By Gary Cook
In Sue Monk Kidd’s remarkable book, The Invention of Wings, a fictional account of real people caught up in the 19th-century drama of slavery and the abolitionist movement, there is an encounter between Sarah Grimke, who became a passionate abolitionist, and her personal slave Hetty, who had been given to Sarah on her 11th birthday, much to Sarah’s chagrin.
The two girls of similar age became friends in a culture that was appalled by such a relationship. Sarah describes the encounter in spiritual terms when she catches Hetty using Sarah’s personal bath tub. Sarah recalls Hetty quickly explaining, “I know you are angry, Sarah, but I didn’t see any harm with me being in the tub, same as you. Not Miss Sarah, but Sarah. I would never again hear her put Miss before my name. She had the look of someone who had declared herself, and seeing it, my indignation collapsed and her mutinous bath turned into something else entirely. She’d immersed herself in forbidden privileges, yes, but mostly in the belief she was entirely worthy of those privileges. What she’d done was not a revolt, it was a baptism.”
I was tearfully stunned the first time I read those words, but I came to understand them more deeply on Saturday morning July 5. On our way back to Texas after the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly in Atlanta and vacationing in the mountains of western North Carolina, we stopped in Memphis for the night of July 4 in order to visit the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was assassinated. The next morning we arrived soon after the museum opened and were somewhat surprised to see a large crowd of people standing outside the door. Soon we realized that black families had come from all over the country to Memphis for family reunions on that holiday weekend. The museum was packed with people.
My first reaction was, “This is not good because we are not going to be able to see the exhibits as we would like.” In fact, we were not able to view the exhibits, but I could not have been more wrong about the experience we would have.
In the very first exhibit my wife, Linda, was overcome emotionally. With tears in her eyes she explained to me that she might not be able to go through the entire museum. We agreed she would stay as long as she felt like she could. At some point in the crowded conditions we got separated. She soon texted me that she had gone outside and was waiting at the front door and I should take my time.
I was not able to get close to a lot of the exhibits because of the crush of people, most of them black people. Somehow I realized this was not a time for me to do what I would normally do in a similar situation: push my way through the crowd to see what I wanted to see. So, I began to change my expectations for the moment. Instead of concentrating on the exhibits I began to concentrate on the people as they viewed this sacred era in their personal history.
I listened to a grandmother read to her grandchildren a plaque that included the words, “Improve yourself!” She then added her personal amen to the quotation when she said, “Uh, huh!” I watched a young mother carefully explain to her son who the people were in the various photos. She pointed to a photo of a young Andrew Young and told her son proudly of what had become of him since those years so long ago. She pointed out a photo of a young John Lewis being clubbed by policemen. She quickly added, “He survived a skull fracture and today he is a United States Congressman.”
Ironically I had very recently heard these now old men speak: Andrew Young at the CBF assembly a few days earlier and John Lewis earlier this year at a prayer breakfast in Dallas for a local congresswoman. I wanted to tell the young boy about that, but I did not want to intrude on such a special moment between a mother and her son.
When I finally left the museum to meet Linda she told me what had happened to her since we had been separated. In one of the exhibits two black ladies noticed the tears still in Linda’s eyes. One of the ladies inquired, “Are you alright, do you need a Kleenex?” The ladies then stood on each side of her and comforted her by saying, “Things are much better now!”
Linda also told me about a conversation she had had with a young black woman. The lady told Linda she was there for a family reunion. She said, “We are going to have church in the morning and I am going to read poetry so please think about me.” Linda said,” I will do more than think about you, I will pray for you.”
On my way to the car I saw a young black man preparing to take a photo of his wife standing in front of the old marquee sign of the Lorraine Motel. On the marquee were the words “MLK, I have a dream.” I stopped and asked if I could take the photo of both of them together? They were pleased for me to do so. I took the photo and the young man began to thank me. I quickly responded, “In this place, in this moment it is truly my privilege.”
I walked on toward my car knowing I had been to church on Saturday.