By BENJAMIN PRATT
Author and Columnist
Is your heart still broken over the evil that came to Charlottesville, Virginia, one month ago?
As I ponder that horrific eruption of hate, the question that troubles my heart is as old as a folk song from the ’60s: Why can’t we talk to each other anymore?
If you share my daily wrestling over the chasms dividing Americans in this season of confrontation, then may I invite you along with me—through this column—on a journey I recently took with my wife Judith to South Africa. Through the lens of Apartheid’s terrible legacy, I came home with a new viewpoint on our own nation’s history of racism—and the challenges we face to this day.
Join me, please.
Our South African pilgrimage began at Block 4 prison at Constitution Hill, Johannesburg, which once housed Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Joe Slovo, Albertina Sisulu and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela as political prisoners held for months in solitary confinement. Adjacent to the prison and military fort is the home of the Constitutional Court that currently endorses the rights of all citizens. Standing in one of the solitary cells, I thought about the incarcerations of John Lewis, Martin Luther King Jr. and so many other political prisoners in the USA.
The next step in our journey was the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum, located in Orlando West, Soweto. This site commemorates the role played by the school children who took part in the Soweto protests of 1976. Hector was shot by police during a peaceful June 16, 1976, Soweto demonstration against the mandatory use of Afrikaans in the black schools. That policy was intended to further isolate blacks from others in their community and all non-whites from the rest of the world. Students were marching toward Orlando Stadium when police opened fire. Hector, 12, was one of the first killed. Sam Nzima took the iconic picture of Pieterson’s body being carried by high school student Mbuyisa Makhubo, with Hector’s sister, Antoinette Sithole, running alongside.
Antoinette was 16 the day her brother died. We were fortunate that Antoinette joined us at the memorial site and spoke eloquently about that day in her life and the painful experience. She brought us to tears by describing the senseless brutality of the Apartheid system.
Her words brought Emmett Till, 14, to the forefront of my memories. In 1955, Emmett traveled from his Chicago home to visit family in Mississippi, where he was kidnapped by three gun-toting whites, beaten and lynched. His body was maimed nearly beyond recognition, but Emmett’s mother insisted that her son would be displayed in an open casket. “Let the world see what they did to my boy. Let them see what I’ve seen.” Like the photo of Hector, photos of Emmett Till’s body ignited a firestorm.
Our pilgrimage continued at the Apartheid Museum, which vividly recounts the origins and travail of Apartheid. Standing next to a Casspir, the giant armored vehicles used by the police, was intimidating, as was standing in the solitary confinement cells or viewing the videos of political executions and violence in the streets. The museum also follows the life of Nelson Mandela from his youth, his education, political organizing, 27 years in prison, to his release and election as President.
The Sharpeville massacre also was vividly portrayed in the museum. On March 21, 1960, in the South African township of Sharpeville in Transvaal, a crowd of 5000 to 7000 protesters converged at the police station. Police opened fire on the crowd, killing 69 people—289 casualties in total, including 29 children. Standing in the midst of this exhibit, I thought back to the three protest marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965. The first march took place on March 7, 1965—Bloody Sunday—when marchers were brutally attacked with billy clubs and tear gas. That violence and the murder of the Rev. James Reeb after the second march, led to a national outcry and many acts of civil disobedience.
At the end of our emotionally wrenching pilgrimage, Judith and I asked Clarence and Ada Walls to talk with us about life in the USA and our new knowledge of South Africa. Our conversation took place over lunch the next day. We began by sharing our life stories—the best way to introduce each other. Ada and Judith shared their experiences in education. Ada as an elementary school teacher, administrator and resource specialist; Judith as a social worker in a high school. Clarence worked as a musician, professor, and college dean of Fine & Performing Arts. In the 1960’s, I was the founding pastor of a racially integrated congregation that is more integrated now at its 50-year mark. I spent the last thirty years of my career as a pastoral counselor.
Clarence framed our conversation about the similarities of living under Jim Crow or Apartheid by sharing his reflections on a very personal question: “When did I know I was black?”
“Growing up as a child playing on the streets of Washington, DC with other black and white kids, I didn’t think much about my color,” Clarence said. “We played together everyday. When I began school, I knew I was black. I went to a separate school from my white friends. My white friends asked me why I didn’t join them at the local school. I had to respond that I couldn’t. I wasn’t allowed in their school because of my color. Their school had newer and better buildings, books, playgrounds. Ours did not. Ada and I had limited choices of colleges. After we were married, when we tried to buy a house, we learned that mortgages were restricted to homes in specific locations because of color. Freedom was restricted.”
As I listened to Clarence I thought about the closing of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. In that passage, he proclaims:
“I was not born with a hunger to be free. I was born free—free in every way that I could know. Free to run in the fields near my mother’s hut, free to swim in the clear stream that ran through my village, free to roast mealies under the stars and ride the broad backs of slow-moving bulls. … It was only when I began to learn that my boyhood freedom was an illusion, when I discovered as a young man that my freedom had already been taken away from me, that I began to hunger for it. … I slowly saw that not only was I not free, but my brothers and sisters were not free. I saw that it was not just my freedom that was curtailed, but the freedom of everyone who looked like I did.”
The conversation Judith and I had with Clarence and Ada was rich, meaningful and expansive. Our experience convinced all of us: We simply have to find a way to talk to each other—perhaps for the first time. Conversations like this are essential for all of us who want to live full, responsive, loving lives.
I’ve been attempting to confront my own racism for a long time. I’m welcoming conversations—as we did with Clarence and Ada.
I’m reading—and urge you, as you read this column, to make some intentional choices about what you’re reading. This spring, my most important discovery was the compelling, soul-searching novel by Jodi Picoult, Small Great Things.
I’m making pilgrimages with Judith. We recently visited the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. Then, Judith and I made our pilgrimage to South African landmarks in the struggle against Apartheid. Our South African journey—and our engagement with Clarence and Ada—will have a lasting impact on my life.
And, I’m singing—well, at least, let’s say I’m enjoying songs that bring me hope in this time of great anxiety. Through this long hot summer of turbulence in America, one song has been rattling around in mind: a song from the ’60s.
The celebrated Canadian folk singers Ian and Sylvia Tyson wrote a deeply personal Song for Canada that they performed in the U.S. at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. If you love classic folk music, you’ll recall that was the infamous year that Bob Dylan was booed off the stage for appearing with electric guitars. Ian and Sylvia said their song was an appeal for calm in their homeland in the face of an emerging Quebec separatist movement. The irony is that they performed it at a music festival most notable for division. The sharp response to Dylan’s new music had “electrified one half the audience and electrocuted the other,” a Newport observer said.
Still, their plaintive call keeps running through my mind:
How come we can’t talk to each other any more?
Why can’t you see I’m changing too?
We’ve got by far too long to end it feeling wronged
And I still share too much with you
Just one great river always flowing to the sea
One single river rolling in eternity
Two nations in the land that lies along its shore
But just one river rolling free.
Share this column with friends on social media. Or, email a link. You’re even free to print out this column and pass it around, perhaps for small-group discussion.
And, as I’ve said in this column: Welcome conversations. Read. Make pilgrimages. Sing.