Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - March 13, 2015

Hell raisers helped pave the way

"Do you have a few minutes to listen to something?" husband Art asked.

Being in the neighborhood at the end of the day, I had dropped by his work just to say "hello" and was not inclined to stay. But I agreed when he said he thought I'd find it interesting.

The recording was of a sermon about Jesus' parable of Lazarus and the rich man. The minister asked the congregation which person they identified with - Lazarus, a poor beggar with sores all over his body, or the rich man.

We like to see ourselves with the underdog and besides, Lazarus was called to Heaven. But is there a possibility that we are the rich man? And are we in danger of forfeiting eternal life?

... the Scriptures don't say anything bad about the rich man. He wasn't a villain or someone who had become rich by dishonest dealings. Perhaps he was respected in his community ...

All that could be said for the rich man was that he was rich. What condemned him may have been what he didn't do ... about the structure of society that allowed Jerusalem to be full of beggars.

In case you can't see yourself as rich, there are hundreds of ways to be a rich man. Those who have good educations or good jobs or homes fit for human habitation or people who love them are rich.

Searching for a recording related to another project, we had been given a tape the donor thought might be what we were looking for. Instead, it contained a sermon from the mid '60s by now retired minister John Hart.

"And if the color of your skin is white - if you happen to be born, not by choice or position or because you're so good, but by accident - with a white skin, then you can't realize what it means to be free ... You can't believe the hurt our nation is dealing the Negro every day of his life ... You don't know the extent of the humiliation, the degradation, the hurt, the suffering, the futility, the hostility, the despair that our white society heaps upon the Negro every day of his life.

The words struck me for I had recently seen the movie "Selma" and March 7 is the anniversary of "Bloody Sunday." Fifty years ago, some 600 people planned a march from Selma, Alabama to the state capital in Montgomery to stand up for voting rights for all Americans. But they never made it across the Edmund Pettus Bridge because state troopers and a county posse brutally beat them back with billy clubs and tear gas.

I was only 11 at the time, but I remember watching the television coverage. Ironically, the summer of 1965 was the first summer I had any close contact with African Americans. Mom, my sister Gaila and I were in Emporia, where Mom was completing requirements for her undergraduate degree. We lived in an apartment complex that had a pool and, almost every day, we swam, played and talked with our new-found African American friends. I neither had any idea that at some places in our country, they weren�t allowed to swim in the same pool as whites, nor did I didn�t understand how people could be so violent toward people who had done them no harm.

The marchers tried again on March 9, but Martin Luther King, Jr. led them back to the church because he was concerned they would be attacked again. The third began March 21 under the protection of 2,000 soldiers from the U.S. Army, 1,900 members from the Alabama National Guard under Federal control, along with FBI agents and federal marshals. The marchers, including white supporters from across the nation, arrived at the state capital on March 25. Those marches and the attention they received led to the passage the following August of the Voting Rights Act that was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson.

John Hart was one of those supporters in Montgomery when the marchers arrived - a supporter who was a long way from home. Hart had been raised in Superior, Nebraska, a typical small village of a few thousand almost all white citizens. His family moved to Hutchinson, Kansas his senior year of high school. After high school, he went to the College of Emporia, a private Presbyterian college. From there, he went to the San Francisco Theological Seminary where he began work with delinquent youths in San Francisco.

I reached him in Kansas City and asked about his work in California.

"They were tough kids. They wore leather jackets and had duck-tail hair cuts," he said.

While they were white, they were still segregated because they were poor. He experienced some success in getting through to them because of his background in sports. By teaching them how to play basketball and softball, he showed them discipline through practice and how to work together as a team.

He left California for Peoria, Illinois and was there from 1963-1967, working with black youths and with interdenominational groups to support the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"It was through that work that I could begin to see prejudice from the black point of view," Hart said.

One experience that made a big impression occurred when he took a group of black high school boys on a trip to Chicago. They left around 5:30 a.m. and Hart later decided he wanted a cup of coffee. He stopped at a diner and was surprised when the boys hesitated to follow him inside. Hart thought maybe it was because they were short on cash. Finally, three of them reluctantly agreed to go inside with him. He wasn't prepared for the reaction they received.

"The shock, the disgust, the contempt, the hatred, the fear couldn't have been worse than if I'd walked in naked," Hart recalled.

Experiences such as that led to him becoming a passionate supporter of the Civil Rights Movement. It was during that time that he wrote the sermon. It was also what led to his going to Montgomery.

"It was one of the most moving experiences of my life," he said.

Hart continued to work with black youths for a number of years. He obtained his master's degree in social work from George Williams College in Chicago and returned to Peoria in 1969. He also studied community organization, and he worked with others to derail some of the racist policies of white landlords, who required blacks to pay exorbitant down payments for run-down houses.

"We were hell raisers," he said.

Those hell raisers, along with thousands of others, helped reduce the discrimination blacks experienced in the U.S. Yet it is unfortunate we can't say their efforts eliminated it.

So while it also would have been nice if the tape had contained the recording we had been searching for, Hart's 50-year-old sermon was quite a timely surprise.

Comments? [email protected].
Earlier columns from 2015 may be found at: 2015 Index.
Links to previous years are on the home page: Home