Friends of Truth
It is strange that the friends of truth and the promoters of freedom have not risen up against the present propaganda in the schools and crushed it. This crusade is much more important than the anti-lynching movement, because there would be no lynching if it did not start in the schoolroom.
~ Carter G. Woodson, The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933)
In August, 1966, I left my Memphis home to begin my first year of college in Providence, Rhode Island. I had been privileged to receive a full scholarship to Brown University. I had also been accepted at other schools of prestige closer to home, but I chose to get as far away from the “racist South” as I thought I could. Thirty-five years later, I came back home to live in Memphis, for reasons that had little or nothing to do with race. Or so I thought. What I have discovered is this: Only here at home could I best do the lifelong work of facing my own racism.
Over the Juneteenth holiday, the quote above grabbed hold of me. Those nearly ninety-year-old words put the racial healing and justice work I need to keep doing in some perspective. That work includes anti-racism education and training events; pilgrimages to historic Southern sites of racial terror; and participation in the Lynching Sites Project of Memphis (LSP).
To be honest, my 5-year connection with LSP is where that work has been most real. It’s been in the real time spent with my LSP sisters and brothers, facing the challenges and finding the support we need. It’s in the real friendships, tended in those shared experiences, friendships we might not otherwise have discovered. We are friends of truth, seeking to promote freedom.
We do this work of racial healing and justice, because we know it needs to be done - and we’re committed to it. We also do it, I suggest, partly because of the next part of that quote: The “present propaganda” of our own day is no less persistent than it was a century ago. We’re here because we want to keep learning things we wish we had learned a long time ago.
“The Long War on Black Studies,” an article from which the opening quote comes, tells how Black Studies began as a formal discipline on college campuses in the late 1960s. I began my freshman year as a student in applied mathematics. It soon became abundantly clear that I had claimed an unsuitable academic arena. I switched my major to Russian Studies. Here’s what I remembered, just now: The other choice intriguing to me back then was Black Studies.
I wonder: In addition to a predictable, youthful resistance to examining my own racism, how persistent was my university’s propaganda in the 60s? What if I had not resisted my racial healing and justice work back then, more than 50 years ago? Or in seminary, more than 30?
Since coming home to Memphis, I keep learning just how much privilege I’ve accrued as a white, heterosexual, married, ordained, educated man. My educational privilege now includes countless hours spent virtually and in-person, in seminary gatherings and small, home groups, along with other friends of truth, new and old. In classes called “Signposts” or “Sacred Ground” and in the school of daily life, I pray I will, with God’s help, keep doing the work of growing up into the best ancestor I can possibly be.
Today I was happy to attend a United Methodist Church annual conference as part of an LSP team. My work today was to help us pray our way to a nearby site where a man, whose name we still do not know, was lynched in 1851. Our prayer walk was part of our pilgrimage, the one we all need to make, part of our adult journey into justice and healing - and ultimately, into reconciliation. May God give us and all friends of truth, the grace, courage and wisdom so to do.
~ The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg, 6/20/23