‘Tell what happened’: Pastor and last surviving eyewitness urges Christians to remember Emmett Till

‘Tell what happened’: Pastor and last surviving eyewitness urges Christians to remember Emmett Till

WHEATON, Ill. (RNS) — The Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr. still remembers clearly the moment as a teenager he thought he was going to die.

Parker was 16 years old, visiting family in Mississippi, when he woke in the early morning hours to the sound of voices in the house. Moments later, the door to his bedroom opened and a man pointed a flashlight and a pistol in his face.

He shut his eyes tight, but the shot never came.

The man moved on to the next bedroom and the next before finding and kidnapping his cousin — Emmett Till.

It was the last time he saw his best friend alive, Parker, now in his 80s, told a packed concert hall Tuesday night (Oct. 25) at Wheaton College, the evangelical flagship school in the Chicago suburbs.

What happened next — Till’s brutal murder, his mother’s decision to allow an open casket at the 14-year-old victim’s funeral, so the country could see what had been done to her son — shone a light on racial violence in the United States and became a catalyst for the civil rights movement.

Mamie Till-Mobley weeps at her son’s funeral on Sept. 6, 1955, in Chicago. (Chicago Sun-Times/AP Photo)

Mamie Till-Mobley weeps at her son’s funeral on Sept. 6, 1955, in Chicago. (Chicago Sun-Times/AP Photo)

“A picture’s worth a thousand words. That picture made a statement. It went throughout the world, all over the world, and it still speaks,” Parker said of the photographs of Till in his casket, taken by David Jackson and first published in Jet magazine.

The story of Till continues to resonate because it “provides us with a lens to understand racial conflict in our own moment,” said Theon Hill, associate professor of communications at Wheaton College and primary organizer and moderator of Tuesday’s event, “Remembering Emmett Till: A Conversation on Race, Nation and Faith.”

“When we see George Floyd killed right in front of us due to the officer’s knee,” said Hill, “when we see Breonna Taylor’s death, when we see Ahmaud Arbery, we’re trying to make sense of what’s happening, and Till’s death, as tragic as it will always be, provides us with a grammar to understand this is what’s happening and this is how you might respond in your moment.”

The enduring relevance of Till’s death is apparent in the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, making lynching a federal hate crime and signed in March by President Joe Biden, nearly 70 years after Till’s murder.

“A Few Days Full of Trouble: Revelations on the Journey to Justice for My Cousin and Best Friend, Emmett Till" by Reverend Wheeler Parker, Jr. and Christopher Benson. Courtesy image

“A Few Days Full of Trouble: Revelations on the Journey to Justice for My Cousin and Best Friend, Emmett Till” by the Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr. and Christopher Benson. Courtesy image

It’s also borne out in the critical acclaim for a new film, “Till,” centering on Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, and her fight for justice for her son, which appears in theaters nationwide this week. In January, Parker will publish his recollections of his cousin, “A Few Days Full of Trouble: Revelations on the Journey to Justice for My Cousin and Best Friend, Emmett Till.”

It was 30 years before anybody asked Parker his account of what had happened over the handful of days in 1955 he and his cousin, who lived in Chicago, spent in Mississippi visiting family, according to Parker, the last surviving witness to Till’s abduction.

In Parker’s account, Till is a jokester, the boy next door he accompanied fishing, picnicking and on other trips. When his cousin found out he was planning to take the train down South to visit his grandfather, he insisted on going too.

“If you didn’t live in Mississippi at that time or experience what it was like, you have no idea what it was like,” Parker said.

He had lived in the South until he was 7 and knew “what you had to do to stay alive and what could happen to you,” he said.

Till didn’t.

When the younger boy whistled in the presence of a white woman outside a store, Parker said, the cousins left in a hurry. He worried what could happen in a place and time when a Black man couldn’t so much as look at a white woman, he said.

But days passed, and they’d nearly forgotten about the incident. Then came the moment Parker heard voices in his grandfather’s home at about 2:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning, asking about the boys from Chicago.

“Sunday morning should be the safest place on earth for a young man in his house — on Sunday morning, waiting to go to church,” he said.

Shaking and sure he was about to die, he prayed, “God, if you just let me live, I’m going to get my life together.”

That Monday, he returned to Chicago alone, his life changed “completely,” said Parker, now pastor and district superintendent of the Argo Temple Church of God in Christ in Summit, Illinois.

The Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr. speaks duringthe “Remembering Emmett Till: A Conversation on Race, Nation and Faith" event at Wheaton College, Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2022, in Wheaton, Illinois. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

The Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr. speaks during the “Remembering Emmett Till: A Conversation on Race, Nation and Faith” event at Wheaton College, Oct. 25, 2022, in Wheaton, Illinois. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

What happened to Till changed the country, too.

Dave Tell, author of the 2019 book “Remembering Emmett Till,” told the audience Tuesday night that he had become invested in civil rights because of Till’s story.

“The Till story prompted a new generation to stand up for justice, and I think the good news of the night is that the Till story — Rev. Parker’s story — is still motivating a new generation,” Tell said.

It’s a story, he said, the U.S. needs to hear today more than ever. Considering the stories of Floyd and others against the backdrop of Till’s murder, it’s hard to minimize their killings as “a problem of a bad apple or bad cop,” he said.

And the church has a role to play in sharing that story, both Tell and Parker agreed.

The biblical Book of Genesis tells the story of Abel, murdered by his brother Cain, Tell pointed out. In the story, God says Abel’s blood cries out to him from the ground, where Cain has tried to bury what he did.

If God demands that voices that have been buried be brought to light as part of the work of justice and healing, shouldn’t the church? Tell asked.

“We’ve got to keep the legacy going — got to keep the story going — and not with animosity,” Parker added.

“Just tell the story. It’s history. It’s real. Tell what happened,” he said.

Civil Rights & Civic Engagement: An Interview with Rep. Jim Clyburn

Civil Rights & Civic Engagement: An Interview with Rep. Jim Clyburn

Congressman Jim Clyburn Interview

by Maina Mwaura

Jim Clyburn has led a remarkable life that has been marked by the pursuit of a more just society. As the child of a minister and a Christian himself, his faith has been a driving force in his public work for justice. He was an early members of SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee) working alongside Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Jon Lewis who became his fellow Congressman. He now serves as a Congressman in South Carolina and one of the senior ranking members of the United States House of Representatives. President Joe Biden credits him directly with helping him win the presidency. UrbanFaith sat down with Congressman Jim Clyburn to discuss his faith, his legacy, HBCUs and his work to strengthen democracy and justice in the United States. The full audio interview is above!

PBS docs depict Frederick Douglass’ and Harriet Tubman’s paths of freedom, faith

PBS docs depict Frederick Douglass’ and Harriet Tubman’s paths of freedom, faith

Frederick Douglass, left, and Harriet Tubman are featured in new PBS documentaries. Douglass photo © New York Historical Society / Bridgeman Images; Tubman photo © RTRO / Alamy Stock Photo

(RNS) — Frederick Douglass called the Bible one of his most important resources and was involved in Black church circles as he spent his life working to end what he called the “peculiar institution” of slavery.

Harriet Tubman sensed divine inspiration amid her actions to free herself and dozens of others who had been enslaved in the American South.

The two abolitionists are subjects of a twin set of documentaries, “Becoming Frederick Douglass” and “Harriet Tubman: Visions of Freedom,” co-productions of Maryland Public Television and Firelight Films and released by PBS this month (October).

“I think that the faith journey of both Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass were a huge part of their story,” Stanley Nelson, co-director with Nicole London of the two hourlong films, said in an interview with Religion News Service.

“Religion for both Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass was the foundation in many ways of who they are.”

Stanley Nelson. Photo by Corey Nickols

Stanley Nelson. Photo by Corey Nickols

The films, whose production took more than three years in part due to a COVID-19 hiatus, detail the horrors of slavery both Tubman and Douglass witnessed. Tubman saw her sister being sold to a new enslaver and torn away from her children. A young Douglass hid in a closet as he watched his aunt being beaten. They each expressed beliefs in the providence of God playing a role in the gaining of their freedom.

Scholars in both films spoke of the faith of these “original abolitionists,” as University of Connecticut historian Manisha Sinha called people like Tubman, who took to pulpits and lecterns as they strove to end the ownership of members of their race and sought to convince white people to join their cause.“The Bible was foundational to Douglass as a writer, orator, and activist,” Harvard University scholar John Stauffer told Religion News Service in an email, expanding on his comments in the film about the onetime lay preacher. “It influenced him probably more than any other single work.”

Frederick Douglass, circa 1847-52. Photo by Samuel J. Miller, courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

Frederick Douglass, circa 1847-52. Photo by Samuel J. Miller, courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago Stauffer said the holy book, which shaped Douglass’ talks and writings, was the subject of lessons at a Sunday school he organized to teach other slaves.

“It’s impossible to appreciate or understand Douglass without recognizing the enormous influence the Bible had on him and his extraordinary knowledge of it,” Stauffer added.

Actor Wendell Pierce provides the voice of Douglass in the films, quoting him saying in an autobiography that William Lloyd Garrison’s weekly abolitionist newspaper The Liberator “took a place in my heart second only to the Bible.”

The documentary notes that Douglass was part of Baltimore’s African Methodist Episcopal Church circles that included many free Black people. Scholars say he met his future wife Anna Murray, who encouraged him to pursue his own freedom, in that city.

“The AME Church was central in not only creating a space for African Americans to worship but creating a network of support for African Americans who were committed to anti-slavery,” said Georgetown University historian Marcia Chatelain, in the film.

The Douglass documentary is set to premiere Tuesday (Oct. 11) on PBS. It and the Tubman documentary, which first aired Oct. 4, will be available to stream for free for 30 days on PBS.org and the PBS video app after their initial air dates. After streaming on PBS’ website and other locations for a month, the films, which include footage from Maryland’s Eastern Shore where both Douglass and Tubman were born, will then be available on PBS Passport.

The Tubman documentary opens with her words, spoken by actress Alfre Woodard.

“God’s time is always near,” she says, in words she told writer Ednah Dow Littlehale Cheney around 1850. “He set the North Star in the heavens. He gave me the strength in my limbs. He meant I should be free.”

Tubman, who early in life sustained a serious injury and experienced subsequent seizures and serious headaches, often had visions she interpreted as “signposts from God,” said Rutgers University historian Erica A. Dunbar in the film.

Portrait of Harriet Tubman taken in Auburn, New York. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

Portrait of Harriet Tubman taken in Auburn, New York. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress. The woman known as “Moses” freed slaves by leading them through nighttime escapes and later as a scout for the Union Army in the Civil War.

“She never accepted praise or responsibility, even, for these great feats,” Dunbar said. “She always saw herself as a vessel of her God.”

But, nevertheless, praise for Tubman came from Douglass, who noted in an 1868 letter to her that while his work was often public, hers was primarily in secret, recognized only by the “heartfelt, ‘God bless you’” from people she had helped reach freedom.

Nelson, a religiously unaffiliated man who created films about the mission work of the United Methodist Church early in his career, said the documentary helps shed light on the importance faith held for Tubman.

“It’s something that most people don’t know and so many people who see the film for the first time are kind of surprised at that,” he said in an interview. “She felt she was guided by a divine spirit and the spirit told her what to do.”

Marcus Garvey’s Dark Mirror

Marcus Garvey’s Dark Mirror

Marcus Garvey’s Dark Mirror

In NPR’s February 17th episode of Throughline, Marcus Garvey takes center stage as an enigmatic, underrated, revolutionary figure on a mad quest to reconnect former American slaves to their motherland via the Black Star Line. Marcus Garvey is not a widely discussed figure for a few reasons, chiefly the fact that he is a revolutionary. He possessed a vision on Blackness that transcended culture and context, a nation of people bound impregnably by race alone. However, this grand ideal for the freed children of the African Diaspora would never come to fruition, much like the fated black star line. 

There is a great metaphor in the Black Star Line, it encapsulates everything about Garveyism. As mentioned in the podcast, it would eventually be Garvey’s ruin when it proved to be much less profitable than expected, causing Garvey to begin selling bad stock in a bankrupt company. However, the Black Star Line persists in the cultural imagination, through television shows and in literature. There is something common in the motivations that built the Black Star Line, in the dream the line came to represent. However, our lives as Black people have only grown increasingly complex since Garvey’s death in 1940. Even the dream of sailing back to Africa seems to have lost its allure through the maelstrom of time. And yet, Garvey and his ideas seem undying, like embers on dry grass that refuse to dim. Instead, they splinter off into wild emanations like Pan-Africanism and Rastafarianism. In this way, Garveyism still affects our lives especially within the Black church. In some sense, Garvey’s view of the Black church became realized decades later during the civil rights movement. One the other hand, his worldview would birth forth Rastafarianism, a derivative distillation of his beliefs. Like two sides of the same coin, these two forces fight for Garvey’s legacy and so too are we placed between them as people affected by these very ideas. By finding our place within this conflict, we are able to live more nuanced, more freelives by choosing what ideas we allow to influence our decision on a daily basis. But in order to develop in this area, we first need to understand what Garveyism is and how it differs from its Rastafarian cousin. 

The following quote is from an article written 1962 edition of the Journal of Negro Education by John L. Graves. He quotes Garvey as saying, “ If the white man has the idea of a white God, let him worship his God as he desires. Since the white people have seen their God through white spectacles, we have only now started out to see our God through our own spectacles[…] we shall worship Him through the spectacles of Ethiopia.”  

In a sense, this sentence tells you everything one needs to know about Marcus Garvey’s relationship with Christianity. The tenants, cultural additions, and governing philosophy of a religious belief is not so important as the Black authenticity expressed throughout said belief. This authenticity is not expressly depicted through art or skin color but specifically nationalism. Garvey presents Ethiopia as the heart of Black culture, an imagined ancestral motherland whose culture presents some sort of refuge for the vision of a unified black identity. This view of religion is quite utilitarian. It removes the supernatural element of belief from religion and places the culture and ambition of men above the will of God. While this might seem like a bold claim, it is actually pretty common. For instance, the rise of the Anglican church only occurred due to the fact that King George the 3rd wanted to divorce his wives so he created a national religion with himself at the head. To a degree, origins of African-American churches during enslavement had similar roots. For some slavemasters, allowing slaves to practice Christianity became simply another method of control. There were slave bibles specifically edited to remove any part concerning fair treatment and release of slaves. Even Mormonism coincided with the rising national pride of a newly independent America and the buzzing fervor of manifest destiny. In all of these cases, the man-made objective that causes the schism (in these scenarios) became central to the movement for the remainder of its existence. For the Anglican Church, a national church would give rise to a new sense of national identity during an age where such ideas were novel. For Slave Churches, obedience and patience in the face of oppression became the objective. In the heights of the Civil Rights era, Martin Luther King Jr. took these same tenants and used them against those same oppressive forces through peaceful resistance. Even the Mormons today are one of the fastest growing religions both at home and abroad due in part to their potent evangelicalism and motivating sense of divinity. When viewed through this context, it is no wonder that Garvey’s ethnocentric view or religion would spawn a belief system for the diaspora, by the diaspora. However, before I begin to describe how Rastafarianism and Garveyism intersect, there are a few more ideas Garvey espoused that are important to understand. 

For Marcus Garvey, assimilation was never an option. In my own words, Garveyism is an attempt to create a western system of culture for the African Diaspora. However, instead of creating a wholly organic culture, a lot of Garvey’s ideas are copied directly from the governing political ideologies of the time. A good example of this is racism in and of itself. Garvey firmly believed in the separation of the races, hence why the Black Star Line became such an important part of his life. He was so committed to this idea that he would go on to give several speeches at KKK rallies extolling the virtues of Jim Crow. For Garvey, the oppression of his life was not so much that racism existed. This, to him, was the natural order. Instead, the real oppression was that Africa and the people from there were shattered and divided in a world that was becoming increasingly connected and organized along racial lines.

In this sense, he was a Black nationalist. He believed that people could be categorized along racial lines and that these groups deserved autonomy. Garvey sought to center the Black world around Ethiopia, one of the oldest centralized states on the African continent. He hoped to foster a national sense of unity across the entire African Diaspora in order to resist the colonial powers threatening Black people at home and abroad. I wouldn’t go so far as to call him a Black supremacist, in a way, he had a keen sense of equality. He believed that given a fair hand, people will work to increase their own quality of life and legacy. This idea of self-determination is common today, however, we tend to apply it on an individual basis. To Garvey, personal advancement is the responsibility of the race as a whole and only when the races are unified will there be social harmony. In the March 1st, 2003 edition of the Journal of Black Studies, Otis B. Grant quotes Garvey as saying,

 “African Americans should stop making[…] noise about social equality, giving the White people the idea that we are hankering after their company, and get down to business and build up a strong race, industrially, commercially, educationally and politically, everything social will come afterwards.”

To me, this is an excellent encapsulation of Garvey’s beliefs. Garveyism’s goal is racial unity, but the means of reaching that point seems to be copying the popular institutions of one’s society and creating replicas exclusively for the profit and benefit of your own race. While publicly, Garvey might have downplayed his relationship to the church, he was very interested in continuing his Garveyite project within the Black Christian community. In 1921, he attended the foundational ceremony of the African Orthodox Church in Chicago. I find this very interesting because instead of trying to revive traditional African belief systems, Garvey endorsed a specifically Christian, ethnic worldview for his ideal vision of society. This process of replication then assimilation of western ideas is the heart of Garveyism. Instead of trying to find something authentic and new from the black perspective, he sought to create a mirror of the world around him. Viewed in this way, the fate of the Black Star Line and the rise of Rastafarianism seem soaked in bitter irony. 

  There was a lot of hype around the Black Star Line from both its proponents and its detractors. For Black people, it represented something of their own. However, by this time in his career, Garvey was a bit of a social pariah for giving a series of speeches at KKK meetings. Today, we would just say he was canceled. He ended up getting cheated out of ships of good quality and then was forced to hire an incompetent crew for those ships. In order to keep his operation running, he essentially committed mail fraud and was sentenced to 5 years imprisonment in 1925. The reason that I find this so ironic is because this venture inflamed every contradiction within his ideology. In a world where races must compete as unified blocks, when one race controls a majority of the resources in an area, they are not inclined to extend those resources fairly across racial lines. So instead of getting the quality ship that you pay for, you get cheated and nobody cares and then they throw you in jail. Had there been more racial equity between Garvey and his business associates, perhaps they would have been inclined to see him as a human being and not as someone unworthy of the decency of fair trade. 

Matthew 6:24 says plainly that man cannot serve two masters. To me, Garvey’s vision of Christianity attempts to do just this. By using Christianity as the catalyst for Pam-African, nationalist sentiment, Garvey positions Ethiopia as the new chosen land for Black people. Salvation, then, becomes less an exercise in humanity but a right of birth and race. Much like the Black Star Line that came before, Garvey’s vision for Christianity would ultimately collapse and give rise to something much more potent and sincere. In a follow up piece, we will discuss Marcus Garvey, his view of Christianity, and his relationship with Rastafarianism. 

Mary Lou’s Sacred Jazz

Mary Lou’s Sacred Jazz

Mary Lou's Sacred Jazz for Urban FaithMary Lou Williams inspired Duke Ellington and a generation of future jazz legends. But it’s her sacred jazz, and journey of faith, that captivated my spirit. 

The brilliant jazz pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams, who died in 1981 at age 71, was a prolific artist, writing and arranging hundreds of compositions and released dozens of recordings. Along the way, she worked with jazz giants such as Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman and served as a mentor to other seminal figures, including Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk.

Williams, who often stated that she wanted to be a force for emotional healing through her music, began focusing on faith-based compositions during the 1960s. From 1963 until 1970, she composed a number of hymns and three Mass settings that garnered attention within the American Catholic church as well as from the Vatican. Her liturgical music even inspired Ellington to write his own Sacred Concerts.

As I sit in my Manhattan apartment, I am surrounded by the spirit of Mary Lou Williams: the record cover photo from her 1978 Montreux Jazz Festival solo concert looks out from above my computer; recordings dating back to 1938 sit on a CD shelf devoted strictly to Williams’ music; and my own sheet music scores are all over the living room futon as I finish putting together a songbook to accompany my own sacred jazz recording, From This Place.

Even more important than these physical items is the recognition in my own spirit of an affinity, a sense that I am continuing in Williams’ legacy of bringing together jazz and liturgy, whether I am literally playing her compositions with my trio or playing my own pieces in a local or faraway church. Why does Mary Lou Williams matter, and how has she given so much inspiration to me?

Rather than give a complete chronological overview of Williams’ work (which has been done with great aplomb elsewhere), I’d like to briefly recount Williams’ journey of faith — her conversion to Catholicism, her liturgical music — and how my own personal journey has been influenced by this bold woman’s inspiring path.

The Roots of Conversion

Mary Lou's Sacred Jazz Second picture for Urban FaithIn 1952, after a career that had included being principal arranger, composer, and pianist for bassist Andy Kirk’s Twelve Clouds of Joy in the late 1920s and 30s, writing big band arrangements for Goodman and Ellington, orchestral arrangements of her original pieces, and playing extended trio engagements at respected New York jazz venues, Mary Lou Williams set sail for a nine-day performance tour in England. Her nine-day tour turned into a two-year European sojourn.

Williams’ conversion to Christianity had its roots in Paris. While she had experienced many successes in her career, she also had many disappointments, both in business affairs and in her desire to take care of those less fortunate than herself (often members of her extended family). Her brilliance as a forward-thinking composer and performer belied the lack of opportunities she was afforded to record as a bandleader. Her family in Pittsburgh had the impression that Williams was a wealthy woman (and she indeed often sent money home to aid her relatives); however, Williams struggled all her life to survive financially as a jazz musician. During her sojourn in Paris, she began to feel a growing depression, a sense that music held little meaning for her.

While in Europe, one of Williams’ patrons, an American expatriate and practicing Catholic named Colonel Edward L. Brennan, introduced her to a church with a garden. It was of this place that Williams later remarked that she had “found God in a little garden in Paris.” Around this same time, she began seeking solace in prayer and in reading the Psalms. She also grew more reclusive as she questioned her career as a musician and attempted to find a way to get close to God.

Returning to the States in late 1954, Williams began withdrawing from the performing world. She did several radio and television appearances, and also recorded the important chronicle of jazz music, A Keyboard History, but turned down offers to perform in nightclubs, feeling that their environments were sinful. She continued her inward spiritual search, briefly attending Harlem’s historic Abyssinian Baptist Church before embarking on an austere diet of prayer and service that began at Our Lady of Lourdes, a Catholic church in her Harlem neighborhood. Williams reportedly made lists of up to 900 names of people she would pray for every day: she would spend hours in the church in prayer, then return home to attend to family members (who had moved in with her from Pittsburgh), some of whom had addictions to drugs. Even though she needed money, she continued to turn down performance offers.

In 1956 and ’57, Williams met two priests who proved influential in her spiritual formation and her return to public performance. Father John Crowley met Williams’ close friends Dizzy and Lorraine Gillespie while working as a missionary in Paraguay. Crowley, a jazz lover, met with Williams when he returned to the East Coast. He urged her to stop taking in musicians and family with addiction issues. He also suggested that she offer her music as a prayer for others, nudging her towards her eventual decision to re-enter the jazz scene as an active performer.

A Jesuit priest, Father Anthony Woods, was introduced to Williams by Barry Ulanov, the great jazz writer who had himself converted to Catholicism from Judaism. Woods, who was based at the large St. Ignatius Loyola Church on Park Avenue, gave catechism classes that Williams attended with Lorraine Gillespie. Woods helped Williams learn how to pray for others without writing out each name on her lengthy prayer lists. Perhaps most important, he encouraged her to return to her music. In 1957 both Williams and Gillespie were baptized and confirmed in the Catholic Church.

A Marriage of Jazz and Faith

Williams’ conversion began a ten-year period of bringing together jazz and liturgy, from 1962 to 1972. In ’62 Williams composed “Hymn for St. Martin de Porres” for the Dominican lay brother who was the first person of color to be canonized in the Catholic Church. The piece appears on the 1964 recording Black Christ of the Andes, released on Williams’ own record label, Mary Records.

In 1964 Williams convinced the Pittsburgh bishop, John J. Wright, to help sponsor the first Pittsburgh Jazz Festival. At that festival, which included Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk, Ben Webster, and others, Melba Liston arranged much of Williams’ original material (including “St. Martin de Porres” and “Praise the Lord”) for a 25-piece band.

Pittsburgh was also where Williams composed the first of her three Masses. In 1967 she was hired by Bishop Wright to teach music at Seton High School, a Catholic girls’ school in the city. Williams began writing her first Mass (simply entitled Mass) during her teaching: according to Williams, she would write eight bars at a time and then teach the new material to the students. In July of the same year, her complete Mass was performed in Pittsburgh’s St. Paul’s Cathedral with a small choir of thirteen voices and piano.

In 1968 Williams was commissioned by the New York Catholic Diocese to compose a Mass for Lent. Mass for Lenten Season was performed for six Sundays at the Church of St. Thomas the Apostle in New York in 1968. The instrumentation included saxophone, flute, guitar, piano, bass and drums (or bongos). These first two Masses have never been recorded in their entirety.

That April, following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Williams composed two tribute pieces for the civil rights leader. “If You’re Around When I Meet My Day” and “I Have a Dream” were both performed by a children’s choir on Palm Sunday of 1968.

In March 1969 the Pontifical Commission on Justice and Peace commissioned Williams to write the Mass for Peace. This papal commission was an opportunity that Williams had dreamed about for years.

This third Mass, which combined jazz-rock and gospel, is the best known of the three Masses. Williams self-released the work on Mary Records and premiered Music for Peace in concert at Columbia University’s St. Paul’s Chapel in April 1970. She presented the piece in churches and schools for several years before it was performed as part of a Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York in 1975. She also expanded the Mass for Alvin Ailey, who choreographed and performed the work, now known as Mary Lou’s Mass. (See the video above to hear my interpretation of “Gloria” from Mary Lou’s Mass).

From 1977 to 1981, Williams was artist-in-residence at Duke University, where her history of jazz classes had long waiting lists — Williams’ love of educating young people made her an extremely popular teacher. She formed the Mary Lou Williams Foundation just prior to her death on May 28, 1981.

Traveling with Mary Lou

My own journey with Mary Lou Williams began two decades ago.

In 2000, Dr. Billy Taylor asked me to lead my group at the Mary Lou Williams Festival at the Kennedy Center. I was excited and felt a huge responsibility to learn about Williams — at that time, I did not yet know any of her work. I had heard Williams’ name, and knew that she had been a pioneering jazz musician who had mentored Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and Thelonious Monk — but I had not yet listened to that much of her music.

Fortunately, I found ample resources with which to begin my research: trumpeter Dave Douglas had recently released the recording Soul on Soul, a tribute to Williams; author Linda Dahl had recently released her biography of Williams, Morning Glory; and I visited the wonderful Mary Lou Williams Collection at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University.

The revelation about Williams’ sacred output was especially of interest to me, as I had moved from Chicago to New York in 1997 to accept a position as music director at All Angels’ Church, an Episcopal parish on the Upper West Side. While at All Angels’, I composed the beginnings of two Mass settings, Psalm settings, and new music for old hymn texts. After leaving that position in 2000 (right around the time of my Kennedy Center performance). Inspired by Williams, I realized that I had a book of music that might have a life outside of one congregation.

Like Mary Lou Williams, I began making contacts with churches when I would travel, and started presenting my sacred music in the context of worship services, something I do to this day. Like Williams, I feel passionately that jazz has much to offer the church: its life, richness, and ability to move hearts is sorely needed as part of the musical palette offered in worship music today. Like Williams, I converted to Catholicism. (I was received into the church in 2009.) While my decision to convert was not because of Williams, her courage to follow the leading of God’s Spirit — both in music and in faith — provided me with constant encouragement, comfort, and sometimes a kick in the pants to move forward.

Going back and rereading portions of Morning Glory, I resonate even more deeply with Williams’ struggles as a bandleader and composer. At times, I have felt discouragement, confusion, and loneliness as I have wrestled with where God is leading me. I have wondered why my path does not seem to be conventional. But then I look at the photo of Williams above my computer, and I’m reminded that I’m not alone. This strong, talented, sensitive, passionate woman has laid the groundwork for me and many others who follow in her wake. How could we not be emboldened by her remarkable example?

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More Mary Lou

For additional information on the life and music of Mary Lou Williams, check out these selected resources.

Online:

The Mary Lou Williams Collection at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University has an online exhibit dedicated to Williams.

The Mary Lou Williams Foundation is managed by Father Peter O’Brien, Williams’ former manager.

Deanna Witkowski’s website features video clips of her musical seminar Moving With the Spirit: The Sacred Jazz of Mary Lou Williams.

In Print:

Historian Tammy Kernodle’s biography Soul on Soul: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams gives ample attention to Williams’ spiritual conversion and liturgical music. And the aforementioned Morning Glory, by Linda Dahl, is another significant biography of Williams:

On CD:

Both Mary Lou’s Mass and Mary Lou Williams Presents Black Christ of the Andes have been reissued in the last several years by Smithsonian Folkways, and are available on iTunes as well as at Amazon.

Williams’ non-liturgical recordings are also noteworthy and substantial. Two of Deanna Witkowski’s personal favorites are Live at the Cookery and Zodiac Suite. In addition, Nite Life includes a half-hour spoken commentary by Williams.
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Related Article: A Chanteuse of Sacred Jazz

Photos from the Mary Lou Williams Foundation website.

Why Christians Should Celebrate Black History Month

Why Christians Should Celebrate Black History Month

February 1st marks the beginning of Black History Month.  Each year U.S. residents set aside a few weeks to focus their historical hindsight on the particular contributions that people of African descent have made to this country.  While not everyone agrees Black History Month is a good thing, here are several reasons why I think it’s appropriate to celebrate this occasion.

The History of Black History Month

First, let’s briefly recount the advent of Black History Month.  Also called African American History Month, this event originally began as Negro History Week in 1926. It took place during the second week of February because it coincided with the birthdates of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.  Harvard-trained historian, Carter G. Woodson, is credited with the creation of Negro History Week.

In 1976, the bicentennial of the United States, President Gerald R. Ford expanded the week into a full month.  He said the country needed to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

Objections to Black History Month

Black History Month has been the subject of criticism from both Blacks and people of other races.  Some argue that it is unjust and unfair to devote an entire month to a single people group.  Others contend that we should celebrate Black history throughout the entire year.  Setting aside only one month, they say, gives people license to neglect this past for the remaining eleven months.

Despite the objections, though, I believe some good can come from devoting a season to remembering a people who have made priceless deposits into the account of our nation’s history.  Here are five reasons why we should celebrate Black History Month.

1. Celebrating Black History Months Honors the Historic Leaders of the Black Community

I have the privilege of living in Jackson, Mississippi which is the site of many significant events in Black History.  I’ve heard Myrlie Evers, the wife of slain Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers, speak at local and state events.  It’s common to see James Meredith, the first African American student at Ole Miss, in local churches or at community events.

Heroes like these and many more deserve honor for the sacrifice and suffering they endured for the sake of racial equality.  Celebrating Black History Month allows us to pause and remember their stories so that we can commemorate their achievements.

2. Celebrating Black History Month Helps Us to Be Better Stewards of the Privileges We’ve Gained 

Several years spent teaching middle school students impaled me with the reality that if we don’t tell the old, old stories the next generation, and we ourselves, will forget them.  It pained me to have to explain the significance of the Harlem Renaissance and the Tuskegee Airmen to children who had never learned of such events and the men and women who took part in them.

To what would surely be the lament of many historic African American leaders, my students and so many others (including me) take for granted the rights that many people before them sweated, bled, and died to secure.   Apart from an awareness of the past we can never appreciate the blessings we enjoy in the present.

3. Celebrating Black History Month Provides an Opportunity to Highlight the Best of Black History & Culture 

All too often only the most negative aspects of African American culture and communities get highlighted.  We hear about the poverty rates, incarceration rates, and high school drop out rates.  We are inundated with images of unruly athletes and raunchy reality TV stars as paradigms of success for Black people.  And we are daily subject to unfair stereotypes and assumptions from a culture that is, in some aspects, still learning to accept us.

Black History Month provides the chance to focus on different aspects of our narrative as African Americans.  We can applaud Madam C.J. Walker as the first self-made female millionaire in the U.S.  We can let our eyes flit across the verses of poetry Phyllis Wheatley, the first African American poet and first African American female to publish a book.  And we can groove to soulful jazz and somber blues music composed by the likes of Miles Davis and Robert Johnson.  Black History Month spurs us to seek out and lift up the best in African American accomplishments.

4. Celebrating Black History Month Creates Awareness for All People

I recall my 8th grade history textbook where little more than a page was devoted to the Civil Rights Movement.  I remember my shock as a Christian to learn about the formation of the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church because in all my years in churches and Christian schools no one had ever mentioned it.

Unfortunately it seems that, apart from intentional effort, Black history is often lost in the mists of time.  When we observe Black History Month we give citizens of all races the opportunity to learn about a past and a people of which they may have little awareness.

5. Celebrating Black History Month Reminds Us All that Black History Is Our History 

It pains me to see people overlooking Black History Month because Black history—just like Latino, Asian, European, and Native American history—belongs to all of us. Black and White, men and women, young and old.  The impact African Americans have made on this country is part of our collective consciousness.  Contemplating Black history draws people of every race into the grand and diverse story of this nation.

Why Christians Should Celebrate Black History Month

As a believer, I see racial and ethnic diversity as an expression of God’s manifold beauty.  No single race or its culture can comprehensively display the infinite glory of God’s image, so He gave us our differences to help us appreciate His splendor from various perspectives.

God’s common and special grace even work themselves out in the providential movement of a particular race’s culture and history.  We can look back on the brightest and darkest moments of our past and see God at work.  He’s weaving an intricate tapestry of events that climax in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

And one day Christ will return. On that day we will all look back at the history–not just of a single race but of people from every nation, tribe, and tongue–and see that our Creator had a plan all along.  He is writing a story that points to His glory, and in the new creation, His people won’t have a month set aside to remember His greatness. We’ll have all eternity.

Originally published in February 2020