Monday, January 18, 2010

Martin Luther King in 1964On 18 January, the world honours Martin Luther King’s vision of building bridges across racial divides.

It was a vision also at the core of the work of Frank Buchman, the founder of IofC (then known as Moral Re-Armament), and which continues today, particularly through IofC's Hope in the Cities programme.

In this feature, former Washington bureau chief, news editor and columnist for the Cincinnati Enquirer, Robert Webb, shares the story of how Buchman’s message drove a stake through his own ‘racist heart’, dramatically altering his life and journalism. Webb was born and reared in Mississippi – described by King as a state sweltering with the heat of injustice. Webb has since dedicated his life to realizing Martin Luther King’s dream of a country transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. Read more below >>

King drew much of his inspiration and theory of non-violent ‘soul force’ from Mahatma Gandhi. Continuing that legacy, the New Year opened with a visit to India of Dr Otis Moss, a friend and colleague of King and now a member of President Obama's advisory council on faith-based and neighborhood partnerships. IofC President Rajmohan Gandhi outlines the visit of Dr and Mrs Moss, which began with a retreat at Asia Plateau, the IofC conference centre in India. Read more >>

And Neichu Angami, an HIV-Aids specialist from northeast India, gives her reflections on the retreat. Read more >>

Meanwhile, dealing with racism continues to be an issue in Australia. Mike Brown, an Australian who has lived for many years in India, writes about the current tensions between those two countries. Read more >>

This story by Bob Webb is an excerpt from chapter 11 of the book Frank Buchman’s Legacy. Bob Webb

For years I ignored the brute evil of the ruggedly segregated society around me. As a child of the Deep South, born and reared in Mississippi, it hadn’t bothered me that schools, rest rooms, water fountains and neighbourhoods were segregated, that blacks were supposed to ‘know their place’ and stay in it. It hadn’t bothered me that most jobs of consequence were denied them. The ‘Southern way of life’ was my lifeblood, but I sorely needed a transfusion.

Small wonder that as a journalist there in the mid-1950s I succumbed to the siren voice of those militantly opposed to the US Supreme Court’s May 17, 1954 decision outlawing segregated schools. As associate editor of the State Times in Jackson, Miss., writing editorials and columns, I was the eager conduit of the region’s traditional views on race.

All the while I considered myself Christian. But the transformation I so badly needed came after I accepted an invitation to attend a Moral Re-Armament conference in 1957 at Mackinac Island, Michigan. There I heard stories of lives revolutionised when men and women listened to their inner voice and measured their past and present by the absolute moral standards of honesty, purity, unselfishness and love. I was deeply moved. These people had something I wanted.

One afternoon I saw the film Freedom* – written by Africans – that was to drive a stake into my racist heart. As the film ended, I knew I had to apologise to the first black man I saw for the way we in the South had treated his race. As it happened, the first such man was an African of middle age. He had a face that spoke great wisdom. I apologised and will never forget his response: ‘After the apology, what?’ I have been trying to answer that question ever since.

Before leaving Mackinac Island, I sat down with those four moral standards. A host of wrongs I’d committed sprang to mind. Among them: cheating in high school, cheating on my expense account as a reporter for a New Orleans newspaper, and misuse of the darkroom of my hometown weekly where I’d worked one summer. Moreover, I’d maliciously attacked in print the aged editor of the competing afternoon newspaper in Jackson. I’d even committed offences I thought violated federal law. I made restitution as best I could.

When I confessed my cheating to my high school principal, she invited me to speak to a student assembly. After a glowing introduction by the school superintendent I stood up and said, ‘I’m here because I cheated in high school,’ then discussed the answer I’d found. I reimbursed the New Orleans newspaper which, in turn, donated the funds to MRA.

One of my toughest chores was the confession I had to make to the US Attorney in Jackson. Thankfully, he didn’t prosecute. And wonderfully, each act of restitution brought an inner liberation of indescribable joy. With this experience, I knew God would always guide me if I listened and obeyed. One of the first thoughts I had after leaving Mackinac Island was to write a fellow Southerner – Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. He replied quickly with a beautiful note.

Clearly my life changed radically. I tried to give readers the vision of an America forging a model for all the world of how people of every race and background could work together. I spoke and wrote to heal rather than hurt, to unite rather than divide. I reached out to African-Americans as never before. The unexpected closure in 1962 of the State Times led me in 1963 to Cincinnati and a crucial new front in the battle for a new world.

Answering deep despair

My vision broadened quickly with that personal transformation. At Mackinac Island I’d glimpsed a new world extending far beyond the South with all its turmoil. But that wider vision also made clearer my vision for the South. With Mississippi friends similarly committed, we began to seek that inner wisdom for what to do. How could we make a difference? For one thing, we brought to Jackson the film Freedom which had so transformed my heart and mind. As well, we enlisted the help of others, including Bremer Hofmeyr, a former Rhodes Scholar, and his wife, Agnes, from South Africa, long a part of Buchman’s work. We arranged a private showing of Freedom for the then governor, James P. Coleman. Bremer introduced the film with the compelling story of how Agnes’ father, a farmer in Kenya, had been buried alive by the Mau Mau then rebelling against the colonial government and how she had overcome her deep despair, vowing to work all the harder to answer bitterness and hatred wherever it exists. Coleman was impressed by Hofmeyr as having had ‘something to say’ the moment he opened his mouth. He joined Bremer, Agnes and their friends for lunch after the film and asked that it be shown to members of the state legislature. So it was.

But strong winds of resistance to the 1954 high court edict were blowing in 1957. Little Rock, the Arkansas state capital, became the storm centre when on September 25 President Dwight Eisenhower ordered the Army to escort nine black students through an angry crowd into Central High School. Earlier, a federal judge had ordered their admission but on September 20 Governor Orval Faubus used National Guard troops not to ensure their entry but to keep them out. Little Rock Mayor Woodrow Mann sent a telegram to President Eisenhower four days later asking for federal troops to maintain order.

Compared to some parts of the South, Arkansas had been a relative oasis on race. As early as September 1949, for example, the University of Arkansas School of Law was racially integrated. In January 1951, the Little Rock Library board opened its doors to blacks. So it was not too surprising that the Little Rock School Board said, five days after the Supreme Court’s de-segregation decision, that it would comply.

But Faubus placed himself squarely against the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) and its Arkansas division president, Mrs L.C. (Daisy) Bates, to join those strongly opposed to integration. He called a special session of the legislature in August 1958 to pass a law enabling him to lease public schools to private corporations to escape the federal mandate. The next month, Arkansas citizens voted 7,561 for and 129,470 against de-segregation. Public high schools in Little Rock were shut down, leaving 3,698 high students to fend for themselves.

Little Rock quickly gained global attention as a bastion of defiance. But some few from the city found their way to the MRA centre on Mackinac Island. They returned determined to bring a fresh spirit to the city and state. But if Little Rock became a symbol of defiance it was also the spark for a rising tide of hope in America, as catalyst for a play The Crowning Experience**, and subsequent film with the same title.

* Freedom was a feature length film of a play written in 1955 by Africans inspired by IofC. It told of an African country emerging into independence, vividly recording the insensitive reactions of the colonial Governor and the intrigues and counter-intrigues of politicians representing different tribes and factions. Freedom is achieved when a change of heart comes to the Governor and some of the African leaders.

** The Crowning Experience told the story of educator and civil-rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune whose parents had been slaves.