An Apology to Austin — A Commitment to Justice.

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Hundreds of us raised our voices and clapped our hands in honor of Austin Callaway — lynched in Troup County, Ga., almost 77 years ago, when he was between 16 and 18 years old.

We gathered in the historical Warren Temple United Methodist Church in LaGrange. Pastor Vincent Dominique welcomed us with warm words and eloquent prayer.

I had been waiting for over a month to attend this occasion and wrote about it last week. The sanctuary was packed, as was the church annex, where the event was live streamed.

LaGrange Mayor Jim Thornton described the passive acceptance of injustice by elected officials seven decades ago and chastised their complacency. He emphasized that in order to heal today, we must admit to the misdeeds of the past.

We heard LaGrange Police Chief Lou Dekmar acknowledge the heinous murder and apologize for then law enforcement’s negligent contribution to the crime…something no other municipality in the South has ever done. 

Judge Jeannette Little decried the justice system that miserably failed this young man and promised not to let that callous disregard for the law ever happen under her watch.

We felt remorse and shame when LaGrange College President Dan McAlexander spared no words in calling out the “good people” of the community who looked on, silently accepting and ignoring the murder.

And when City Councilman Willie T. Edmondson delivered his emotional account of the African-American community’s struggle for equality, its pain and heartache, and the overwhelming optimism that we might be on the cusp of healing, the tears flowed.

Troup County’s NAACP President Ernest Ward eloquently summarized what happened, what we’ve accomplished, and what the community is capable of becoming — together.

And, finally, we listened to Mrs. Deborah Tatum’s personal message from the Callaway family both in attendance and long gone. We heard their history. We felt their pain. And we lifted them up.

We were a diverse audience — different races, political affiliations, professions, gender, economics, and cultures. But that mattered not.

We were unified by one driving force: the quest for equal justice for all — no matter what.

We felt the same comradeship. We felt the same courage. We felt the same optimism. And in the midst of it all, we felt the same grief for Austin Callaway and his family.

There is no doubt this was a historical event. In fact, “The New York Times” ran a front page story. Local and state media filled the balcony. It made the news on CNN.

But the feeling that pervaded that sanctuary was the truly monumental part of the ceremony — not the national media attention.

I left that beautiful church and drove back to Jones Crossroads filled with hope — the first I’ve felt since November. And I know there were many others who experienced the same emotion.

For I truly believe that no executive orders, no hate-filled rhetoric, and no policies aimed at disenfranchising and intimidating us will ever defeat the collective power of a determined citizenry — and that was the collective power I felt Thursday evening.

We the people are stronger than any tyrant. We’ve stood up to and challenged them before. We have rolled up our sleeves and put our fists in the air and proclaimed, “You will not silence us.”

We have marched for rights, fought for equality, and bled for justice.

And you know what? We will do it again.

 

 

 

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Insuring Justice Today Demands Recognizing Injustices in the Past.

Austin Callaway, an 18-year-old African-American male, allegedly assaulted a white woman on September 7, 1940, in Troup County, Ga. — almost 77 years ago. He was arrested and put in the city jail.

That night, a mob of angry, white men allegedly took him from police custody, drove him to the Liberty Hill area, shot him and left him to die – which he did.

Austin was just one of many – very many. Some statistics estimate 5,000 blacks were lynched from the 1800’s to 1955.

But those are just the ones we know about. 

Ignorant hate fueled those atrocities — cowardly fear enabled them to continue.

And there has been little or no public acknowledgement by elected officials, law enforcement, or private citizens for the unjust murder of thousands of Americans. 

It is true that we may not be directly responsible.

It is true we may not have tightened the noose, kicked the stool away, applauded the victims’ agony, mutilated their bodies, burned their homes or turned a blind eye to the carnage.

But it happened.

Austin Callaway was murdered…along with thousands and thousands of others.

But maybe there is hope in the shadow of this dark, dark past.

On Jan. 26, Lagrange, Ga., city officials and local NAACP representatives will acknowledge the crime at a public event.

This is truly historical. Author Karen Branan told me her research indicates LaGrange is only the second municipality in the country to offer an official apology for a lynching. The only stat I could uncover was a U.S. Senate apology in 2005.

The ceremony will be held in the Warren Temple United Methodist Church at 6 p.m.

Since I stopped working for the newspaper, I revel in the fact I don’t have to commute all over West Central Georgia during the evening hours. And I stay far way from doing so.

But since there is no way we can insure justice today if we do not recognize our injustices in the past, I’m heading to LaGrange Thursday evening.

I cannot change what politicians say or what they do.

I cannot change the fact that money and power have hijacked our collective conscience.

I cannot deny the despair I feel.

But I certainly can pay homage to Austin Callaway this Thursday.

 

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“Raise the Glasses, Look Back, and Smile”

(I wrote this eight years ago when I worked for Grimes Publications. So to be accurate, add that number to the ones I mention. In addition, Dad’s batteries ran out Memorial Day, 2016, I parted ways with the paper, went back to graduate school and started a new career teaching at Columbus State University (My life has never been static). But almost 10 years later, the message and my resolve have not changed one bit.  Hope you enjoy).

Birthdays.

Amazing how the word changes with time.

Remember when you couldn’t wait for them to roll around.

“I’m almost 13…can’t wait until I’m 16…finally –18…ah-h-h, sweet 21.”

Remember?

And then it changes.

One day you’re 21, and before you know it, your youngest kid is going to New Orleans to celebrate the milestone.

And that was almost five years ago. Next month, my son will be 26.

Incredible.

But my Dad is the one who really can’t believe the calendar…nor can we.

Last weekend he celebrated his 87th, and he is far from old. In fact, he sets the standard very high for all of us. He’s like that battery bunny…he just keeps going and going.

“You got one coming up yourself in a week, don’t you?” he asked as he looked across the supper table at me Saturday night. “How old will you be?”

“I’ll be 58,” I answered slowly…my voice sounding like fingernails on a blackboard.

“Never thought I’d have chillun’ that old,” he replied. “Seems like yesterday I was a chap myself.”

“Where were you born?” asked my sister-in-law.

“Down there in that white house next to the church. Mother always said the icicles were a foot long that morning. Uncle Marvin and Aunt Eunice delivered me. They lived on this corner where your house is, Pam. He practiced medicine here before they moved to LaGrange.”

Dad talked about the changes…the things and people he missed…the years he had spent here at Jones Crossroads…stories I never tire of hearing.

During the first decades of the 20th century, Harris County was extremely rural and remote. Automobiles, of which there were very few, did not make the scene until the early 20’s. The only paved road was U.S. 27, and the main mode of transportation was the mule-drawn wagon or horse and buggy.

“People didn’t go to town back then. There were little country stores everywhere that sold the staples people used – mainly coffee, sugar, overalls, and work shoes.

“Folks raised hogs for meat, grew all their vegetables, and canned or dried enough produce to carry them through until the next growing season.

“In fact, y’alls great grandfather, Uncle Rob, had a community preserving plant at one time – I guess you could call it a co-op – where the folks in the Hopewell and surrounding communities could bring their produce to be canned.

“But the biggest difference in the Harris County then and the Harris County today is what our claim to fame was.

“During the 20’s and 30’s, we were famous, or should I say infamous, for being the best place around to buy corn liquor – white lightning.”

We raised our champagne glasses in a toast, saluting the fact we were together and that our kids appeared to be doing well.

After everyone left, I continued to think about the changes in my life…about the number of years that have passed since I moved back to Harris County – ‘twill be 30 this fall.

Amazing.

I sat down and opened the photo album I started for my Dad a few months ago. I added the prints I had made for his birthday – photos of Hal and me when we were wee ones,  a picture of our family in Boston in 1958 when my Dad was named “Master Farmer of the Year”, my brother and I posing on the seawall at Panama City when we were tweens.

The joys and sorrows started flooding back…the memories of my youth, the dreams I had, the nightmares that happened, and the blessings my children have always been to me.

I started to feel that familiar wave of tearful loneliness.

“No,” I said aloud. “Don’t look at the scrapbook any longer.”

I closed the cover and stood up.

Memories are just that – memories. You can’t go back.

When ghosts emerge from old photos, it’s time to put them away.

I felt the tears subside.

Yep…I’m a year older and I’ll never be 21 again.

But at least I’m alive.

And I hope to toast my silver-haired chillun’ when I’m 87, tease them unmercifully…

…raise my glass, look back and smile.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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January Promise

 

PROMISE

I see a January promise from a winter sun,

Cold memories fade where the light has begun

To softly hint at visions of spring,

Tempting the senses and trying to bring…

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…the future to focus while the past remains

A silent tribute to the strength that tames

My vivid memories of every winter sun,

And a January promise I’ve just begun.

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Stop the Noise.

I sat down to write a good-bye note to 2016, but those damn words just got in the way.

The noise prevented me from hearing what I needed to hear and knowing what I wanted to say. 

“Ignore the headlines and the tag lines…the news bites, the obituaries, the disappointment, and the despair,” I admonished myself. “Forget the anger and the hate. Find some joy in the grey landscape. It also takes light to be dim. Find it.”

I looked out the window. Since the clouds were coming together for a rain convention, the winter sky was the perfect canvas for the bare branches of an ancient dogwood  tree. We had given her up for dead but decided to prune her a little and wait for another spring. Some of her limbs show signs of dying, but there’s new growth, too.

Three bird feeders hang from her lower branches and attract a lot of visitors when Mamacita the Cat is distracted in the barn.

At this exact moment, there’s a tiny bird, sitting all alone in her topmost branches. Nothing exotic but she’s there — grateful to have a safe tree branch, food, and some water close by.

I looked out the window again and within seconds, at least a dozen of her petite friends from the same tribe joined her.

And then, as if an alarm rang,  the tree was full of cardinals, finches, sparrows and the original tiny scout — who flew closer to the office window and perched high in the pecan tree, observing her friends and neighbors devour the bird seed.

There it is.

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In spite of the image we humans have as being the most highly evolved form of life on the planet,  we often fail at being the smartest.

The day we stop fighting over the bird seed and welcome to the table those who are different from us is the day all the damn noise will cease.

And then we’ll hear what we need to hear and know what we need to say — if anything.

Shalom.

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Moonrise Over Her Shoulder

sunflower-moon

With the moonrise over her shoulder

And the sunset in her eyes,

She threw the pain to the past,

And flew to the open sky.

She had a picture in her mind

And a song in her heart.

Soaring above the land,

She looked for the missing part

That always eluded her

And escaped her view.

The thing she couldn’t remember.

But what she intuitively knew

Drove her to escape to

Find what she had lost.

Whatever it was,

At whatever the cost.

“Survival,” she said, “is what I want.

To fear no more and finally find

The thing that was taken long ago.

That strong, sure part of my mind

That kept me safe,

And I knew was mine.

That was stolen from me

When fate crossed the line.

But this time I’ll get there.

Cause I’m stronger than before.

The shadows are lifting

And I see more

Than the hole in my heart

And the fear that paralyzed.

I see the missing part

And the thing I realize

Was waiting here,

For me to come home,

And claim the very thing

That was always my own.

My life is mine.

And the pain is, too.

It is very, very real

But it will not do

What it has before.

It will not rule nor will it win.

I will look it in the eye

And stare it down again.

No shadow will hide

The truth I clearly see.

I am strong and safe

Because of me.”

With the moonrise over her shoulder

And the sunset in her eyes

She threw the pain to the past,

And flew to the open sky.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Straight Lines Don’t Converge

“I gave you that gift. So I’ll tell you how to use it.”

Now how damn selfish does that sound?

But I’m afraid we say or at least act out those words everyday.

My parents’ generation was not too fond of the fact that their offspring used freedom of speech — which they felt was a gift to us from them — to protest things that were not popular to protest 50 years ago. Things like racial, gender, and sexual inequality. Or wars fought for reasons other than what our elected officials told us. Or corporate corruption. Or man-made environmental dangers. Or the sexual objectification of women.

And I completely understand their reasoning.

They lost their jobs, homes and farms but survived  the Great Depression. They endured two horrific world wars and buried their friends and family members. And all was done to preserve freedom — for themselves and their children.

And damn it, they wanted to make sure we didn’t use that freedom to do and say things that did not meet their approval. Period.

Well, the admonitions didn’t work. We kept talking. And doing. Some of the stuff we said and did was brilliant. But other things — maybe not so much. But we tried. And many in the “Greatest Generation” lived to appreciate and join in the dialogue…

…the dialogue that continues, that is.

My 20-something-year-old students discuss race, gender, sex, current events, violence and politics all the time. They definitely have their opinions and they’re not always like mine.

And sometimes, they don’t vote the way us older revolutionaries tell them to vote.

Damn it.

Don’t they realize we struggled so they could grow up in a world different from the one we faced when we were their age? If it hadn’t been for us, they wouldn’t enjoy the personal or professional freedoms they have now.

And that goes for all of them — no matter their gender.

But these young folks, they have their own minds. They think they know of what they speak. Little do they…

And now I sound like voices from my past.

Which brings me back to where I end so often:

Life: it’s a circle, not a straight line. 

We won’t forget today as soon as it’s over. We’ll call it yesterday and put it in a reservoir of reality that becomes part of today when tomorrow becomes today and today becomes yesterday and tomorrow becomes today and on and on.

I mean we are all spinning on a planet that just happens to be round. And there’s a reason for that.

It’s how we survive.

Because straight lines don’t converge.

They just disappear into space. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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