There was a notable event, among others, in Macon several days ago. On Feb. 21, about 3,000 people attended a very special and unique performance at Beulahland Bible Church. It featured world-class and homegrown international violinist Robert McDuffie, actress Anna Deavere Smith, who has appeared in “West Wing” and “Nurse Jackie,” along with pianist Elizabeth Pridgen and the McDuffie Center String Ensemble.
The title of the event, “An Evening of Words and Music,” was appropriate. The words, performed by Smith, were taken from the “Letter From the Birmingham Jail,” penned by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in 1963, as he sat in a jail cell where he skillfully took apart the arguments published in the Birmingham News from eight white clergymen headlined, “A Call for Unity.”
In that call, the pastors railed against King’s methods and charged him with being an outsider and a rabble rouser who shouldn’t dabble in their affairs. They called the demonstrations “unwise and untimely.”
These were not just any pastors, but the upper crust of spiritual leadership in the state: C.C.J. Carpenter, bishop of Alabama; Joseph A. Durick, auxiliary bishop, Diocese of Mobile and Birmingham; Milton Grafman, rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, Birmingham; Paul Hardin, bishop of the Alabama-West Florida Conference; Nolan Bailey Harmon, bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the Methodist Church; George M. Murray, bishop coadjutor, Episcopal Diocese of Alabama; Ed V. Rampage, moderator, Synod of the Alabama Presbyterian Church in the United States; and Earl Stallings, pastor of First Baptist Church in Birmingham.
It didn’t matter to these Right Reverends that Birmingham’s nickname was “Bombingham” and that outward racial strife had been rolling though their city since the turn of the 20th century. It mattered little that blacks were not regarded as second-class citizens -- they weren’t citizens at all, but rather people who could be killed on a whim with no consequences.
The pastors wrote, “however technically peaceful those actions may be, (they) have not contributed to the resolution of our local problems. We do not believe that these days of new hope are days when extreme measures are justified in Birmingham.”
Justification? What was “new hope” to the pastors was just an empty phrase to the black community who suffered daily from the most virulent form of Jim Crow.
The reading by Smith on the three large screens at Beulahland was excellent, (Smith could not attend in person as planned because she tore a tendon in her leg). She also performed a piece written by her, “John Lewis -- Brother.” If you closed your eyes, and with a little imagination, you would have thought Congressman Lewis was in the sanctuary.
All of this with McDuffie and Pridgen playing in the background. I must back up. The evening started with one of my favorite, however solemn, pieces, the “Adagio For Strings” by Samuel Barber. It set the mood for acute reflection.
I will admit, I was a bit conflicted as the evening came to an end. One side of me was so happy to see this throng of people, many traveling in that part of town for the first time, and seeing smiling faces of all hues and shades -- black, brown, yellow and white -- who are living examples of how far we’ve come as a nation since King penned this letter -- 6,875 words long -- in the margins of the newspaper.
For many, and I would say most, this was not a lesson in history. They lived during those turbulent times and could reflect on where they were and the attitudes they had. I’m sure for some, the memories were painful, but their very presence said it all. They were willing to face down their own demons and continue on the path to the beloved community.
But the other side of me grieved for what has not changed. The same power structure that King wrote about in his letter, while becoming more tolerant, still controls where 95 percent of the money flows. There is a reason the neighborhood surrounding the beautiful facilities of Beulahland could be easily termed “blighted.”
The economics of the situation have changed little since 1963. In fact, I would foist the idea that black children were better educated to face the world in the segregated schools of the 1960s than they are in the segregated schools of 2015. With the people in the audience, I still have hope that we can bring about lasting change for the entire community.
Charles E. Richardson is The Telegraph’s editorial page editor. He can be reached at 478-744-4342 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tweet@crichard1020.