By Bill Leonard
With the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case and the storm of Internet racism it unleashed, I can’t get Sojourner Truth out of my head. Freed in 1827, the ex-slave woman spent her life demanding an end to slavery.
She sang it out in words that remain poignant:
I am pleading for my people, a poor downtrodden race,
Who dwell in freedom’s boasted land, with no abiding place;
While I bear upon my body, the scars of many a gash,
I am pleading for my people, who groan beneath the lash.
Many ridiculed her as both black and female. After one rally a male critic denounced her abolitionist opinions and impertinence in addressing men.
“Old woman,” he declared, “do you think your talk of slavery does any good? Do you suppose people care what you say? Why, I don’t care any more for your talk than I do for the bite of a flea.”
“Perhaps not,” Sojourner Truth replied, “but God willing, I’ll keep you scratchin’.”
The volatile post-verdict rhetoric plastered from Twitter to cable sent me back to Martin Luther King’s, Stride Toward Freedom: the Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and his account of a late-night phone call that warned: “If you aren’t out of town in three days, we’re going to blow your brains out and blow up your house.”
I hung up but I could not sleep. It seemed that all my fears had come down on me at once…. I was ready to give up. I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, with my courage all but gone, I decided to take my case to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed out loud. The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory…. “The people are looking to me for leadership and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left….” At that moment, I experienced a presence as I have never felt before. It seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for the truth and lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.” I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.
King’s appeal to “the voice of Jesus” recalls the text from Isaiah 61 that Jesus read in his hometown synagogue: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me; he has sent me to announce good news to the poor, to proclaim release for prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind; to let the broken victims go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)
That day in Nazareth, people who had known Jesus the longest but understood him the least were “astonished that words of such grace should fall from his lips.” Yet by the end of the sermon his “words roused the whole congregation to fury.”
They “drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill … meaning to hurl him over the edge. But he walked straight through the whole crowd….” (Luke 4:28-30)
Why the anger? Because in his first recorded sermon, Jesus preached on race. He reminded listeners of the famine when many Israelite widows were starving, but the prophet was sent to the non-Jewish widow; and when, although there were many lepers in Israel, the prophet was sent to heal Naaman the Syrian.
Jesus talked like that all the way to Golgotha, and talking about race made certain first-century folks mad. It still does.
Whatever else the Trayvon Martin case means, it compels us to continue, even extend, realistic conversations and actions related to the incessant dilemmas of race and racism in America. It requires collective efforts aimed at new strides toward freedom that make it safe for black, white and Latino youth to walk in their own neighborhoods after dark.
Firearms be damned. It means we hear the “spirit of the Lord” ever challenging us to work for, with and among the “broken victims,” beyond Internet diatribes and racist epithets.
King said it: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Sojourner Truth promised, “I’ll keep you scratchin’.”
We must still do that, for Jesus’ sake. Trayvon’s too, perhaps.