Mary Lou Williams (Photo courtesy of William P. Gotlieb/Library of Congress)
In recognition of Black History Month, we are highlighting the liturgical work and faith journey of Mary Lou Williams, a pioneering jazz pianist and composer. Williams, who died in 1981 at age 71, was a prolific artist, writing and arranging hundreds of compositions and released dozens of recordings, including A Keyboard History and the Mass for Peace. 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.
This Wednesday, Deanna Witkowski, an UrbanFaith contributor, will lead a quartet and 12-voice choir of professional jazz vocalists in a performance of works by the trailblazing artist at The Park Avenue Christian Church, 1010 Park Avenue at 85th Street in Manhattan. Witkowski will also facilitate a pre-concert talk starting at 7:15 pm on the importance and influence of Williams on current jazz musicians.
The featured work on the program is Williams’ 1967 “Music for Peace,” a monumental work of sacred jazz informed by the Civil Rights movement and the liturgical reforms of the Roman Catholic Church’s Vatican II Council, as well as Williams’ own deep personal faith. Her remarkably original settings of traditional liturgical texts embrace a compendium of jazz styles, from blues to bossa nova. Music for Peace, received with great acclaim, was later choreographed and performed by the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater as “Mary Lou’s Mass.”
For those of you who live or work in the greater New York City area, we hope that you will be able to attend this faith-filled encomium to Williams’ work.
For additional information on Mary Lou Williams, check out Deanna Witkowski’s UrbanFaith article, Mary Lou’s Sacred Jazz.
Mary J. Blige and Angela Bassett star as “Betty & Coretta” in Lifetime’s original movie (Photo credit: Richard McLaren/Lifetime.com)
The old saying goes, “Behind every great man, there is a woman.” I have observed, however, that “beside every great man, there is a woman.” Such is the case with Civil Rights advocates, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. While many are familiar with their stories, few know the stories of their devoted wives Coretta Scott King and Dr. Betty Shabazz. More surprisingly the friendship that formed between these two women after the assassinations of their husbands is an untold story.
That is until Lifetime boldly presented this bond of sister and womanhood in the television world premiere of “Betty and Coretta” last weekend. A corporate executive at A&E Network did confirm that the Shabazz and King families were not consulted for the film, noting the temptation for family members to protect their legacies. Given the documented inward fighting between siblings in both families, viewers can understand (at least partially) the network’s decision. Some of the heirs are not happy with the flick.
Ilyasah Shabazz, third daughter of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz and author of Growing Up X, called the film “inaccurate.” There are a few grievances raised: Contrary to Ilyasah’s statement, there are several pictures available online portraying Dr. Shabazz’s head covered with a scarf. Whether or not Dr. Shabazz spoke on her death bed is somewhat irrelevant. The point is Mrs. King did come to be at her friend, Betty’s side in the days leading up to her death. According to the children, moreover, there was a house visit portrayed in the movie which never really took place. Whenever a person’s life is brought to a film there is a certain level of embellishment that goes with the territory because producers are attempting to share a big story in a finite amount of time; smooth transitions are needed to move the story line forward and still capture the big picture. With the aforementioned reasons in mind, one can hardly call Lifetime’s portrayal a work of fiction.
Lifetime took great care adding credibility to the film by featuring actress, Ruby Dee, as narrator of the movie and dear friend of the Shabazz family. The movie picks up right before the assassinations of Malcolm (February 21, 1965) and Martin (April 4, 1968), and opened with Ruby Dee (who recently turned 90 years old) setting the stage for the times of racism, war, and poverty in America. Throughout the film she continues sharing facts about the deaths of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, the Black National Political Convention (of 10,000 attendees where Coretta and Betty first met), the lobbying and six million signatures Mrs. King gathered to make Martin Luther King, Jr. a National Holiday, and she narrates all the way to the deaths of both phenomenal women.
The movie is not about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Malik Yoba), Malcolm X (Lindsay Owen Pierre), or their legacies per se. The movie is also not about the King and Shabazz children. The movie focuses on two women who were powerful, strong, faithful, and devoted leaders in their own rights. The film spans three decades and weaves the lives of these two civil rights activists and shares how they stood for justice.
A pregnant, Betty Shabazz (Mary J. Blige) and her four daughters watched her husband being gunned down as he took the stage to deliver what became his last message. After Malcolm X’s assassination, Betty delivered twin girls, which made her a single mother with six small children. With the help of friends and those in her community, Betty cared for her family and earned a doctorate degree in high-education administration from the University of Massachusetts. She became an associate professor of health sciences at New York’s Medgar Evers College. She spent the rest of her life working as an university administrator and fundraiser, before she died on June 23, 1997 as a result of injuries sustained by a fire her 10-year-old grandson, Malcolm set in her home.
As a widow, Coretta Scott King (Angela Bassett) raised four children while remaining a leading participant in the Civil Rights Movement. She went from being her husband’s motivator and partner in the movement to being a justice advocate to the world. In addition to lobbying for the national King Holiday (first celebrated in January 1986), she became president, chair, and Chief Executive Officer of The King Center in Atlanta, GA. At the end of the movie, Ruby Dee notes that Mrs. King died in 2006, nine years after Dr. Shabazz, from ovarian cancer.
The movie goes beyond their advocacy works and humanizes these valiant women. It is difficult to know for sure the intimate conversations that took place between the two. There is one living legend, however, who is knowledgeable of at least some of those conversations, and that woman is Myrlie Evers-Williams, wife and widow of the first NAACP field officer, Medgar Evers. As widows of the Civil Rights Movement, Myrlie Evers-Williams shared a special bond with King and Shabazz. In the book, Betty Shabazz: A Sisterfriends Tribute in Words and Pictures, she wrote about a healing spa retreat the three of them took together. During the retreat, they committed not to talk about the assassinations of their husbands or the movement; they simply bonded as sisters and friends. She also wrote that “the three stayed in contact and tried to get together whenever they could.”
Lifetime briefly mentioned the retreat at the end of the movie (hence the purpose of the Betty Shabazz hospital bed scene). However, Myrlie Evers-Williams’ character only makes a brief appearance in the film when Dr. Shabazz took the position to teach at Medgar Evers College. Maybe one day, Myrlie Evers-Williams will tell her side of this story.
What Their Stories Mean for Us
All things considered, I believe we have a reason to rejoice with the production of this film. Mrs. King and Dr. Shabazz came together to shepherd the legacies of their husbands, but that is only part of their stories. The bigger story is these women stood together and turned their tragedies into triumphs. Even more important, both women used their faith, family, and friendships to advocate justice on behalf of women, children, the poor, and oppressed. They stood together and changed the world.
A twitter reflection by @lativida sums it up well: Take note all you dumb reality shows! This is how REAL BLACK WIVES act! These women knew real pain and persevered! #BettyandCoretta.
Betty and Coretta were strong in their own rights. They were single mothers who became grandmothers and they took care of their families. They took the mantles that were passed to them and used them as a foundation to build their communities and our nation. They remind us, each of us (the single mother, wife, or young person of any gender), of what we can do with faith, friendship, and forgiveness, for this, yes this is how real black wives behave! Thank God for their tenacity, legacies, and friendship.
“Washington DC, USA-August 24, 2013: Messages are posted on a board in remembrance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for the 50th anniversary of the civll rights march on Washington DC. The original civil rights march took place on August 28, 1963. These messages are at the King Center Imaging Project at a park near the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington DC.”
No historical figure has shaped my leadership and passion for ministry like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Growing up in South Carolina, I was exposed to the hardships of the Civil Rights Movement at an early age. I recall my parents taking us to the King Center in Atlanta to watch Dr. King passionately deliver speeches and to trace our African American history in pictures. As a college student and for several years after, I visited the King Center annually and it became a pilgrimage of sorts, reminding me of what the Lord has done for us collectively as black people in America. Visiting the King Center also provided assurance that as sure as God has sealed my past, he most certainly will sustain my future if I continue to abide in Him alone.
Dr. King abided in Christ and he was a dreamer. This year marks the fifty-year anniversary of his Letter from Birmingham Jail, but it also marks the 50-year anniversary of his famous I Have a Dream speech. In the book A Call to Conscience, Dr. Dorothy Height provides an introduction to the speech. She wrote, “Dr. King departed from his notes. He spoke from his heart.” His heart was filled with a God-sized dream that reached across social, economic and racial, ethnic lines to offer a vision and hope that we can be better together. His heart was filled with a dream of reconciliation and justice.
As a seminary student, the expansive reach of Dr. King’s ministry and messages often intrigues me. There are numerous books written by people, both Christian and non-Christian, all across the world that share the convictions and quote the wise words of Dr. King. Whenever they reference him, I am reminded that they have heard and been deeply impacted by the voice of an African-American man. I am also reminded of his faithfulness and the cost Dr. King paid for the influence of his leadership. Walking in a divine purpose, pursuing a dream, and having influence always costs us something, but the benefit of the costs is that our obedience directly impacts the lives of others.
I smiled when I read that President Barack Obama would use Dr. Martin Luther King’s bible to take his oath of office in the upcoming inauguration. Considering African American history, this feels like a full circle moment. I’m certain Dr. King’s dream inspired the vision, hope, and presidency of Barack Obama. That’s why my husband and I honored the historic inauguration of the first African-American President of the United States by celebrating African-American men. We invited young men to a social to hear the wise words of respectable African-American men who were husbands, fathers, hard workers, leaders, mentors, tutors, and servants. We invited them to dream.
When I consider the plight of young black boys, it saddens me that in many ways, we are still living in an “America [that gives] the Negro people [especially African American boys and men] a bad check, a check which is marked ‘insufficient funds.’” I reject the idea that there are insufficient funds for these precious young people. I, like, Dr. King, have “the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down, other-centered men can build up.”
The truth is: the “hope” and “change” we all need are not found in President Barack Obama or any political party, government system, or human structure. I am praying for God to raise up other-centered men – Dr. Tony Evans would call them kingdom-minded men – who know their purpose, pursue their dreams, and do not take lightly their influence. In a culture that only values black boys for their physical stamina, the way they carry a ball, or recite song lyrics, I am praying for young black boys to rise in the same spirit that fueled Dr. King. I pray that they will dream again and dream big.
RIDING THE THIRD RAIL: Rev. Jesse Jackson says politics isn’t enough.
With one day left until the election, the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll has the presidential candidates “deadlocked.” But no matter who wins, Christians must stay engaged in the political process, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said last week at Columbia University. Our faith demands it.
“It is not the politics of the two parties that take us far; it is the protest and conscientious objection of the third rail that takes us far,” Jackson said October 25 during a conversation about “Politics, Religion, and the Presidential Race. (The other two participants were The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel and Columbia University visiting religion scholar Obery Hendricks.)
Hearkening back to his own historic 1988 presidential run and to his work during the civil rights movement, Jackson said, “Change comes from the third rail. … We must discuss what was not discussed on the agenda, and that means we must not be so co-opted by politics … or so absorbed by it to lose the distinction.” In fact, President Obama was a student at Columbia when Jackson debated Water Mondale and Gary Hart, Jackson said, and Obama concluded from the debate that a black man could become president.
“Part of our movement has been to raise the issues not raised,” he said. “Those are issues of the inconvenient, issues of conscience.” Difficult questions have made past presidents better, Jackson explained, and if this president is reelected, as Jackson hopes, supporters must not “let him down” by failing to raise “the right questions of conscience so as to give him the right options from which to make choices.”
Asked what role spirituality can play in politics, Jackson said, “You can be spiritual but have no moral mandate and substance. … Those of us who are Christians have a leader who is spiritual with a concrete agenda.” That agenda is to love the Lord our God and treat our neighbors as ourselves, he said. ‘The Spirit gives a mandate to do something, … It means feed the hungry. It means care for those whose backs are against the wall. You can be spiritual and not do anything. You cannot be a Christian without doing that.”
Jesus was born under death warrant from a regime that was trying to stop the rise of leadership in an “occupied zone,” Jackson said. His mission was not about the middle class, but about preaching the good news to the poor and challenging religious complicity with Rome and its oppressive tendencies. “Our morality is measured by how we treat not the middle of these, but the least of these,” Jackson said. “I was hungry and you fed me, not I was not hungry and you gave me a vacation.”
Jackson complained that when the moderator of the vice presidential debate asked candidates Joe Biden and Paul Ryan how their shared Catholic faith informs their positions on abortion, both men gave political answers to a religious question. “They gave an American answer to a Christianity question and the moderator accepted it and didn’t delve deeper,” Jackson said.
Likewise, concern for Obama’s reelection has meant that some questions of conscience that could lead to his greatness are not being raised by his supporters, Jackson said. Questions must be disciplined, not hostile, though, if they are to be heard. “To me, that is the progressive tension,” he said. “How do we raise the right questions to our friends?”
What do you think?
If your candidate wins, will you keep riding the third rail?
Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t emerge on the civil rights scene fully formed but drew from a rich spiritual and intellectual heritage that he owed, in part, to his mentor, the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays. Mays served as president of Morehouse College in Atlanta for 27 years and delivered the eulogy at King’s funeral. In the first full-length biography of Mays, Dr. Randal M. Jelks, associate professor of American and African American studies at the University of Kansas, provides an in-depth look not only at Mays’ meteoric rise from humble Southern roots to international acclaim, but he also sheds new light on the fertile soil out of which the Civil Rights Movement grew. UrbanFaith talked to Jelks about the book earlier this week. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
UrbanFaith: Why is Benjamin Mays important?
First, most people think of the Civil Rights Movement as being born in December 1955 with Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott. In point of fact, it had a long and winding road to becoming a fully understood national movement. You had to have teachers and people who laid out the groundwork for what began in ’55, and so I wanted remind readers, particularly those readers who are not familiar with institutions within the Black community, of the great intellectual leaders and teaching that went on to fully fuel a movement.
Mays grounded his civil rights philosophy in the Christian faith, but moved away from his conservative Baptist heritage into Social Gospel theology.
That’s correct. The Social Gospel emerged from a German Baptist, Walter Rauschenbusch, who was a minister in Hell’s Kitchen in New York. When you see people dying everyday from disease and impoverishment (these were European immigrants) at an alarming rate, you say, “How is this individualized gospel helping these people? Is it only teaching them to be saved for the moment and live through this hell on earth?” Mays concluded the same thing from both the impoverishment he faced in rural South and the kind of totalizing exclusion that he saw in Jim Crow America.
You write that Rauschenbusch didn’t say much about the sin of racism, but that Mays saw in Rauschenbusch’s theology something he could use. Did Mays express any resistance to adopting the Social Gospel in light of Rauschenbusch’s relative silence on race?
Mays is like all people in that you find a creative spark. You read somebody and their experience is different than yours, but you find something in that text that triggers your thinking. I think that’s how Mays used Rauschenbusch. If he was going to remain Christian, then the gospel has to speak to societal issues; it couldn’t just speak to individual issues. If it was just personalized and just a communitarian voluntary organization, it could not be a force for mobilizing social change. That’s what Mays would probably say.
You said Mays’ emphasis was more on Jesus’ humanity than on his divinity. Did Mays believe in the divinity of Christ?
If you use the old theological terms, people with high Christology hold to the divinity of Christ; with low Christology, they emphasize the humanity of Jesus. So Mays would have had a low Christology in the sense that what he sees as important about Jesus are the actions that he took and what he stood for. For Mays, Jesus’ death on the cross is because of his actions in facing the state. It is the ethics of Jesus and the teachings of Jesus that are far more long-lasting than whether Jesus arose from the dead. He doesn’t have this sort of Anselm theology of the Middle Ages that says Jesus is the sacrifice for all of us.
That sounds consistent with his belief that faith is action. Is there a direct link there?
Yes, I think he would be much more aligned with 1 and 2 John than with the Apostle Paul.
Why did Mays think it was so important to ground his arguments for racial equality in the Christian faith?
Mays could rightly assume that the American narrative began with religious freedom and the theology of those English Protestants of all stripes coming to the British colonies of North America. So, even if we had Catholics and Eastern Orthodox in the United States, that narrative sort of shapes American life and culture. And, in his era, people still went to church in great numbers. So it made sense sociologically for him to speak the language of the people and through these institutions that had moral influence.
Later when the Black Power movement arose, Mays seemed to be skeptical that civil rights could be achieved apart from a moral or spiritual foundation. Is that correct?
He wasn’t skeptical. I think the generation coming after him was much more skeptical about the ideas of moral suasion in light of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and other things. They begin to see that political power, and some would even argue revolutionary struggle by means of arms, was much more important. You can see everyone growing tired of state-sanctioned violence that was done against young civil rights activists. So there’s a real move to say that faith is power. Mays is now in his 70s as the Black Power movement emerges and he begins trying to figure out if it is right to speak in this language. What I was trying to show was that in that moment, everything was really kind of confused and here was a man who had spent his life trying to mobilize Christians to tackle the problem of race. Mays was trying to give them some grounding.
A huge part of his work involved educating Black pastors. Has that legacy been born out?
There is still the need to educate Black clergy. Mays wanted to educate them in a certain way. Black people are like everybody else in America; they have a diversity of opinions. I don’t think he was as explicit as he might have been that he wanted to educate Black pastors in a liberal, progressive way in order to empower a social movement. There are lots of pastors who go to conservative seminaries and who buy whole hog the arguments. I would think that would be short-sighted if they really looked at the conditions within Black communities.
He seemed to have some prejudice against the low-church experience.
RANDAL M. JELKS: The Civil Rights Movement “had a long and winding road to becoming a fully understood national movement.”
Mays, as a part of his generation, really didn’t look favorably on the experience of Pentecostals in particular and people in store-front churches. I think his own biases came out there. Also, he was biased because he was a Baptist. In his era, even though he was trying to be non-denominational, he doesn’t quite know what to do with people who are in ever-growing numbers becoming Pentecostal store-front preachers. He hadn’t thought that out. And, of course, you’re shaped by your education, and here he was a University of Chicago PhD. I don’t think his teachers at that time would have given much thought to the growing numbers of Pentecostals. Even some of his critics, when they were criticizing the negro’s church, saw that bias.
He had a strong commitment both to Christianity and democracy that you connect with his Baptist ecclesiology.
That’s right. It’s very much rooted in the long history. Alexis De Tocqueville wrote about this in Democracy in America. One of the things that we don’t give enough credit to is the Protestant dissenting tradition that is a shaping force in American democracy. The constitution of the United States very much resembles the way the Presbyterian church is ordered and the governing structures of the country very much resemble long-held patterns that govern the Calvinist tradition. Freedom of conscience is also very much an inheritance that he picked up on as a dissenting tradition.
I thought it was fascinating to read about how Mays’ trip to India to meet Ghandi and his debates with the Dutch Reformed South African theologian shaped his view of the American experience.
He didn’t see the problems of the United States as separate. This is the privilege of being able to travel at a time when most Americans would not have seen the world. He very much realized that the problems of Black liberation were the problems of liberation for people around the world in many different settings. He was particularly drawn to the affinity between Apartheid and Jim Crow. He had heard those same debates about whether the Bible condones a separate reality. He wanted to strike that down. In terms of Ghandi, what he saw was that black people in America were a racial minority, so to pick up 1917 Bolshevik-style revolution would have been tantamount to signing a death warrant. This is where his Christian ideals come in. Non-violent struggle keeps people’s dignity and personhood in tact. This is something very important for him, coming out of the Baptist tradition, which teaches that God is no respecter of persons, but every person is precious in God’s sight. That’s what struck him about Ghandi in his long struggle against the British.
His connection with Martin Luther King Jr. went back to when King was a high school early-admission student at Morehouse.
King’s father was a trustee of Morehouse and a graduate of Morehouse himself. And so, for young King to be entrusted to Benjamin Mays was a very good thing for his family. The Mays’ consistently had not only Martin King, but other young students over to dinner, and introduced them to national figures from A. Philip Randolph to Dorothy Height. They’re all at dinner listening to these conversations, soaking them up. What a wonderful education. So King becomes very much persuaded through Mays that ministry could have a social application, because, as he writes, he had planned to go to law school. He had not planned to pick up things like his father, who he thought was too conservative in his approach to ministry. So Mays becomes this new model of a highly educated Black minister and socially connected to world-wide issues.
You write that King modeled his early civil rights persona after Mays. In what way did he emulate Mays?
The reason I write that is we forget that Martin King was 26 years old when the Montgomery bus boycott starts. When I was 26, I was an adult, but I was still very much a young adult with no experience whatsoever. And so you take on personas as you are trying to find your voice, sort of like painters and musicians. They play like other musicians until they find their own creative spark and energy. King was already a really fine young orator, but in terms of being fully formed, I don’t think so. I think he was still trying to give homage to Mays as a kind of father figure. That’s why he was very much trying to be poised and deliberate like Mays. Biographies kind of annoy me because they are written as though this man has no developmental history like all of us. When King’s home is bombed in Montogmery, Mays has to persuade his father to back off, because his father wants him to pack up and move back to Atlanta. Mays becomes an intervening force.
And yet, Mrs. Mays complained at one point that King was borrowing from Mays without attribution.
Preaching is an art like music. If you hear a lick, and that’s good, you’re going to borrow that lick. But she certainly was not worrying about the greater cause. She was like, “That’s my husband’s work and he should be giving more credit where credit is due.”
In your estimation, what do we owe Benjamin Mays?
I don’t know that he would say we owe him anything, but for me, both as a religious person and an intellectual, I first wanted to show that there were a variety of models out there. It’s very important that we hear from different voices within the community. Of course there are conservative pastors who come on, like E.V. Hill in Los Angeles. Certainly E.V. Hill back in the day was very conservative. Mays also is a critic of people like Billy Graham and Reinhold Neibuhr.
Second, if Benjamin Mays had been president of Harvard, there would have been 1000 books written about him, because in a 27-year stretch, he graduated and was looked up to by people like Martin Luther King Jr., Marian Wright Edelman, Julian Bond, David Satcher, who was Surgeon General of the United States, and on and on and on. If he had been president of Harvard, people would say, “What kind of educator does that? What’s the shaping force for him to make this place so rich?” But it’s a little Black school for men, and he saved it from closing its doors. I think one of his great legacies is this connection between education and religious faith and thought.
Lastly, long before this term “public intellectual” was coined, he was indeed a public intellectual, writing primarily to Black people. I don’t think you would have seen too many White writers, like Neibuhr, saying in a column that the Korean War is wrong. There have been thousands of books written on Neibuhr, who said that the Cold War was a good thing. I was trying to say there are other voices out here who had significance and who have historical legacies that are important.