An Unknown History

In 1939, a Jewish man named Abel Meeropol penned a significant poem inspired by a horrific picture—“Strange Fruit.” Abel, an English teacher in New York, saw a picture of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith that took place in Marion, Indiana on August 7th, 1930.

Thomas and Abram were in custody due to accusations that were never confirmed. An angry mob with sledgehammers came to the prison they were in, broke them out and beat them, and then hung them on a tree. Lawrence Beitler took the photo.

After Abel composed the poem, music was put to it, and a brave African American woman sang it in jazz clubs. It is hard to listen to the breezy voice of Billie Sunday and not see within your mind’s eye, black bodies swaying in the tree. This is not simply strange fruit, this is horrifying fruit.

Yet, I had never heard of Billie Sunday until a few months ago, or of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith until today as I researched the song. I saw for the first time, the photo of men, women, and children celebrating what they did in hanging the two accused black men. Apparently, photos at lynchings were common. In fact, they would print them and sell them like baseball cards. But as a white man who grew up in integrated schools and have close friends of color, I never knew of the gruesome reality of lynchings.

I do remember, however, an incident that happened on June 7, 1998 in Jasper, Texas. This was the summer just before my freshman year of high school. I remember seeing and hearing on the news of an African American man who was dragged behind the pick-up truck of three white supremacists. The news called it a “hate crime.” James Byrd Jr. was the first name I ever heard in connection with lynching and similar violence. But come to find out, Texas was ranked in the top three among states with the most lynchings.

Of course, I learned of the dreamer, Martin Luther King Jr. I was told about his strong, non-violent stance for equality. I also learned of his assassination. And then there was Harriet Tubman, the conductor of the underground railroad. While I did learn a little history of my African American brothers and sisters, it was only a little. I had not heard the story of Emmett Till, or the many others who were oppressed and killed because of the color of their skin.

But let me be clear, I cannot rightly blame my ignorance of African American history, heritage, and suffering on others. Still, where is this kind of education taking place regarding such a saddening past? While some might know and understand the plight of the African American community, I believe that many in the white community do not. There is an ignorance that exists, and I am afraid that to a certain degree, it could be willful.

Here then is the problem for the church—how are we to have discussions on race and reconciliation if we are unwilling to learn and experience a history that is unfamiliar or altogether ignored?

I believe that the Southern Baptist Convention truly desires racial reconciliation. In Atlanta, in 1995, the 150th anniversary of the Southern Baptist Convention, a resolution passed that sought forgiveness and reconciliation with the African American community for the convention’s past stance on slavery. Likewise, in 2016, the convention passed a resolution that encouraged Southern Baptist’s to no longer display the confederate battle flag, so that we might stand in solidarity with our African American brothers and sisters. More recently, in 2017 at the Phoenix meeting, a resolution passed against the Alt-Right group, but not as easily as it should have. But while these resolutions are important, and even beneficial, they do not fully address the deep-rooted anguish and suffering that so many went through. Let’s be honest, we will not understand the outcry of the African American community today until we understand not only what they have been through, but what they are going through.

February is Black History Month. Take some time to learn the history and heritage of our African American brothers and sisters. Sit and listen to their stories, their struggles, and their victories. Invite a black friend to walk with you through a Civil Rights museum or read some books written by black authors regarding the struggle for equality. Preach peace, unity, and celebrate the beautiful diversity of God’s people.

I thank God that in spite of all that divides us as human beings, we can find unity and solidarity in the Gospel. It is only at the cross where all men are equal. There, all are found equally guilty of sin, and there all can equally find salvation from sin. There, the love of God was displayed in His Son, and by the death of Christ, the dividing wall of separation has been torn down. Unity and solidarity are indeed possible through Christ and His Gospel.

I pray that such a unity and solidarity could exist among peoples of faith regardless of race, but until we address the whole elephant in the room, we will never fully understand the depth of reconciliation still needed today.

For His Kingdom,