A FATHER’S LOVES, A DAUGHTER’S HOPES
On Monday, November 24, 2014, the world heard an agonizing cry from the city of Ferguson, Missouri. The St. Louis County prosecutor announced that a grand jury decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, on August 9th. When I heard the news, my heart ached, sinking so deeply into my stomach, because I could not help but think, “I am so glad this did not happen at home.”
I was born and raised in a small place called Selma, Alabama. Everyone knows my hometown—its rich Civil War history, its antebellum homes, or perhaps its quaint charm. More, however, know of March 7,1965—Bloody Sunday, the political and emotional peak of the Selma-to-Montgomery March and of, arguably, the entire Civil Rights Movement. On the Edmund Pettus Bridge, over 600 civil rights marchers were met by Alabama State troopers and local police who viciously ordered them to turn around. When the protesters refused, teargas was shot from the officers, who waded into the crowd, beating the protesters. “Bloody Sunday” was televised around the world. Everyone knew its horror. And yet, no one knew what it would do to the town some 50 years later. The scars would become so deep.
My father was born and raised in this place, his mother the same, and his mother’s mother the same. My grandfather ran the town’s radio station, and my great-grandfather was the town’s doctor. To say the least, my family has its roots in Selma. From as early as the turn of the 20th century, my family has known Selma’s proudest moments and Selma’s biggest shames. And though I did not grow up in the era my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents did, I have known Selma’s best and worst too. In a sense, I grew up in their shadows and, more profoundly, in the shadows of the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
The reality of my hometown, like every hometown in the world, is utter brokenness. From the years of Civil War to the battle for civil rights, Selma was built upon the backs of political, social, and economic injustices. For me, as a daughter of this place, that is a hard thing to swallow. It is hard to process that much of the reality of Selma is tethered to its generational sin. Yes, the community of Selma has made enormous strides over the years; the point, however, is that the pill is still there and it still has to be swallowed.
As a recent college graduate, I devoted much of my academic career to trying to understand the frustrations, the exhaustion, I could see and experienced in Selma. Poverty is rampant, hunger overwhelms the majority of the town; racial tensions exist, the economy is poor, and the obesity rates climb every single year. I believed that I would emerge from the university four years later, fully equipped to take on the world of Selma. After graduation in May, I moved home to spend the summer with family and dear friends. I was quickly confronted with the exact same frustrations and exhaustions for the sheer brokenness that was and still is at my back door.
Why was it that I knew Selma so well, but still didn’t love it? In my mind, how was I supposed to understand the complexities of its history and the frailty of its reality and not walk away from it?
Come, Lord Jesus, Come. In this Advent season, help us to enter into the groans of this earth the way you did through your humble birth. Give us your eyes to see, your heart to weep, and your knowledge to do.
From Kindergarten to 12th grade, I attended the same school in Selma, a small private school that was founded in the 1970s as the white-only option for education in the post-Civil Rights era. My school was and is still so very dear to me; I received an excellent education, had caring teachers, and was encouraged to learn and grow in more than just academic ways. I wouldn’t change it for anything. But the reality of my school was this: all my teachers were white, and all the students were white. To be completely honest, I never understood the fullness of this fact while I attended the school. How could I have? I was a fish in the sea. But something happened in my junior year that would change the history of the school. Forever.
My father was the chairman of the school board during my sophomore and junior years. Under his leadership, a young black girl applied to the school, but because of circumstances that are unknown to most people, she was rejected. My father, along with the principal, was suspicious about what had happened to this girl; her records proved her to be bright and very qualified for acceptance. My father knew that this was not something to which he could turn a blind eye. This was the way the world was, not the way it ought to be, and so with bravery and boldness, my father made the executive decision to pull this young girl into the school. In the spring of 2007, my small private school in the small place of Selma, Alabama, had allowed a black student into its doors for the very first time. Generational sin had been proximately defeated.
I remember the “verdict” well, but I remember the backlash even more searingly. My school friends were mean to me, women ignored my mother in the grocery store, and men who had known my dad and our entire family for years turned their backs on him. It was an incredibly tough season for my family, but my father reassured us continually that he had made the right decision and that our family was standing for the right truth. Why did the weightiness of this situation mean so much to my father? Why would knowing what he knew propel him into doing something so outlandish, so “radical?” How did my father see Selma the way that he did?
When my father finished high school as an 18 year-old, he left Selma for a short while to attend college in Nashville. During that time, he fell in love with and married my dear mother, a native Ohioan unfamiliar with all things below the Mason-Dixon Line. Upon finishing graduate school in Durham, with the world at their feet, my parents weighed their options for the next step, their next season of life. Almost simultaneously, my paternal grandfather was testing his entrepreneurial passions down in Selma, and he begged my father to return to his roots to join in on the fun. My mother reluctantly agreed, while my father assured her that it would only be for two years.
“You see sweetie, Selma knows me and I know Selma… and somehow I feel responsible in that.”
Almost 30 years and four children later, my parents are still in Selma, for reasons even they find difficult to articulate. The company that my father and grandfather started has evolved, with the capability to operate from anywhere in the world. And yet, my parents have chosen to remain in Selma, to raise their children there, and to serve the community well, as ordinary as it may seem. Perplexed by this notion when I was in college, I asked my father why he and my mom were still in Selma. He simply responded, “You see sweetie, Selma knows me and I know Selma, and somehow I feel responsible in that.”
For everyone, everywhere, we know in our deepest places how difficult, how agonizing it is to keep our frail eyes open to the complexity of the broken world around us, to keep feeling the pains of a world that is not the way it is supposed to be and, yet, knowing the adversity, choosing to engage it rather than be numbed by it. How beautiful it is, though, when we know the world with our hearts and have the grace-filled bravery, the holy adrenaline, to enter into its brokenness, with ordinary lives of day-to-day responsibilities with eyes to see that something is wrong, and that something can be done about it.
Somewhere into the depths of his humanity, my father knew this very truth. In his ordinary life, with electric bills to pay and children to pick up from basketball practice, my father knew that he had a responsibility for the way my little private school would turn out. By God’s grace, he had the eyes to see into the complexity of Selma’s history, understanding his responsibility, for love’s sake, for the way Selma would turn out. My father did not need philosophers, economists, sociologists, or politicians to understand this; it was not an abstraction, a lofty concept or theoretical assertion. He saw that these questions, these inquiries of what went wrong in Selma and what can be done about it, were not for the academy. They belonged to him, and they belong to us.
As I experienced through my father’s own story, this repairing of the world is always messy. There is nothing orderly, neat, and comfortable about it. We will get wounded as we take up the wounds of the world; people, places, circumstances will turn their backs on us. But in the midst of the mess, we are called to enter into it, for love’s sake, to know and redeem it.
To do this very thing is perhaps the most difficult task in the world; I know that my father would agree to that too. But like my father, there are people who make the choice to live their lives in this vein, not out of great ambition or grandeur but in the relationships and responsibilities of common life. As Wendell Berry says, “Love is never abstract. It does not adhere to the universe or the planet or the nation or the institution or the profession, but to the singular sparrows of the street, the lilies of the field, ‘the least of these my brethren.’ Love is not, by its owndesire, heroic. It is heroic only when compelled to be. It exists by its willingness to be anonymous, humble, and unrewarded.”
My father’s story has followed me to my new home in Washington, D.C., and I am reminded of it even as I sit at my office cubicle, scrolling through the news of Ferguson. Yes, my heart aches, so deeply, so unbearably even, for its horror. I feel the pain of it because I see Selma in it. And yet, my father’s story brings me a humble kind of hope.
So horrific are the hardships of Selma, so deep are the wounds of her history. As a daughter of Selma, I cannot help but weep over the darkness that still hovers over the place, knowing in fullness that Selma’s history is more than just her own. Her brokenness, her injustices, her depression echo around the entire world. Today, they echo in Ferguson, and most of us see the sorrows and the horrors of that place, and we sigh. We weep, we groan, we protest. As the human beings that we are, something in our depths cries out, for things are not the way they are supposed to be, and yet, we long for a world as it ought to be, for everyone, everywhere.
Come, Lord Jesus, come. In this season of Advent, we wait for your arrival into the brokenness of this earth, gloriously knowing and responding to us, far as the curse is found, far as the curse is found. Thank you, Baby Jesus. So very Amen we pray.
(The photo is from the days of “Bloody Sunday” in 1965, the heart-aching trauma in Selma in 1965.)
Laura Talton is a native of Selma, Alabama, and a graduate of Wake Forest University. This year she is part of the Capitol Fellows Program, a year-long experience of study and work focused on understanding vocation, the church and the world.