Debra Lewis Memorial, June 25, 2011
By Fr. Jeremy Tobin, O. Praem.
This past year we have been celebrating, honoring and remembering those who changed our world. The state conventions of the NAACP raised up issues we still must contend with. Two friends of mine came and galvanized those who struggle for Justice, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and the Rev. Fr. Michael Pfleger. They spoke truth to power, and they united the struggle in Mississippi to the struggle nationwide.
Then there was the Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, housed at Jackson State University with the Fannie Lou Hamer Institute and the Margaret Walker Alexander Research Center. They have had several conferences bringing back the leaders of the Mississippi Movement to tell the story, one more time, to generations who never knew the old Jim Crow with all its oppression.
Then there was the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders here in Mississippi. A week of honoring, remembering and telling the story of deliverance.
Now is the time to tell our story of deliverance, the struggle for freedom, and those who paid with their blood. Now is the time to raise up everyone, great and small, who did their part to further the cause of freedom. Now is the time to tell our story to our children and grandchildren. Now is the time to dredge up the stories of the old ones, the very old ones who knew the life of slavery. We need to tell these narratives with pride. Because deliverance began when the first captive on a slave ship raised his clenched fist.
This is our ritual, our Passover, our being spared the death angel's sword, because in the story is the power. In the narrative is the strength. We are all raised on the Bible, the Word of God. Whether Catholics or Protestants, the Bible we share in common. When they try to divide us, we must emphasize what unites us, and respect our differences. The Book of Exodus is the narrative of deliverance. Down the ages Jews, who also know persecution, recite this narrative to draw strength, unity and cohesion. Our ancestors knew this story well. They discovered, despite what they were told, that the Bible is the Book of Deliverance, not the Book of Submission. They saw the power of God through Moses, breaking the chains of slavery. They read the prophets who denounced oppression of every kind. They read the Psalms who repeat, again and again, that the Lord hears the cry of the poor. In the narrative is the power.
In their day it was not Moses, it was Sojourner. In their day it was not Aaron, it was Frederick. In their day it was not Joshua, it was John Brown. In their day it was not the assistants from the 12 tribes that helped Moses, it was WEB Dubois, Mary McLeod Bethune, Ida B Wells, and others, including the heroes and sheroes we honor this year, a special jubilee year of the Movement thus far. The journey of deliverance continued into the 20th Century sustained on the Scriptures of thousands of years ago. It was a union of many religions around one driving movement for freedom.
So our story must be told with the same reverence as the story of Exodus. Our children must know the events. They must know the names. The must be able to recite the struggle of their elders, because, like it or not, they are the leaders of the struggle today.
For all of our commemorations, celebrations, anniversaries, we have not come to the last chapter. The narrative is far from finished. We are the actors and we are the writers and we still say, "Free the Land!" for the land is not yet free.
Today, here in Carthage Mississippi, in Leake County, rich with its history of oppression and struggle, we honor a special person. Many shed blood and paid the price for us to stand here today. Some are well known, others are not, but all paid their dues so that we may be free.
We honor Debra Lewis, who at 6 years old, desegregated the Leake County Public Schools by enrolling in first grade in the "white" school in Carthage. She was taken from us at far to young an age, but she broke down a wall. She gave hope to countless parents. She was courageous to walk into that classroom with all those little white children staring at her. Throughout the South as well as the North heroic little black children had the courage to break the color barrier. To the edification of us older folks, the youth led the way to develop healthy and normal relationships between the races. Just by being themselves the American ideology of racism was shoved farther into the corner.
Debra paid a price, and her parents paid the price. They were courageous to allow their daughter to be the one to break down a racist way of life, by simply going to school. Today we honor them, but read Jet Magazine, September 1964:
"The father of Debra Lewis the only Negro to desegregate the first grade in Leake County MS following a Federal Court order is out of a job. A.D. [sic.] Lewis a lumber company employee was fired from his job the day after enrolling his daughter in one of the county's five elementary schools in late August according to Derrick Bell of New York, a lawyer for the NAACP." (Jet, September 24, 1964, page 48)
It was under "Education" and that is all it said. Note the tone of the times. Remember those days. Today we have monuments, we name buildings after these heroes, but reading that back then, you have the sense that "another shoe will fall." Living through the movement, always unsure of ultimate outcomes, except on faith, added to the stress. Looking back, people like these whom we have honored are vindicated. To paraphrase the Prophet, (Is. 53/11) by their vindication they not only opened doors, but enlivened others to continue this ongoing struggle.
About a year ago I was with several civil rights veterans, and officials of Jackson State University. We were on Lynch Street, at the COFO Building, headquarters of the Conference of Federated Organizations. It was being restored and dedicated. Among the notables was Bob Moses, organizer of the summer project, others call "Freedom Summer", developer of the algebra Project. He said to me, "We got Jim Crow out of everything, but not quite out of the schools." That stuck with me.
A year later, at a luncheon honoring the Freedom Riders a young man, Albert Sykes, a disciple of Bob Moses, said the very same thing.
He said it again at Mt. Helm Baptist Church at an evening session marking the 50th anniversary of the "War on Drugs", a failure, but an ominous sign of the emergence of a New Jim Crow, mass incarceration of African Americans and Hispanics in the United States. We lead the world in prisons and locked up people. You must Read Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow.
Despite the challenges, much has been done. Education is the key to freedom. It is the only way out of poverty and despair. They paid the price and continue to pay the price so that our children can get the best education possible. This is the only way to break the schoolhouse to the jailhouse pipeline.
Debra Lewis is a hero beyond what she did. Her witness is a resounding, "No!" to being closed out to advancement and success. The simple act of going to school was a bright light of truth dispelling the darkness of bigotry and fear. Her witness is a condemnation of the American ideology of racism.
What we do today, near her monument, should fire us up to meet the new challenges of the Tea Party, of the TV hate mongers, of purveyors of propaganda, of those who would undo what we and our children have done. This is not to discourage us, but energize us. The struggle is real. It is ongoing. We have the energy. We have the will. We have the energy and the leaders to push us ahead in this 21st Century.
At the beginning of the 20th Century it was so much bleaker. Scars of slavery and terror were everywhere, but we overcame it all. This century may look daunting. The enemy doesn't wear sheets, but wears suits. He may even look like us, but he is not one of us. It may not be church bombings, like St. Joachim. It may be Supreme Court decisions, and inflammatory politics. Still, we are in a far better position than a hundred years ago. We are a coalition dedicated to furthering human rights. We are multi racial, multi ethnic, multi lingual, and we are international. As Dr. King pointed out the struggle is now international. Throughout the world, people of all colors are saying loud and clear, "We are sick and tired of being sick and tired!" People throughout the world still sing Nina Simone, "Mississippi, Goddamn!" We regroup for the new battle for justice.
Debra Lewis played a pivotal role in the struggle. She is an example to us all. Even though we continue to implement school desegregation 50 years later, we shall never be turned back. This is our time. We have the leaders. We have the will. We have the power!