Forgive and Forget?
by Andrew L. Toney
Cleveland. Jackson. Laurel. McComb. Philadelphia. Clarksdale. Kosciusko. Winona. Ruleville.
These places have shaped me, in body and soul. The muddy mother river water of my family’s Mississippi homeland runs through my veins. For better and worse, I have inherited the history and identity of the open, humid Mississippi Delta. Years, miles, and long minutes spent watching rows of cotton and soybeans pass by the car window have evidently come full circle in my own discovered love of working the soil. I might even credit too much time spent in the languid Delta atmosphere with my inability to do anything—think, speak, work, write—with any measure of hurried-ness.
God must have a fine sense of humor as well. For as much as I wish I could claim to be a born and bred Delta boy, I actually grew up in Memphis, TN, the only sizeable city for at least a hundred miles in any direction of my grandparents’ home in Cleveland, MS. Nonetheless, I would like to think that I have received some of the best traits of my family’s place of origin.
Shadows tend to grow long on the Mississippi soil—a phenomenon not just attributable to the landscape. When I used to chase my sister around on Uncle T.D.’s Rose Hill homestead, he—an agrarian scholar and progressive intellectual himself—would always remind us that our feet trod on soil still soaked with blood spilled in the name of slavery, segregation, and hate. After he died, my great aunt filled his shoes, telling me stories of murder carried out at the hands of local authorities, marking the failure of those who were supposed to be the arbiters of justice. When I occasionally heard racial epithets hurled from the lips of older shoppers at small Mississippi grocery stores (and sometimes from one of my own family members), my mother was quick to remind me that such language was part of an evil and undesirable past; one that would hopefully die out with the generation that had brought it about.
White children who lived in the Delta in the sixties seemed bent on pushing past identification with the sins of their parents and grandparents. The sons and daughters of Cain, haunted by the shadow of Abel’s murder, wanted to get on with their lives—the curse wasn’t theirs to bear. Many left for Memphis, if not the other side of the country. For all of the sluggishness in the Delta spirit, folks sure were (and often still are) in a hurry to “forget” what transpired there.
In the Hebrew Bible, forgetting is a sin. That’s one of the many important things I learned from the back row of Dr. Carol Newsom’s “Exile and Restoration” course last fall.
Yahweh never forgets. In the legendary history, it is the people of God who routinely forget their own history and God’s history, which are intertwined in complex and nuanced ways. By contrast, Yahweh always remembers; accordingly, God’s remembrance serves as the genesis for God’s movement of justice and (eventually) reconciliation.
It’s easy to forget…for some. It’s easier to forget if you haven’t borne the scars of slavery or sharecropping on your own body, if you haven’t been systematically oppressed by segregation and institutional racism, if you haven’t received death threats based on the color of your skin or the way you prefer to worship. It’s easier to forget if a position of white privilege means that you don’t have to concern yourself with issues like mass incarceration, concealed-carry and “Stand Your Ground” laws, or the everyday experience of micro-aggression. Nonetheless, the Hebrew Scriptures still ring true: forgetting is a sin.
This very month, we face a particular call to remember. Fifty years ago, in mid-June, a team of over a thousand students, clergy, and seminarians traveled to Mississippi to spend ten weeks working on one of the largest voter registration initiatives in American history. The Mississippi Summer Project, part of the larger constellation of what came to be known as the “Freedom Summer,” was driven by the efforts of leaders like Fannie Lou Hamer, who was instrumental in bringing the truth to light about the abuses and violence occurring at the hands of whites in Mississippi.
Such violence threatened the Project workers daily. On June 21, 1964, James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were brutally murdered at the hands of the Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Philadelphia, MS (the point man in the murder was Edgar Ray Killen, a Baptist minister, who was not convicted until 2005). In the search for the bodies of the men, the FBI discovered the bodies of multiple other civil rights workers in surrounding areas.
Many murders, bombings, and other incidents that occurred in the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964 and in following years have yet to come to light. In the few Mississippi towns where civil rights records were kept, the tales of daily violence are harrowing. The lack of information is so enormous that private citizens established The Mississippi Truth Project in 2005 to serve as a fact-finding mission to bring to light the multitude of heinous crimes committed in Mississippi just fifty years ago. With a fiftieth year commemoration of the Mississippi Summer Project to take place in Jackson at the end of the month, the Truth Project plans to renew its call for a truth and reconciliation commission as a means of recovering, remembering, and slowly reconciling the sins of the past.
Forgetting is a sin. We must remember what happened, especially if we are to understand the injustices that still continue around us every day. This is the task of the people of the church; people for whom memory should never be stripped from the work of faith.
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Andrew is a third-year M.Div. student at Candler. Andrew is also an Interim Lay Leader with Berea Mennonite Church/Oakleaf Mennonite Farm. He will also serve as the Vice President of Candler’s Student Government Association (C3) in the 2014-15 academic year. Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrewltoney.