(RNS) In one of his last official acts, President Obama has designated Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and other civil rights landmarks in Birmingham, Ala., as the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument.
The designation protects the historic A.G. Gaston Motel in that city, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders had their 1963 campaign headquarters, as well as Kelly Ingram Park, where police turned hoses and dogs on civil rights protesters.
And it includes the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where four girls died in 1963 after Ku Klux Klan members detonated more than a dozen sticks of dynamite outside the church basement.
“This national monument will fortify Birmingham’s place in American history and will speak volumes to the place of African-Americans in history,” said the Rev. Arthur Price Jr., pastor of the church, in a statement.
Obama’s proclamation also cites the role of Bethel Baptist Church, headquarters of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, and St. Paul United Methodist Church, from which protesters marched before being stopped by police dogs.
In his proclamation Thursday (Jan. 12), Obama said the various sites “all stand as a testament to the heroism of those who worked so hard to advance the cause of freedom.”
In other acts, all timed to Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which will be observed on Monday, the president designated the Freedom Riders National Monument in Anniston, Ala., and the Reconstruction Era National Monument in coastal South Carolina.
He cited the role of congregations in all three areas — from sheltering civil rights activists at Bethel Baptist Church to hosting mass meetings at First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., to providing a school for former slaves at the Brick Baptist Church in St. Helena Island, S.C.
The designations instruct the National Park Service to manage the sites and consider them for visitor services and historic preservation.
“African-American history is American history and these monuments are testament to the people and places on the front-lines of our entire nation’s march toward a more perfect union,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.
Finally, we have a story of rebellion that takes us beyond the slave narrative and shows the beginnings of the revolution of the African American. The Birth of A Nation is the story of Nat Turner played by actor and award-winning director Nate Parker, who is a literate slave preacher-turned-radical that endures the woes of slavery and reinterprets the Bible to be empowering, instead of a source of control.
Starting this weekend, audiences everywhere will have the opportunity to relive the slave tale from a different perspective. It is a story that sheds light on how Christian faith did not subdue slaves, but instead, it became a source of strength. We had the opportunity to view the pre-screening of this perfect retelling of the events leading up to this historic revolt and its haunting, gory imagery that depicts a reality of this undeniable time in history.
While viewing the film, some may spot some other similarities that Turner endures at the age of 31, so be prepared to cheer when he displays his God-given intellect and might. In the meantime, we would like to share some of the film’s most compelling themes with the uneducated, miseducated, and African American History enthusiasts that are prevalent both in the past and present below:
Using Scripture as a Source of Power
Historically, so much has been handed to black people for defeat and turned into a weapon of victory, including our faith.
In the film, the slave master’s wife discovers that Nat can read and takes it as a divine sign to mentor him in Scripture. As an adult, the owner uses Nat’s gift of preaching for profit while also using the sermons to subdue other slaves.
However, after taking a closer look and studying the Bible again, Turner realizes that the Scripture is being misused; so he chooses to use it as a source of power for the revolution.
The message we should all take from this is to read the Word and get to know God for yourself in order to prevent misinterpretation and enhance our sense of empowerment. The tale of false prophets is nothing new, so it is important that we are able to differentiate between a manipulated preacher and a vessel of God? The presentation of the Word will reveal the truth.
The Prayer Warrior, Not the Foot Soldier
What audiences will not see in this film is the majestic Black, female soldier that we have come to love in modern-day society. In fact, the women in this film are meek in comparison, however their strength comes in the form of prayer and support. This image may irritate some and make you wonder why the women are praying instead of picking up weapons and strategizing.
However, it is important to remember that the woman’s role during the days of American slavery was to sit back, observe and continue to be a constant support for the men in their lives.
As time went on, the revolutions to follow gave birth to many strong women who bore even stronger children and the victory continues amidst our battle on both the physical and spiritual battlefield.
“They’re killing people everywhere for no other reason at all but being black.”
This line in the film will make the audience shutter at the reality of the history and our present circumstances in the fight to show that Black lives do, in fact, matter. Although it is not meant to address the current movement, it is clear that the director, Parker, wanted to make the correlation.
The film shows what punishment looks like for the concept of freedom, and this same concept is something that Blacks pay for repeatedly despite their individual success and our community’s history of overcoming obstacles.
As a community, African Americans have greatly contributed to the evolution of the American landscape and some would argue that punishment is given as envious punishment. This same theme is carried throughout the film.
So Why See Yet Another Slave Film?
With films like Amistad, 12 Years A Slave and television series like “The Roots,” many of these stories are about surviving slavery and not the brutal fight to be free. Although the story is a carefully paced depiction of Nat Turner’s life, it pieces together the ancestral grit, new philosophy, and spiritual awakening that makes the oppressed ask, “When is enough is enough?”
We are living in a time where we are most certainly free and, somehow, still at war in an effort to show our worth. While it is not implied that we revolt in the form of violence against injustice, it is a reminder to stand up for our God-given right to be free and treated justly.
Before Sunday night, you might have recognized actor and social activist Jesse Williams, 34, for his role on ABC’S “Grey’s Anatomy,” or perhaps you’ve come across news coverage on his active participation in recent protests that began shortly after the death of Michael Brown. However, it was the speech Williams gave while accepting the Humanitarian Award during Sunday’s BET Awards that catapulted him to a new level and shed light on his genuine passion as a social activist.
The brilliance of Williams’ speech is that it simultaneously inspired, convicted, encouraged, and indicted his mostly black audience. His overall demeanor and diction created a didactic environment that impacted all who were listening, including some of the biggest entertainers in the world, the media, and the thousands of viewers who tuned in Sunday night. No matter who you were, on Sunday night we received a treat when Williams took the stage to deliver such a powerful message.
Although Williams took the time to address a number of things that were long overdue, it was the below points that created opportunity for some serious reflection on how faith has been misused in the black community and how we can use that same faith to actively gain the freedom we were given by God and promised by the American enterprise.
Many of us have been praying for the wrong things.
All of us in here getting money—that alone isn’t going to stop this… Now, dedicating our lives to getting money just to give it right back. [We] put someone’s brand on our body when we spent centuries praying with brands on our bodies, and now we pray to get paid with brands for our bodies. —Jesse Williams
This point was directed particularly towards the celebrities in the room, but it applies to everyone in our culture that makes the concept of “celebrity” something to strive for, the measure of success. In just three sentences, Williams highlights the complex relationship between black people’s enduring faith in the midst of slavery and the travesty of so many of our people twisting the American dream today. They have taken advantage of the freedom that the slaves prayed for in exchange for socioeconomic slavery. This new-age slavery comes in the form of corporate branding and the dollars that are attached as a measure of success.
How many people do you know that are praying from an impoverished, prosperity theology? Perhaps you also know a few people who measure their success and “favor” by material wealth, selling themselves for money, attention from “the right people,” and likes on social media.
Williams’ statement reminds us that the success we should be praying for and working toward is measured by the freedom of self-determination and liberty for our communities, not dollars in our bank accounts and designers on our bodies.
We can’t just wait to die and go to Heaven to be free.
Now, freedom is always coming in the hereafter but, you know what, though, the hereafter is a hustle. We want it now.—Jesse Williams
Jesus prayed for the Kingdom of God to come and the will of God to be done on Earth as it is in Heaven (Matthew 6:9-10). Then, Jesus took action everywhere; He went to correct the earthly things that were at odds with Heaven, from sickness to disease, to demonic attacks. He addressed everything from the exploitation of the poor to self-righteousness, to pride, and all of the impacts of sin that separates us from the power of God’s presence in our lives.
Jesus did not die only for us to focus on the afterlife. Instead, He promised the disciples that those who follow Him would receive back what they have left to follow him (family and land) in both this life and the life to come (Mark 10:29-31). Indeed, whom the Son has set free is free indeed!
Williams’ speech reminds us that we must have an active faith in order to see God’s work through us in our communities. Praying for individual success without praying for collective liberation is not a true reflection of God’s kingdom as followers of Christ.
Waiting for freedom to just be given to us by those who oppress us is not the answer and neither is putting it off until the afterlife. Jesus taught us to believe in the ultimate justice of God and pray for God’s will to be done on the earth. Then, we are to ask God to use us as his vessels to show love and justice as Christians here on Earth. Jesse Williams reminds us that faith without works is dead, so let’s heed the call and get to work in our faith for freedom.
Check out Jesse Williams’ entire speech below:
Share your thoughts on Jesse Williams’ call-to-action during Sunday night’s “BET Awards” below.
This week, Roots, the classic tale of slavery and survival, was revived and reimagined by the History Channel, and a new generation was empowered. Twitter erupted in animated commentary through the hashtags #RootsSyllabus, #KuntasKin, #Kizzy, #ChickenGeorge and #KuntaKinte. This year marks 40 years since the world was introduced to the original adaptation of Alex Haley’s best-selling novel, and many of the themes throughout this slave narrative continue to reflect some of the issues and values today in our community, including spirituality, tradition, values, and wisdom of a family of survivors. The four-part series showed us that regardless of our situation, it is absolutely imperative that we continue to persevere in mind, body, soul, and family. Below are several lessons that we, as a people, are able to take from this Alex Haley classic:
‘Your name is your spirit.’
The story of Kunta Kinte begins with his father, a Mandinka warrior, lifting him to the heavens to ask for his name, which was to be his purpose. This tradition was carried out generationally as a way to surrender the child to God (called Allah in the film) to allow them to become a vessel of purpose, which is similar to what we do today during a child’s baptism or dedication ceremony. Purpose gives life to another purpose and that purpose becomes legacy. This tradition is a foundation of spiritual fortitude that is to guide us through our lives and can be seen in Christianity and other faiths. However, the question for us all is “Are we named for our purpose and are we living it?”
We praise a God of all people.
What was interesting to see was the correlation between how the Black community is divided in spiritual beliefs back then and how it still rings true today. Some believe that Christianity was taught to Black people as a tool of control. Today, some look at Christianity in a degenerate way that made Black people meek, submissive, and unwilling to fight. Kizzy was most vocal about the faith with the statement ‘Jesus ain’t done nothing for Black people’. As time passed she and George’s wife Matilda, a Christian, were able to come to a mutual understanding of the spirit that recognized God.
Photo Courtesy of Twitter/RootsSeries
We are warriors.
Kunta Kinte was raised to be a warrior and every generation after became one almost by default of their spiritual connection. Kizzy was empowered by her father to be a warrior of the mind, body, and spirit. Although she fought for her freedom, she was ultimately still enslaved, but not in her mind. As our youth continue to be bullied by peers or police we have to continue to raise them to be warriors within the mind and spirit. This is a value well carried in the Black community, that has allowed us to overcome many things post slavery. But we must ask ourselves how can we help others who have lost their ‘warrior way’?
She’s hard-headed and I like her.
With the empowerment and simultaneous attack on Black women’s beauty, intelligence, fortitude, and accomplishments, there was such a wonderful representation of how we’ve always had success in our blood. Kizzy, the daughter of Kunta Kinte, embodied all of these qualities and took pride in it, which is what made her attractive. Even after giving birth to George as a result of being raped, she had the strength to love her son and raise him with the values she learned from her parents. The key element in all of this was the mutual respect between men and women for their strengths. When George wanted to marry Matilda, it is revealed that he was attracted to her stubbornness and strength, qualities similar to his mother Kizzy. That alone is a statement. This is a message to all Black women. It is your birthright to be amazing!
Photo Courtesy of Twitter/RootsSeries
‘We will not survive as enemies.’
Today, the Black community faces a crisis of crippling acts that is tearing us apart, including crime-induced, petty arguments, pride, greed. When Kunta is taken on to the slave ship there was a moment where many warriors from different tribes complained and argued until someone said ‘We will not survive as enemies.’ In the community today, we have people like Fiddler (Henry), who are able to ‘play by the rules’ and try to guide others out of their chained mindset. And there are other figures, like the tribe that sold the Mandinga warriors to the Europeans, who are driven by the aforementioned, crippling acts, without realizing that we are all on the same ship. When the slaves unified, regardless of their titles in their homeland, the ship’s power began to crumble. How have we not realized the value in being unified in the spirit?
Family is the root of wholeness.
Family is the nucleus of survival and spiritual connection throughout the entire series. There were many family dynamics that dictated how the various characters operated. Kunta and Belle were in love and had Kizzy which is comparable to a conventional family unit. On the other hand, George is the illegitimate child of the slave master Tom Lee, with whom he has a ‘weekend Dad’ relationship, which is strained when Lee treats him like a slave instead of a son. Eventually, when George and Tom repair their strained relationship, it can be compared to a situation when a father is absent for an extended period of time and eventually attempts to rebuild that relationship. What was seen in each of these situations was an unbreakable bond that allowed the evolution of the spirit and tradition. Despite any circumstance, the dedication to family is the root of wholeness back then and even more so now.
So what is Roots really about? It is about living in our spiritual purpose as we, as a community, walk through generational circumstances and evolve as a whole to honor our spiritual lineage.
Comment below with your connection to Roots.