What's Tony Thinking

My Church and The Civil Rights Movement


At dinner last night my 9-year-old grandson, Levi, said, “Grandpa, tell me about some events in your life.”

I told him about being an usher at the Presidential Inauguration of John F. Kennedy when I was twelve years old. “It snowed the night before. We had to be at our post at 7:00 a.m. It was so cold. I didn’t think anyone would come.”

His Dad asked, “Do you know what an usher is?”

“Not quite three years later, ” I went on, “I stood on the front line in the street when John Kennedy’s funeral procession passed. Those days, I delivered the newspaper every morning, The Washington Post. My buddies  and I hurried to be done with our routes. By 6:30 we were on our way downtown — one of us was old enough to drive.”

“When we arrived we were the first on the street. By the time the procession passed, people were lined up behind us 30 and 40 deep. The horse-drawn caisson went by, with Marines* on horseback, their swords upright before their unmoving eyes. It was very quiet. The only sound the drums beating a steady pace.

I saw Haile Selassie (the Emperor of Ethiopia, who was not quite 5′ tall) walk by next to Charles DeGaulle (the President of France who was 6’7”). Mutt and Jeff for sure. Dignitaries from the world over, walking by, feet away.

Then I said to Levi, “But there was one event at that time that I missed, and I regret that.” “What was that?” “The 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. I wanted to go. But my parents were worried that there would be violence. I wish I have disobeyed them and gone anyhow.”

I grew up in segregated Arlington, Virginia. My church, Rock Springs Congregational, got me involved in the Civil Rights Movement as a youth — for which I am eternally grateful.

We picketed the Glebe Theater on Arlington Boulevard because blacks could only sit in the balcony, while whites had the seats on the main floor.

“What does ‘picket’ mean?” asked Levi.

Even more significant was that Rock Springs sent me (and all of us in junior and senior high school) to inter-racial, week-long, summer church camps in New Jersey. A few in the church, and way more in the community, were upset by this. The church stood firm.

And Rock Spring Congregational introduced me to the Black Church. We visited congregations in D. C. There I heard Scripture as never before. There I heard the Exodus story as a contemporary story.

One of the great blessings of the church throughout my life has been to take me, sometimes “push” me, into situations and relationships I would not have found or chosen on my own.

All the places I’ve been — the Bronx House of Detention in NYC, the barns of subsistence farmers in the Catskill Mountains and Cascades, on picket lines with striking teachers, talking employers into hiring Hmong refugees, taking communion to and with AIDS patients early in the epidemic, at a barrio in revolutionary Nicaragua, preaching in a church in Managua . . . none of it was my idea. Left to my own devices little of it would have happened. It was the church and the people of the church, and God working through them, that took me there. Thanks be to God.

I was not present at the 1963 March on Washington. But because of my church I didn’t miss the Civil Rights Movement.

Jesus broke all sorts of boundaries and barriers, dragging some of us with him. He still is.

*Correction: c/o friend Jim Gorman. The full honor caisson brigade were Army not Marines. Jim served in that unit, although nor at Kennedy’s funeral. He was also did duty at the tomb of the Unknown Solider at Arlington National Cemetery. Thanks Jim!


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