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Dreaming Still: Memories from 1963

            One year, I attended the Unity Breakfast on Martin Luther King day here in Birmingham and heard Diane McWhorter, whose rather large and publicly acclaimed book Carry Me Home  recounts again the impact of those momentous days in 1963 on the world.  Whenever someone “remembers” how something was, it invites us to remember it from where we were at the time.

I remember 1963, but it was not from the vantage point of an adult in the middle of Big Issues.  I was eight years old, in the third grade in Clarksville, Tennessee, and not mindful of much.

I remember going on a hot Sunday afternoon with my father to the home of an employee.  She happened to be African American.  Her family member had been killed in a train accident, and my father believed that the proper and respectful thing to do was to go by to see the family.

I remember waiting in the car while he went in, a little boy watching out the window to see people who also lived in Clarksville, Tennessee, but a very different Clarksville than the one in which I lived.  I had never noticed that their children didn’t go to school where I did, or that we never ate in the same restaurants, or that we barely came across one another.  This separation  made my trip all the more startling.  It was as though I had stumbled onto a hidden cave where an entire civilization hitherto unknown to me had taken residence.

I watched people come and go, just like in my community, bringing food, dabbing their eyes, dressed in their finest.  Men tugging at their collars in the hot summer air opened the door for their wives in hats to go in with the bowl or dish.  It was impressive, this little world to which I did not belong.  People laughing, people smiling, people crying, just like us.  But not with us.

I took in the strangeness, but something stirred even deeper in me.  I saw my father speaking to them, as he did to everyone, with respect and courtesy and manners.  I hear people telling tales from the sixties about marching and protesting.  I have no tales like those.  I do remember my father treating everyone the same, kindly, decently.  His employees seemed to think they all counted the same with him.  He never lost his temper that I knew of, or swore or cursed at people.  Just treated them alike.

My examples were different from those dramatic and provocative ones.  My family mostly watched the struggle on nightly television with the rest of the world.  We worried, shook our heads, weren’t too sure how it would go.  We were not allowed, though, to use epithets and inflammatory words about other races.

It takes struggle and often conflict for change to begin.  But there is also the task of taking change in and absorbing it, making it livable and practical and something that can happen every day without incident.  It is one thing to change laws.  It is another to elicit the consent of people to those laws.  And quite another to live out their spirit every day.

The whole world was changing before my eyes, in ways I did not understand and would not understand, but the example of my father’s kindness did sink deep in me.  And I wonder about the eight year old boys and girls among us.  What are they seeing?  How are we doing?  Is there something impressive enough in the way we are living life to sink deep in their souls and stay with them until they are forty-seven?

In something as simple and apparently random as going by someone’s house to pay respects, in doing what is decent and right and good, you may be causing a quiet revolution in someone who is watching not only what you do, but how you do it.  Someone is watching, always.  So write the script you want remembered.  It will live on after you for a long time, for good or for evilI was one of those little white children that Martin Luther King dreamed about.

I had an ancestor, all the way back seven generations, who owned slaves, I found out this year.  I wish that weren’t true.  I wanted to be one of the poor whites who had nothing, too.  But a great-great-great or two back, one of them owned a few slaves.  I don’t know what happened to the money, the land or the slaves, but I don’t like it.

But maybe it was like Dr. King said:

“I have a dream that one day the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”  Maybe we can make laws that are just instead of made by men who are just afraid of people who are different and play on the rest of us who are.  I hope that dream comes true.

So I am going to do every little thing I can to not be afraid, to make friends, to pay my respects, and teach my children and grandchildren that there’s room for everyone at God’s table.  Everyone.

For this day, I commemorate the King holiday with a song I did on my first CD, “Lorraine.”  It was inspired by my first visit to the Civil Rights Institute in Memphis, which ends at the balcony where Dr. King was murdered by fear and hate.  Let it be my prayer today for a better world.  Listen to the song here

 

Lorraine

Gary Furr

An unfinished cup of coffee

By an unmade bed

Near the concrete balcony

Where a man of God is dead

Looking through an old window

See the painful past

Forever frozen at the last

Down the corridors of time

Different town, same old sign

Still bearing all the pain

In the halls of the old Lorraine
 

The sound of women weeping

The trickle of my tears

Join the moan of gospel singing

Wailing hope amid the fears

Looking through new windows

for possibilities

In spite of everything we still believ

 

Down the corridors of time

Different town, same old sign

Still bearing all the pain

In the halls of the old Lorraine

 

Driving through the city

With memories of that place

In that part of town that’s really gone down

I lock the door just in case

Looking through my car window

At a man who looks back at me

After all we’ve been through, we still can’t see.

Down the corridors of time

Different town, same old sign

Still bearing all the pain

In the halls of the old Lorraine


Gene Bartow’s Biggest Win

Gene Bartow doing what he loved--coaching

How do you measure a life?  Gene Bartow is a legend now, having passed long ago from active coaching to the place where no one else can reach you—retired success.  But since he passed away, Birmingham, Memphis and the college basketball world have been filled with remembering.  He is a college basketball Hall of Fame coach who coached 1000 games in his career.  He finished with a 647-353 record over 34-seasons.  He [i]was a success at Memphis State, leading the Tigers to a remarkable championship game appearance in 1973, where they lost to UCLA and John Wooden.  He was national coach of the year that year.   In all, his teams appeared in the NCAA tournament 14 times.[ii]

He is too often only remembered in the national press for one thing– for a time when he was successful but it wasn’t enough.  He was chosen to succeed the legendary John Wooden at UCLA, the greatest coach of all time, who had a reign of ten titles in twelve seasons, the tenth in his retiring year, and seven in a row during that time.

So in 1975 Gene Bartow came to UCLA to replace the legendary Wooden when he retired.  He stayed only two turbulent years.  He was 52-9 record and took them to the NCAA tournament both years and was in the Final Four one of those.  But it wasn’t good enough.  The Washington Post quotes one of his players, Marques Johnson from that team.  “He was a

John Wooden and Gene Bartow

sensitive person,” Johnson said in an interview. “He was used to being totally embraced as a coach and a person, and he was just not ready for the kind of vitriol thrown at him when he took Coach Wooden’s place. He never came to grips with it, and it bothered him more than anything.  After two years, he was gaunt and pale, and he refused to read the Los Angeles newspapers or listen to the radio because there was so much negativity. But he was a wonderful human being, a super nice guy and a great coach.”[iii]

As a coach, Gene Bartow touched the edge of the big prize twice, but never won it all.  He left the dream job that became a nightmare.  He decided instead to come to Birmingham, Alabama and help build an athletic program and basketball team for a then-fledgling university at UAB.  He did reach great success, including seven NCAA tournament appearances.  But he never won the “big dance,” as they say.

But another event, the dramatic run to the edge of a championship with the Memphis Tigers in 1973, may have been his real greatest moment.  “I don’t think this community ever had better race relations than when Gene coached at Memphis,” a friend said.  “He had the way of bringing everybody together to support his team and the entire university.”[iv]  It hadn’t been long since the painful memory of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Times were tense in the entire country.  Then the city of Memphis was unified for a time around the glorious run of a Cinderella team that almost did it.

They lost, as I mentioned, in the championship game, to the juggernaut UCLA, coached by Wooden and led by future

One game short, 1973

NBA stars Bill Walton and Keith Wilkes.  So his highest career points were two Final Fours, a lot of tournaments, being the sacrificial lamb at UCLA, and then to rebuilding himself as well as building UAB in Birmingham.

So how do you measure a life?  While we’re measuring, it might also be worth mentioning that he ended his life with the nickname, “Clean Gene,” a moniker few carry in college sports these days of rogue fans, agents and corruption, for the way he ran things.  He gave a race-divided city in Memphis something else to rally around and focus on in a painful historical moment.  He started a great program in the city where we live that has had some really great moments.  He battled stomach cancer to the very end with humor and grace.

I think it is fitting that Gene Bartow passed from this earth in the time in which one weekend carried the UAB-Memphis game and will be followed next weekend by Martin Luther King day.  I’d say, all in all, he did the right things.  The rest is just wins and losses.

It always matters how you play the game.  John Wooden and Gene Bartow would agree, and maybe now they get to talk about it.  All the rest is just wins and losses and what other people think.   Rest in Peace, Coach.  You went out on top.

Imagine

John Lennon

“Imagine” was not one of my favorite John Lennon songs, mainly because I take lyrics seriously and, truthfully, it’s about the most preachy song he ever wrote.

Imagine there’s no Heaven,  It’s easy if you try
No hell below us, Above us only sky
Imagine all the people, Living for today

Honestly, I think the rhyme, “Imagine there’s no countries, It isn’t hard to do, Nothing to kill or die for, And no religion too” would never survive a songwriting 101 class.  “Looks like you were just looking too hard for something to go with ‘do’ there,  fella.  But then, this is the same man who wrote,

He bag production he got walrus gumboot
He got Ono sideboard he one spinal cracker

Too much Ono on his sideboard.  But let me talk about two real “imaginators.”  They both died, as fate would have it, yesterday, on the same day.  One performed the marriage of human aspiration and technological revolution, the other a visionary of the human spirit and the resilience of its dignity.

I wrote earlier about the “three sides of the coin” in another post—that between the tired oppositions that we often see as our possibilities there is often something great and possible but unimagined.   The world changes when someone goes there begins to feel toward something as yet unknown.  It is the creative “edge” of life—thick, textured depths where new things emerge.

If “Imagine” was not all that great a song, imagining is.  Steve Jobs, as someone put it, created things people didn’t know they needed yet.  He was relentless, perfectionistic, incredibly demanding of himself and those around him, and brilliant.  He revolutionized the worlds of business, music, communication and politics with his computers.  The same software that once cost $10,000 in a professional recording studio now sits on my little iMac at home, happily creating digital recordings at a fraction of the cost.  His death sent a shudder across the world.  One of our most innovative and brilliant entrepeneurs had died.

Fred Shuttlesworth died the same day, lost in the shadow of Jobs’ death, much like his life.  He was a fiery preacher whose house and church were bombed.  He was attacked by dogs, threatened constantly, but he stood his ground.  Until Martin Luther King arrived, he seemed to be the one who would

Fred Shuttlesworth (left)

lead the civil rights movement to many.    His biographer said, ‘’There was not a person in the civil rights movement who put himself in the position of being killed more often than Fred Shuttlesworth.”  Mr. Shuttlesworth moved back to Birmingham in 2008.  I had the honor of meeting him a few years ago.  He was in a wheelchair, fragile, barely able to speak.

One emerged into global consciousness, the other nearly was forgotten except to historians and the old guard of the Civil Rights movement.  But they died on Wednesday, visionaries of the human spirit, called to something greater, determined in their pursuit of everything that human life can possibly hold.

Imagination is one of the most mysterious of all realities in the human brain.  Even when scientists isolate it and explain it they won’t be able to control it or predict when it will come along again.  Oh, I don’t imagine only sky above us.  Something in me longs for more–not merely the denial of death, but the inexplicable existence of hope and vision that life, even death, go somewhere.  A creation that can produce two such beautiful human beings has to hold more.  Just imagine.

The Other Two Sides of the Coin

Do you remember the old television show, “Newhart?”   It lives only on reruns now.  Bob Newhart and actress Mary Frann played an author and his wife who owned an inn in a weird little rural Vermont town. Among the strange characters who inhabited the town were three goony looking brothers, only one of whom ever spoke, named Larry.  Larry introduces the group the same way every time they make an appearance: “Hi, I’m Larry; this is my brother Darryl, and this is my other brother Darryl.”

It’s crazy.  How can there be three brothers with two names?  Life tends to be flat in our minds a lot of the time.  A friend recently told me about something an old fellow told him one time:  “We often say, ‘There’s two sides to every coin.’ But there are actually three—heads, tails, and the edge.’”

Three-dimensional space is a geometric notion. These three dimensions are length, width, and depth (or height).  The edge of the coin is most frequently forgotten part of things—“depth.”  For me it represents the narrow place that many false polarities might share.  There is only one edge on a coin, not two.  It is, in a sense, its own place.  It gives a third dimension.

So many complex questions and problems require the edge for solutions.  First, the notion of creativity and depth requires the capacity to see the other side as well as our own, to truly sympathize with an opponent’s positions if they are not simply disingenuous.  Second, it means holding out in our deliberations for the idea that there may be a “thicker” set of possibilities than first appear in the “coin flip” approach to theology, ethics, and politics.

There was an episode of the old Twilight Zone called “A Penny for Your Thoughts.”  The main character, Hector, is a timid guy who’s never advanced in his job at the bank.  He’s likeable, but his life is stuck.

Watch out...there's the sign up ahead!

One day he buys a newspaper, and flips a coin into the collection pan, where it lands on its edge. As a consequence, all day that day, he can hear people’s thoughts, and it changes his life.  He discovers love in the thoughts of a woman who is attracted to him that he never had the courage to ask out.  He reads the mind of an old teller who is stealing from the bank and turns him in.  He negotiates a better position and a raise and even gets help for the old teller who had stolen the money.

At the end of the day he stops by the newsstand again and buys a magazine and throws in another coin, this time knocking the coin off its edge and his telepathic powers are gone.  But he is a new man.  He has seen into the depth of his life, discovered things he did not have the courage on his own to see.

A lot of public issues turn into coin flips these days—somebody wins, the other guys loses.  Never is there the possibility that it could land on the edge and find another possibility.  This is different from compromise.  Compromise is resolving without the coin—both of us agree to be mildly unhappy.

Gandhi

The creative depth of life offers possibilities yet unimagined.  We have to learn to look there.  Who would have thought that the 2,000 year old teachings of Jesus about non-violence would bring down British rule in India or Jim Crow laws in the American South?  But it happened.  Gandhi and Martin Luther King saw a new possibility between violent overthrow and acquiescence and discovered the creative possibilities.

It makes me wonder in our political landscape of the moment—what are we missing?  If ever we needed the dimension of depth to apply to problems of economy, work, immigration, homeland security and the other vexing issues of our time, it is now.  The great problem of politics is not merely electing different people from the ones we have at present, but in putting forth solutions that move beyond the impasses.  For that, we will require a level of creative possibility that is largely unknown in the landscape of the culture wars, limited as they are to the  “heads” of progressive change from what is on one side and the “tails” of conservative resistance on the other.

Hope resides on the edge.  May the creative leaders who can see it find us for this time.

Dreaming On


The anniversary of 9/11 is not only a marker of a terrible historical moment, it is a reminder that we have lived an entire decade in the collective shadows of fear and diminished hopes.  Our children graduating now have spent their childhoods absorbing tsunamis, wars, terrorism, hurricanes, earthquakes and economic catastrophe.  They enter a job market that will test their ability to hope.  It may be a great moment not only to remember 9/11 but also to remember how to hope.

Howard Thurman once wrote that “as long as a man has a dream in his heart, he cannot lose the significance of living.” (Meditations of the Heart, 36-37).  He went on to say that realism, daily facts, are unavoidable, but without that ineffable presence of something bigger inside us, life turns into “a swamp, a dreary, dead place and, deep within, a man’s heart begins to rot.”  This dream does not have to be some world-shaking vision of dramatic change, although moments of history sometimes require these.  Instead, “the dream is the quiet persistence in the heart that enables [us] to ride out the storms of  [our] churning experiences.”

Thurman grew up in Daytona Beach during segregation, but rose to national prominence as a preacher, writer, pastor and academician. He traveled widely and participated in many Christian missions and among his travels, spent time with Gandhi.  He was a college classmate of Martin Luther King, Sr., and was the Dean of the Chapel when King’s son, Martin, came there for study.

Thurman took the young man under wing and mentored him.  He was, in many regards, King’s spiritual director through his short life.  His book, Jesus and the Disinherited, written in 1949, profoundly influenced King.   In 1953 Life magazine) rated Thurman among the twelve most important religious leaders in the United States, but time has moved on and, outside the African American churches and historians and theologians, Thurman is not well-known.

When we think of all of these echoes of Thurman in the life of a young preacher from Atlanta, and how Thurman’s thoughts lived out through King’s life, it underlines the importance of his words about dreaming.  Our dreams do not have to be cosmic or political and yet they can roll out to change the world.  The Apostle Paul had a dream one night of a Macedonian man who said, “Come over here and help us,” and the gospel came to that place.  Peter had a vision that opened the gospel to the Gentiles in Acts 10.  Dreaming is powerful.

These dreams do not have to be world-sized.  They can be quite simple—dreaming of a better life for your children, to help a friend whose life is crushed, or as simple as “I want to be a better person than I have been up until now.”  It can be a dream to rebuild out of financial ruin or when your circumstances have taken a devastating turn.  We can dream of helping the next generation do more than we ever imagined and so give ourselves to a career of teaching and guiding.

There is something very determined about dreaming.  While “dreamy” often describes escape, inward dreams are just the opposite—they occupy our hearts and minds and drive us toward something that is ultimately better.  We imagine a future worth attaining.

Don’t underestimate the dream.  It is quite powerful.  It raised the ancient Jewish patriarch Joseph out of prison and into the Pharaoh’s court, and ultimately Israel into existence.  Thurman’s dreams lived into a young man who was part of calling America to its best self.

In these times of rebuilding, re-imagining and renewal, biblical people ought to dream.  Who knows what might come of it?  Just when life is at its worst is when dreams matter most.