26 Nov 2021

Four Preachers + One, One City: Radically Different Messages

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: American Empire, Black History, Church History, Discipleship, Fred Gray, Love, Martin Luther King, Ministry, Restoration History, Unity
One of the most ironic photos of the Selma March in March 1965. Marchers are approaching the city of Montgomery.

Do you know Norman Adamson? Do you know O. B. Porterfield? Do you know Martin Luther King Jr? Do you know Fred Gray? Did you know these four ministers were all in the same city on March 25, 1965? They are a microcosm for the huge division that remains not only in the United States but within the body of those who claim to be disciples of the Jewish Messiah. We should know them and let them help us examine our own deep and hidden values.

I want to stress that the events in this blog are two years after Martin Luther King Jr addressed the ministers of the South in his epic Letter from a Birmingham Jail (full text in link) which was sent out on April 3, 1963.

Did we even hear?
Have we yet?

Jimmie Lee Jackson

Jimmie Lee Jackson and Selma

Last year for Black History Month, I wrote about the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26 year old black army veteran home from Vietnam, by Alabama State Troopers on February 18, 1965. Jimmie had been part of a peaceful protest demanding the right to vote. Nothing that radical you would think. Surely no one would object to a veteran registering to vote. But Jimmie was murdered, literally, in front of his mother and grandmother.

Jimmie’s murder galvanized black Americans by the thousands. One week later, a march was organized from Selma to Montgomery demanding the right to vote in honor of Jimmie Lee Jackson.

The marchers, led by John Lewis whom Donald Trump publicly maligned, were met at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on “Bloody Sunday” by police in a brutal display of hate (if you have never seen the film, Selma, you should do that immediately). The horrifying beatings at the bridge, worthy of Joseph Stalin or Adolf Hitler, were broadcast on TV. America had to look itself in the mirror, something it does not relish doing. I want to share about four ministers + one response to this event.

Norman Adamson and Martin Luther King Jr.

Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. called on people from all over the country to come to Selma and finish the march. On March 21, King led 25,000 out of Selma on Hwy 80 for the third attempted march. They arrived in Montgomery on March 25 where King would give his “Our God is Marching On!” (video clip in link) speech beneath the waving Confederate Battle flag on the Alabama Statehouse. Full text of “Our God is Marching On! (in link).

Norman Adamson, a native of Arkansas was minister for a Church of Christ in Chicago, made the arduous journey in response to King’s call. The bigotry in America was bad but in the church it was “stench to the nostrils of God, and therefore subjects them [i.e. bigots] to eternal damnation.” Bloody Sunday was a day of infamy for Adamson. So, he joined hands with black folks and “my Caucasian brothers and sisters” in the name of simple justice. Adamson believed it was God’s work and a manifestation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. So he marched in obedience to the cause of Christ. How can we love God whom we have not seen and hate our fellow humans who are God’s image bearers and have seen.

Martin Luther King Jr. giving his “Our God is Marching On” sermon at the end of the Selma to Montgomery March.

On the night of March 25, after 25,000 marchers arrived in Montgomery at Martin Luther King Jr’s, he addressed the crowd. Quoting James Weldon Johnson, King said,

We have come over a way
That with tears hath been watered.
We have come treading our paths
Through the blood of the slaughtered.
Out of the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam
Of our bright star is cast
.”

Then in a note of victory King proclaimed,

Today I want to tell the city of Selma, today I want to say to the state of Alabama, today I want to say to the people of America and the nations of the world, that we are not about to turn around. We are on the move now.”

King continued,

My people, my people, listen. (Yes, sir) The battle is in our hands. (Yes, sir) The battle is in our hands in Mississippi and Alabama and all over the United States. (Yes, sir) I know there is a cry today in Alabama, (Uh huh) we see it in numerous editorials: “When will Martin Luther King, SCLC, SNCC, and all of these civil rights agitators and all of the white clergymen and labor leaders and students and others get out of our community and let Alabama return to normalcy?”

But I have a message that I would like to leave with Alabama this evening. (Tell it) That is exactly what we don’t want, and we will not allow it to happen, (Yes, sir) for we know that it was normalcy in Marion (Yes, sir) that led to the brutal murder of Jimmy Lee Jackson. (Speak) It was normalcy in Birmingham (Yes) that led to the murder on Sunday morning of four beautiful, unoffending, innocent girls. It was normalcy on Highway 80 (Yes, sir) that led state troopers to use tear gas and horses and billy clubs against unarmed human beings who were simply marching for justice. (Speak, sir) It was normalcy by a cafe in Selma, Alabama, that led to the brutal beating of Reverend James Reeb.

It is normalcy all over our country (Yes, sir) which leaves the Negro perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of vast ocean of material prosperity. It is normalcy all over Alabama (Yeah) that prevents the Negro from becoming a registered voter. (Yes) No, we will not allow Alabama (Go ahead) to return to normalcy.

King ends with the haunting question that he, Fred Gray, and Norman Adamson wrestled with. It is the age old question heard all through Scripture itself, “How Long!?” Do we have ears to hear?

I know you are asking today, “How long will it take?” (Speak, sir) Somebody’s asking, “How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?” Somebody’s asking, “When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South, be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men?” Somebody’s asking, “When will the radiant star of hope be plunged against the nocturnal bosom of this lonely night, (Speak, speak, speak) plucked from weary souls with chains of fear and the manacles of death? How long will justice be crucified, (Speak) and truth bear it?” (Yes, sir)

Then King, and others, went to the home of Fred Gray, the preacher for the Newtown Church of Christ and civil rights attorney for Rosa Parks, King himself and the entire group of marchers. There they planned coming activities in Montgomery and other places in the South. For more on Gray, see Fred D. Gray: Hero Lawyer.

Fred Gray the frequent target of smear attacks by people identifying themselves as Christians

O. B. Porterfield

The day before, March 24, there was yet another minister with a message for the people of the city of Montgomery, the State of Alabama and the United States, on the “the crises” at hand. He did not march, nor preach on the steps of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, nor the Statehouse. Instead, he took to the airways. O. B. Porterfield preached a message on the TV station WKAB, it was a Wednesday night. It was a message he repeated many times.

Jimmie was dead.

Bloody Sunday had occurred.

Norman Adamson and Martin Luther King Jr were literally on the road walking toward Montgomery on Hwy 80 as the sermon aired on TV.

O. B. Porterfield preached for the Cleveland Avenue Church of Christ in Montgomery. What should be our response to the “Crises” he asked? What he said was, according to newspaper advertisements, repeated numerous times around the city.

Porterfield addressed what he believed to be the destruction of the United States generally and Alabama in particular in “the crises” that had begun in Montgomery Alabama by Rosa Parks, Fred D. Gray and Martin Luther King, Jr. with the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

We can only wonder how different history would be if white ministers like Porterfield preached a different message.

Porterfield begins by stating the entire crises was nothing but a communist plot to destroy America (first full paragraph). No preacher could have anything whatsoever to do with this “mob” that was descending upon Montgomery. In fact, “neither I nor any Minister of the Church of Christ” could have anything to do with this mob because our job is “spiritual,” he declared. Those ministers (like King, Adamson, and Gray) are “hypocrites” and need to “go away.

Porterfield proclaimed the march for civil rights had nothing to do with justice, nothing to do with “spiritual things,” and nothing to do with “Christianity.”

Far from Christianity in fact. Porterfield claims that he drove “to Selma personally and looked at these people.” There were older, younger, lots of blacks and some misguided whites. The preacher declared “a large number of these boys and girls are the scum of the earth! They are as low a class of group of people as I ever saw.”

Porterfield, sounding as if he is from 2021, declared, “I am trying to impress you tonight that the question is not a question of segregation versus integration; it is not a question of civil rights; but it is morality versus immorality.

Porterfield then proceeds to quote from Governor George Wallace that the protesters are people of ill-repute. They are actually communists and likely send their support to the “Viet-Cong.” The irony should not be lost because Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was murdered by the police, had been sent to fight the Viet-Cong.

Remember the photo taken on the march. Note the words at the bottom of this newspaper advertisement

Porterfield moves to praise the Alabama State Troopers under Al Lingo (who was part of the KKK), and Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark “and his good deputies” who enforce the laws against the law-breakers. The minister then extends this invitation,

[T]onight, I extend to Col. Lingo, Sheriff Butler, Sheriff Clark, Governor Wallace, and all law enforcement officers, a special invitation to worship with us at the Cleveland Avenue Church of Christ, and you will be treated with the courtesy you deserve, we will honor you by complimenting you for these trying hours that you have endured.

No such invitation was issued to Martin Luther King, Jr, Norman Adamson, Fred Gray or any person of color.

The sermon ends with a pledge to send the text of the sermon to President Johnson and a plea to avoid the march. The way to keep peace in Montgomery is “don’t encourage the march, but instead LET’S SPEAK OUT AGAINST THE MARCH [sic] and pray to God that our words will be the right ones during these trying times.”

The sermon met with immediate calls to the TV station for copies. It was printed and distributed by the thousands. And then Porterfield preached the sermon repeatedly throughout Montgomery and the State of Alabama.

The next day, as noted, King and the marchers, including Norman Adamson, arrived. King would meet with minister Fred Gray. All enduring the scorn of a sizable portion of the white Christian community in Montgomery led by O. B. Porterfield and other ministers of the Gospel of Reconciliation (I use this phrase on purpose).

Plus One

Viola Liuzzo was one of Porterfield’s “scum of the earth.” A 39 year old mother of five, murdered because she dared to believe God calls us to practice justice and righteousness.

One other person arrived that day on March 25, her name was Viola Liuzzo. She was one of the “scum of the earth” that Porterfield noted. Liuzzo was a 39-year-old white mother of five from Detroit. She, like Norman Adamson, responded to the call of King to protest the blatant murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson and demand that the law be upheld for African Americans.

Liuzzo was seen transporting Leroy Moton, a 19-year-old African American, marcher in her car. She was shot in the head by the KKK on the very road that marchers came down.

Reflections

When I, from my vantage point in 2021, look at the events of February and March of 1965 it is as if I am reading yesterday’s newspaper. Then is still now!

I see preachers like Norman Adamson and Fred Gray, both black, convinced that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is deeply about justice (civil right is justice).

Then I see ministers today like O. B. Porterfield, typically white, who think it is all about Communism and the Gospel has nothing at all to do with this. They talk about law and order while there is no law and no order for their own brothers and sisters of color. Further, his assessment of the people involved sounds just like what I hear from many today. Nearly identical terminology is still used to talk about those who march today whether it is Colin Kaepernick, Black Lives Matter or even President Barack Obama. The slander against John Lewis by President Donald Trump has a long pedigree. While actual consideration of the issues being protested is ignored and waved away with bliss.

The sad reality is that Porterfield’s attitude (and sermon) are hardly isolated incidents. See my article on W. A. Cameron, Racist Theology Begets Racist Preaching: A Sermonic Response to Brown v. Board of Education. Porterfield was regarded as a faithful preacher of the gospel of Christ. He opposed liberals (I first came across him in Mississippi when he mailed out publication to thousands of churches). He was a stalwart against “digressions” from “the pattern” and the one true church. I am convinced that one reason America, and the church, is where we are in 2021 is because we have had plenty of sermons that are more like Porterfield and not nearly enough of King, Gray or Adamson. The difference in perspective between these black brothers in Christ and the white brother could not be starker.

The Gospel is very much about racial reconciliation (justice) beloved. See my article, The Gospel is about the Stuff of the World. But Porterfield helps us see ourselves. This is why we need Black History Month. This is why we need a kingdom vision while reading history. We have much to repent in the white church.

May God have mercy.

See Also Among others

Racial Concerns in Churches of Christ: Trends Since the King Years, 1950-2000

Gospel Racial Reconciliation: Compass Points for Beginners Like Me

Learning & “Thinking” about Race as a Southern White Disciple

3 Responses to “Four Preachers + One, One City: Radically Different Messages”

  1. Sonny J Reeves Says:

    In 1968 I was in the military learning that all blood is red. When King was murdered the military changed. Went to Atl CC on Gi bill
    In 1974 our first ministry was an all black congregation supported by the big up town White Church. They taught us Love. Thanks for this.

  2. Bob Laver Says:

    Racism is not found anywhere in the scripture and should not be tolerated in any of our churches. We CANNOT

  3. Bob Laver Says:

    Racism has n0 place in our Restoration Churches. How can we call ourselves a unity movement and yet applaud the travesty we have witnessed in our country? Paul reminds us in Galatians 3:28 that “There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, for you are all one io Christ Jesus.”

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