Tuskegee First United Methodist Church has changed, an ugly stain on the church’s reputation lingers, Cecil said. The conference funded not only the concert but also the mailing of a brochure about the apology to every address in Macon County.

Long ago, but memories linger

Before the Civil War, Tuskegee area whites and blacks attended the same churches, with black slaves sitting at the back. After the war, black members of various denominations formed their own congregations. An uneasy truce prevailed. Neither group could really be blamed, because people naturally like to worship among friends and family, and they like to feel safe and comfortable in church. As late as 2002, a study showed that just 8 percent of Christian churches in the U.S. were multiracial, defined as one ethnic group making up no more than 80 percent of membership.

Tuskegee’s once vibrant white churches faced a turning point in the 1950s when their members—and Tuskegee’s money—started leaving. Tuskegee was a cultured and relatively affluent town, but segregated like nearly every Southern city. Tensions escalated when black servicemen came home to Tuskegee after serving their country, asking why all the businesses were owned by whites, and why they couldn’t live in some parts of town.

In the late 1950s, Tuskegee’s blacks collectively stopped trading at white businesses. Some folded. Others hung on, but the trouble wasn’t over. Tuskegee Institute attracted the best and the brightest black professors and students from all over the country, and the already troubled little municipality became a focus of the nascent Civil Rights movement. Scared white citizens —always in the minority—hunkered down. While church governing bodies around the country called for peace and reason, fearful and defiant local whites retreated to their churches and prepared to defend their way o life.

“In the 1960s I was a member of the National Guard and I stood in the road to protect both sides,” recalled Asa Vaughan of Vaughan Feed & Seed in Tuskegee. “At the time, the Tuskegee Methodist Church was in its heyday, and was deciding who could receive the love of Christ and who couldn’t. They were letting one group of folks in the door, and asking another to go find their own church.”

Coming back home

Only the lazy characterize all members of any one group as bad. During the anguished ’60s, some Tuskegee whites turned belligerent. Others, more reflective and troubled, withdrew.

Dismayed by seeing his own father turn blacks away, the newly married Vaughan stopped going to church entirely.

Vaughan, whose grandfather moved to Tuskegee in the early 1900s as a county agent, grew up in the Tuskegee First Methodist Church. He remembers youth group functions that could pull 200 kids between the three churches, as well as church choirs and Sunday School classes. Dismayed by seeing his own father turn blacks away, the newly married Vaughan stopped going to church entirely.

On a good Sunday these days, 18 people—half black and half white—cluster at the front of the cavernous sanctuary to receive communion from the Rev. Cecil. Asa Vaughan is one of them, even though he lives in Hurtsboro.

“I came back home,” he said.

He’s not the only one. Although Sunday mornings are likely to find either the First Presbyterian Church or the First Baptist Church, both located on North Main Street, locked and empty because neither church has a permanent minister, members meet together on alternating Sundays. Effie Jean Corbitt, a long-time member of the Baptist church, makes a circuit every Sunday to play the organ for the congregations of the three churches.

Corbitt, a graduate of the prestigious Juilliard School of Music in New York City, came home herself to teach at Huntingdon College in Montgomery back in the old days, when the churches were filled. Today, not a one of the Presbyterian Church’s five remaining members lives in Tuskegee, Corbitt said.

“They live in places like Auburn, Dadeville and Notasulga,” she said. “They hate to see it go. The main backbone of the Presbyterian Church is a 93-year-old lady named Louetta Segrest who lives in an assisted living home in Dadeville. She’s not going to let that church die.”

The First Baptist Church’s 30-odd members are just as tenacious, said interim minister Dr. David Bentley of Auburn. When the church needed painting and repairs, long-time member John Conner of Auburn’s Conner Brothers Construction Co. sent a crew to do the work. Workers also installed new air conditioning and heating systems.

“The people love those old churches,” Bentley said. “We know that it’s a struggle to keep them, but they are so historically important, and the worship is very traditional.”

Church ties are strong

Church congregations often are families, especially when membership dwindles, Corbitt said. The Baptist and Presbyterian Church congregations not only meet together, moving to each church on alternating Sundays, but on every fifth Sunday, they join the Methodists for a fellowship dinner.

That affection bodes well for the struggling city of Tuskegee, because the historic town apparently maintains an inexplicable hold over those who grew up here.

“That’s the thing that really has sustained us,” Bentley said. “So many, many people grew up in Tuskegee and had affiliations to the church that they still have affection for it. When you have a funeral down there, you can’t get them in the house. They really support that church.”

That affection bodes well for the struggling city of Tuskegee, because the historic town apparently maintains an inexplicable hold over those who grew up here. One of them is architect Joe Slaton, who works from his home between Shorter and Tuskegee and has been compiling information on the city’s wealth of historic buildings. As a child he was a Baptist.

“In the old days the church was filled,” Slaton said. “When we had revivals you had to sit in the balcony.”

In fact, the Presbyterian, Baptist and Methodist churches all built additions in the 1950s, before the boycott pushed Tuskegee toward economic stagnation.

“They were still optimistic,” Slaton said. “They had money and people to build.”

When asked why he didn’t leave Tuskegee during the era of white flight, Joe Slaton paused and said, “Well, I did leave. In 1973 I moved to Memphis, but I came back to Shorter in ’87.”

Heeding the sweet, secret call of home

The lurid murders of several elderly white women spurred a second diaspora in the 1970s. Children who earlier left in search of good jobs returned long enough to pack up their aged parents and move them, too. Slaton’s widowed mother lived in a house built in the 1850s, and when he left for college the family had to figure out how to lock the doors.

“All these old ladies lived by themselves, totally unprotected,” Slaton recalled. “When I left, my mother and two of my brothers also left.”

Slaton came back, and so did Asa Vaughan. Others also have returned to Macon County, drawn by the sweet, secret call of home. The wounds of the past, however, are just beginning to heal, and Corbitt bemoaned the fate of the once-proud churches.

“It’s just so sad sitting in those great big buildings and rattling around,” she said.

Recently, the Tuskegee First United Methodist Church hosted a ceremony commemorating the National Day of Prayer. Some black ministers commented they never expected to step inside the church, Vaughan said.

“When the local Main Street organization asked the Rev. Oliver Mize (the church’s former minister) if they could use the Methodist Church annex for meetings, some people were shocked when he said they were welcome,” recalled Wendy Slaton, Joe Slaton’s wife.

That’s why the Methodist Church is reaching out, Vaughan said.

“We can’t pick that church up and take it someplace else,” he said. “Our church has already died and is being resurrected. At one time this was the prime place to be, so why not today?”

 

 

Advertisements

Understanding the Trump phenomenon

I didn’t write this, but thought it so good that I suggested putting it online so there would be a link available.


By Phil Watts, guest columnist

I have to admit a certain obsessiveness about my inability to understand the Trump phenomenon. I hope my readers will stay with me as I express my frustrations and efforts to reach some reasonable level of insight.

First, let me say that most Trump supporters are good people who love our country and want what’s best for her. That’s why it’s been so hard for me to understand what I see as their unblinking support of a hopelessly flawed individual. From the beginning of his candidacy and as I have come to know him even better now, I see Donald Trump as completely unqualified and unfit to be President of the United States and with ideas so at odds with the ideals of our Constitution and Bill of rights as to make him seem at home with the cruel and murderous dictators he has praised like Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un and recently, Saddam Hussein.

…the only way this makes sense is that events have moved beyond the person of Donald Trump and that Trump himself is now just a bystander…the election must be about something else.

During numerous political discussions I have pointed out his lack of qualifications, outrageous statements and inconsistencies to his supporters only to be met with anger or a “yes but.” The “yes buts” include “he has been a successful businessman,” “he tells it like it is,” “the country can’t survive four years of Hillary Clinton,” and “he’s tough enough not to be pushed around.” In my mind these “yes buts” are either only marginally related to necessary qualities for a successful presidency or simply untrue. In this process I have managed to increase tension between me and some of my close family members and some of my good friends without changing anyone’s mind.

We have a great country, and thanks to the freedoms we enjoy and the balance of powers embedded in our Constitution our county will survive and likely prosper after four years of either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump as President, barring our participation in a major armed conflict. My great fear is an unnecessary war costing us dearly in blood and treasure. Recent history is not reassuring on this point. Lyndon Johnson with his inflated ego used the Gulf of Tonkin incident in order to justify ramping up U.S. involvement in the civil war in Vietnam. Then Richard Nixon with his inflated ego ramped it up even more in order to end it honorably. As a result 58,000 Americans and 355,000 North and South Vietnamese died. Words can’t describe the folly of that one.

The scale of the current quagmire in the Middle East is enormous. I think you can draw a line back to W’s invasion of Iraq (perhaps the worst intelligence gaffe in history) as the source. The cost in lives and dollars has been enormous. You can also draw a line from W’s decision to the refugee crisis that is destabilizing much of Europe and Turkey today. You can say what you will about Barrack Obama, but his decision to eat his words about a “red line in the sand,” after having Assad drop his chemical weapons all over it, was right and took political courage. You can’t tell your friends from your enemies there and if you could they might change in a few months. We’re good at winning these wars; we just don’t know what to do next (see Iraq). Assad has a point when he says, “You better leave me alone; what you get after me will be much worse.” How many lives and how much money did Obama’s decision save? There are some things even the USA can’t fix. Beware the law of unintended consequences.

The critical question for me in the presidential election then is which candidate is least likely to get us into an unwise war? Both Hillary Clinton (who I find a thoroughly disgusting person) and Donald Trump have super egos. Big egos are dangerous things, particularly when their owners have the power to send young people to their deaths. Hillary tries to cover hers but it is uncontrollable as shown by her email fiasco; Donald Trump flaunts his every day. It makes for a tough choice.

One of our great freedoms is our right to express our political beliefs without fear of reprisal or criminal prosecution.

In my quest to understand Trump supporters I eagerly read every opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal and the Birmingham News and have watched Fox News, CNN and MSNBC commentaries and debates ad nauseam. Recently I have read two articles in the WSJ that have pulled back my blinders at least partially. Peggy Noonan a few weeks ago was theorizing on this topic and said a light turned on for her after one Trump supporter when questioned said, “I want my country back.” Of course, this could mean many things to many people. She felt it meant a sense of things slipping away, a loss of control, which caused a feeling of insecurity and fear.

The second piece was by Daniel Henninger in the 7/7/16 edition. In it he postulates that regardless of all the missteps Trump makes, any one of which would have doomed a normal candidate, he still stands within a margin of error of Ms. Clinton in the polls. He reasons that the only way this makes sense is that events have moved beyond the person of Donald Trump and that Trump himself is now just a bystander. Mr. Henninger says the election must be about something else. He thinks it is a reckoning of accounts and grievances that go way back. It’s a street fight between irreconcilable views of Americans. It’s about political correctness and its backlash, not just PC itself but the moral contempt and superiority its proponents show towards everyone else. Trump supporters are just fed up with attempts to make them feel morally inferior.

There’s a third thing I think fuels the passion and uncritical support of Donald Trump. As expressed to me by a friend this week, “Phil, four years of Hillary Clinton will turn us into Venezuela.” It’s a sense of impending doom. This is Armageddon for many; now or never—America’s last chance to stay American.

As I stated earlier, excluding war, I think whomever is elected, our country won’t be that different in four years from what it is today. It’s because of our history, our rights, the balance of power in our government, and our freedom that I feel this way. So while I am apprehensive, I am also optimistic. I’m sure my feeling of optimism has been a huge barrier to my understanding of the power of Trumpism.

I think I’m finally beginning to understand the Trump phenomenon, and as a result I’m feeling much less frustration with those whom I felt couldn’t really see their candidate for the defective man he is.

One of our great freedoms is our right to express our political beliefs without fear of reprisal or criminal prosecution. God Bless America!

Love and peace,

Phil Watts

 

‘…and now history is in his debt’

Gillis Morgan’s friends are determined to get him to the awards ceremony, no matter what.


By Jacque White Kochak

My friend Gerry Morgan says her husband Gillis used to have nightmares, tossing and crying out, “No! No! No!” She says she thinks he has post-traumatic stress disorder and that the trauma occurred during his days as a reporter for the Birmingham News, covering the civil rights era and the period leading up to and following the famous Selma-to-Montgomery march. Gerry tells me people have been telling her lately that Gillis was one of the unsung heroes of that time.

Now, Gillis is an old man weakened by diabetes, confined to a wheelchair and slipping into dementia. He’s having a good day, back at home with Gerry after being rescued from a nursing home, and Gerry is trying to coax stories out of him. Gillis barely remembers, though, so Gerry does most of the talking.

Gillis and Gerry
Gerry and Gillis Morgan on their wedding day.

Gerry and Gillis didn’t marry until long after these events, so the memories are disembodied and detached from any timeline. The worst experience was in the little town of Greensboro in Hale County, Gerry prompts. Gillis concurs, saying he was wearing a green suit. Klan members who had gathered downtown recognized Gillis as a reporter, one of those stirring things up by bringing widespread attention to local troubles. The problems would blow over if not for outside agitators, people said.

Worse yet, Gillis wasn’t a Yankee. He was one of their own, raised just 120 miles to the southeast in Evergreen. The Klansmen gathered around him, spitting on his green suit, threatening bodily harm. Gillis was saved when a fellow journalist, publisher of the Greensboro weekly newspaper, opened his office door and gestured for Gillis to come in, saying “Look, I’ve got something to show you.” Gerry says the menacing gang knew the publisher had something they did not want to see – a photographer.

You have to understand that Gillis is neither big nor imposing. He is soft-spoken and indirect, never abrasive, choosing his words with an almost old-fashioned precision. I met him when I was a reporter for the Opelika-Auburn News and he was a retired Auburn University journalism professor who met with the news staff weekly to try to coax some good reGillis and Gerryporting out of them. Later he was editorial-page editor, with a cubicle right next to mine, and still later I was his editor at The Villager, where he wrote a weekly column. Over the years, we became friends and mutual admirers.

A REPUTATION FOR SOLID REPORTING

Gillis was sucked up in the maelstrom of history, just happening to be in the wrong place at the wrong time or the right place at the right time, depending on your point of view. Still a young man, he developed a reputation for solid spot news reporting, earning recognition and awards from the Associated Press in both 1964 and 1965. In those days, before computers and cell phones, that meant taking notes by hand, finding a pay phone and calling an editor.

Gillis witnessed the murder of Jonathan Daniels, an Episcopal seminarian, in the county seat of Hayneville in Lowndes County. Lowndes County, like Hale County, is deep in the region known as the Black Belt for its rich black soil. Before the Civil War—or the War of Northern Aggression, as some old-timers still call the bloody conflict—planters in the Black Belt grew cotton on estates worked by thousands of black slaves. Most of them stayed after the war, outnumbering their former masters. Once wealthy, the region is now known for its poverty; even today, the average family’s income is less than $30,000.

At that time, Lowndes County’s population was four-fifths black. After the bitter years of Reconstruction up through the tumult of the 1960s, the frightened white minority held onto power by any means necessary, causing the county to earn the nickname “Bloody Lowndes” because of white violence mounted against blacks to maintain segregation. Jonathan Daniels wasn’t the first civil rights worker to die in Lowndes County; Viola Liuzzo, an idealistic Michigan mother of five, was executed while shuttling fellow activists from Selma to the airport in the state capital of Montgomery the evening that the Selma-to-Montgomery march culminated on the steps of the state capitol building. The date was March 25, 1965.

THE MOMENTOUS MARCH

Both Liuzzo and Daniels were among the thousands who heeded Martin Luther King’s call to join the momentous march in support of voting rights for African-Americans. Earlier that month, some 600 civil rights activists led by Martin Luther King had sought to march from Selma east to Montgomery to draw attention to their cause. State troopers attacked the peaceful marchers with tear gas and billy clubs as they ascended the low crest of the Edmund Pettus Bridge spanning the Alabama River on Selma’s outskirts.

Daniels died instantly, Morrisroe survived, and Ruby Sales, the young African-American woman who Daniels saved, was rendered nearly mute for months afterwards.

Seventeen marchers were hospitalized, and a photograph of middle-aged organizer Amelia Boynton—beaten bloody and unconscious, lying on the road in the middle of the bridge—was printed in newspapers and magazines around the world. Television news crews broadcast the carnage into living rooms from California to Maine, arousing the conscience of a nation. Gillis was there.

On March 21, some 3,000 marchers set out for Montgomery again, this time under the protection of the federal government. They slept in fields at night and walked some 12 miles a day. By the time they reached the capital four days later, their number had swollen to some 25,000 people, including celebrities like Sammy Davis Jr. and folk singers like Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary. Liuzzo came down from Detroit, and Daniels from Massachusetts. Gillis was there, too.

THE MURDER

Daniels, the young seminarian, joined several friends for the long trip south, intending to stay only for the climactic weekend and return for classes on Monday. When he missed the bus ride home, he reconsidered his short stay and returned to the seminary in Massachusetts only long enough to get permission to finish the semester in the South. He went home again to take his exams and visit family, then returned to Alabama in July. A month or so later, Daniels was dead.

Congress passed the Voting Rights Act on Aug. 6, ending the de facto disenfranchisement of blacks in the South. White Alabamians hunkered down even more, fearing change and resenting and blaming outsiders. Daniels was based in Selma, one of the most populous cities in the Black Belt, but eight days after passage of the act he joined a group of protestors picketing whites-only stores in tiny Ft. Deposit, some 60 miles away—in infamous Lowndes County. The protestors were arrested and spent about a week in Hayneville’s sweltering county jail. When they were released, they didn’t have any way to get back to Selma.

Stranded in the humid 100-degree heat, Daniels and three friends went to buy cold drinks at the nearby Varner’s Cash Store, one of only a few establishments serving nonwhites. An unpaid special deputy, Tom Coleman, met them at the door with a 12-gauge shotgun, demanding they leave or risk being shot. When Coleman fired, Daniels shoved 17-year-old Ruby Sales out of the way, taking a shotgun blast to the chest and crumpling to the store’s cement porch. Father Richard Morrisroe, a Catholic priest from Chicago, was shot in the lower back and collapsed in the dirt road outside. Daniels died instantly, Morrisroe survived, and Ruby Sales, the young African-American woman who Daniels saved, was rendered nearly mute for months afterwards. Later, she went on to study at Daniels’ seminary.

RUNNING AWAY FROM HOME

Gillis was there, across the Hayneville town square, which is dominated by a monument to Confederate war dead. And he was there when a jury of 12 white men acquitted Coleman, one of the county’s leading citizens, of manslaughter. Alabama Attorney General Richmond Flowers had taken over the case when a county grand jury indicted Coleman for manslaughter instead of murder. Witnesses claimed Daniels had a pistol and Morrisroe had a knife,  and the trial judge refused to postpone the trial until Morrisroe recovered from his wounds. Despite death threats, Sales testified. An all-white jury acquitted Coleman after just two hours of deliberation, and jurors shook hands with him as he left the Lowndes County courthouse.

Gerry is a native of the Black Belt herself, and she says Daniels’ murderer was distant kin. Her family’s roots are deep in Butler County, just south of Bloody Lowndes. Gerry’s family was from an area known as the Ridge, an antebellum plantation community constructed by wealthy planters above the disease-plagued lowlands. An Episcopalian, she always had fond memories of attending camp at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Selma. The imposing church, built from handmade bricks, was blotted by shame in 1965 when its doors were closed to the outsiders who flooded the town. That still bothers Gerry, makes her feel some bitterness, although the Episcopal Church did take a strong stand after Daniels’ murder, and he is now considered a church martyr.

“In the Episcopal Church, there is a tradition that you always welcome the clergy, no matter what and no matter where they are coming from,” she says. “If they had welcomed Jonathan Daniels, he might still be alive.” Alabama Catholics welcomed their priests and nuns, she points out.

As for Gillis, the awful travesty of the Daniels trial left him embittered as well. Even Alabama’s attorney general could not contain his outrage. The acquittal, Flowers said, represented the “democratic process going down the drain of irrationality, bigotry and improper law enforcement … now those who feel they have a license to kill, destroy and cripple have been issued that license.” Gillis was so saddened by what he saw as the stupidity of so many of his fellow Alabamians that he decided to leave the state, accepting a job with the Milwaukee Journal deep in the heart of Yankeedom. He expected things to be different outside of his home state.

“But it seemed like the racism followed me,” he’s told me many times, shaking his head. “It was different, but it was still racism.”

So he came home, married Gerry when his first marriage fell apart, and taught journalism at Auburn University for 22 years. On Sept. 9, the Auburn University Journalism Advisory Council will honor him with the Distinguished Alabama Community Journalist award. His friends are determined to get him to the awards ceremony at the Auburn University Hotel and Conference Center, no matter what.

“Gillis Morgan converted a successful career as a reporter to an even more successful career as a professor,” then-department chair Jerry Brown said at the time of Gillis’ retirement in 1999.

“He showed the relationship between journalism and history, and now history is in his debt.”