Walk Don’t Sink: Journey through the Storms of Our Now

By Tony Coleman, associate pastor at First Congregational Church of Memphis

This blog was presented as a sermon at First Congregational Church of Memphis on June 26, 2022

As a child, I wasn’t afraid of many things. I loved the dark; Halloween was one of my favorite holidays; scary shows and movies for kids were some of my favorites. There was one thing that terrified me, though, one thing that would make my pulse jump and my face feel flush with anxiety: the Presidential Fitness Test. For those of you who may not be familiar with it, the Presidential Fitness Test was an annual event that took place in public schools across the country in which middle and high-school children would be forced to do pull-ups, sit-ups, push-ups, and more all under the eye of a gym teacher who would meticulously keep count of how many and how well the children did, in other words, torture. For a, as we graciously say in the South, big-bone-ded child like me, this whole measuring my fitness against what a “normal” child could do was terrible.

I stood in line and watched my classmates grabbed hold of the pull-up bar and easily do 4, 5, 10 reps. I watched them, seething with jealousy and dreading the moment that I would have to climb up and let everybody watch as I struggled to hang there and just barely bend my elbows, failing the test altogether.

Even worse than the pull-up bar, though, was the 10-minute mile test. Standing there on the starting line, next to kids whose little biceps were flexed and ready, having just completed 18 pull-ups with Terminator precision only minutes before, I could feel my heart beating, thumping with fear. The whistle blew. We ran, and I got lapped, again and again, as my classmates finished their 4 laps around the field before I was even halfway done with mine.

This went on for years.

Finally, in seventh grade, I decided that I would go up to Coach Williams, our gym teacher, to try and persuade him to let me sit out. To be honest, though, I was almost as nervous about talking to Coach Williams as I was about the Fitness Test. He was a tall man with thinning, grey hair who always wore a 90’s era track suit and a red whistle around his neck. He often seemed angry, for no reason, I thought. He would bark orders at us during warm-ups – “Get those hands up higher, Coleman, you call that a jumping jack?” Why yes, Coach Williams, yes I do, in fact – I wanted to say but didn’t.

When I told him that I wanted to skip the Presidential Fitness Test, that I was scared and embarrassed, that I’d be perfectly happy sanitizing basketballs or buffing out scuffs on the gym floor during that week, anything, he responded with, “You call that effort, Coleman? You think that’s good enough” Yes, yes, I do, Coach Williams – I wanted to say but didn’t.

“What you need to do, Coleman, is get angry. Get mad at that pull-up bar,” he told me. “Get aggressive. Get angry at that track out there – that’s how you’ll finish. I guarantee it.”

A part of me thought that maybe Coach Williams was on to something; maybe I did need to angry. Then, another part of me wondered what other kind of advice I could have gotten from a man I had once seen literally punch a basketball because it refused to go in the hoop. Getting angry was the way you get the job done, for Coach Williams. Feeling afraid? Feeling like you’ve failed? Get angry.

Of course, Coach Williams isn’t alone in holding that mindset, is he? Certainly, when it comes to fitness, we’re told that we can push our bodies further, we can tap into reservoirs of energy, we can exceed even our own expectations if we would only, “Be aggressive! Be, be aggressive!” Anger is the way to access unforeseen ability.

That’s true beyond the world of fitness and athletics, though, too. We see it in the way we describe so many tasks in our lives. We’re fighting COVID. We battle cancer. We fight for our rights. We battle our way through divorce. We fight our own desires for things we think we should not have. And so, in this way, the sum of our lives can be tallied up in all the little skirmishes we’ve won and lost.

Anger, then, is always in the background. In the fear we may feel when we get that diagnosis or start that journey towards weight loss or receive news of the latest devastating blow the Supreme Court has dealt, in the face of the fear we encounter, so often we’re told to get angry. Righteous outrage is the answer. Channel your fear into anger and your anger into energy so that you can keep on, push through, and claim victory in the end. Don’t give up; get angry!

It’s in that spirit that we might be tempted to read what happened with Peter and Jesus today. Jesus is there immersed in a miracle, standing on water. Peter sees this, is shocked and frightened, and says, if that’s really you, Jesus, tell me to come out there and join you. Jesus does, then Peter does. Peter actually walks on water. He sets aside his fear about the storm and his fear about seeing a man walking atop crashing waves, and he takes a step into a miracle.

Before long, though, he gets distracted by those crashing waves. He gets frightened all over again by the storm raging around him, and he begins to sink. Flailing around in the waves breaking beside, behind, and in front of him, he reaches out for Jesus’s hand, and Jesus catches him. “You of little faith,” Jesus then says to him, “why did you doubt?”

Now, at first glance, I’m inclined to hear Jesus saying a version of what an angry gym teacher might say to his chubby student: “You call that effort, Peter? You need to push your faith. You need to try harder. You need to get angry at doubt.” Maybe.

But, if we take a step back, if we really look at what’s happening here, if we let ourselves get absorbed into the miracle taking place, we see that this isn’t just about pushing through. This is about seeing differently. Jesus was inviting Peter into something bigger than sheer force of will, something bigger than even just walking on water. Jesus was inviting Peter into a whole other vision of the world, a world that shatters expectations and explodes logic, a world that is governed by something bigger than scary storms and angry effort, a world in which we reach our goals not by force alone but with faith in God.

Peter started sinking, then, because even though Jesus was showing him what the world could be, all Peter could focus on was what he thought the world was. Jesus was calling Peter into a reality that defied gravity and shamed his shallow expectations, but, before too long, Peter got lost in his own sense of what was possible, in his own sense that all he could do, when it came to raging storms, was sink.

Jesus was not saying face your fears in the midst of that storm and get angry. Jesus was saying, in the face of your fears, you can step into my vision for what’s possible, and you can discover in that miraculous potential.

Friends, there are some journeys whose ends we will never reach if all we have fueling us is anger. To be sure, anger has its uses. Anger can give us energy. Anger can make our voices strong when they may otherwise be weak. Anger can lead us to take action when we might otherwise be still. Anger can help us sprint. But, anger can’t get us through 6 months of chemo. Anger can’t help us figure out what’s best for our kids when a relationship falls apart. Anger can’t make a 200 pound 12-year-old run a mile in under 10 minutes. Anger can’t sustain a movement. Anger can’t help us travel from the boat into the miracle. Anger can help us sprint, but it can’t help us run a marathon.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Chances are, if you run in any kind of progressive circles, you’ve heard or read this quote. It’s on t-shirts. It’s said in political speeches. It serves as the little taglines for emails. It’s tweeted and instagramed and Facebooked. It’s almost everywhere nowadays, and, because of that, we may lose sense of what these words were actually doing when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said them.

You see, these were not words for a short run. This was not the sentiment of a person just trying to push through. These were the words of a man and a movement who knew the reality of setbacks and the seemingly impossible task before them. It’s a set of words that reach beyond policy that dig underneath ideology that take hold of a truth that is bigger than the latest failure.

MLK’s words said that while the forces of white supremacy and oppression may win this battle and the next one or even the one after that; while I may even lose my life in pursuit of the goal of justice, at the end of the day, when it’s all said and done, I know that we are going with the flow of the universe, rather than against it. These words show that the people in this movement carried a confidence that the very shape of existence, the very fabric of reality, the plain ol truth of the way things are, was caught up in the very same thing that they were – justice, healing, and love. Their vision of the world was one that defied expectations and lent them a confidence that achieving their goal was, in a very real way, inevitable.

Dr. King was reiterating the same core point that Jesus was sharing with Peter – in order to make the distance, in order to walk rather than sink into fear or anger, in order to do the work of living with intention and dignity in the face of the incredible storms that rage all around us, in order to do that, we have to see that the world is so much bigger than fear might lead us to think. We have to see that while battles can be won or lost, faith operates according to an entirely different logic.

With faith that the world bends toward justice, with faith that God will reach out and grab us when we’re starting to sink, with faith that we can stand on top of the waves rather than get swallowed up in them, that is the only thing that will take us through. That kind of faith is bigger than a person. It’s bigger than a court. It’s bigger than a treatment plan or a solution, bigger than a politician or an idol. That kind of faith is about stepping into a world that loves us, that holds us, that carries us in our walk, no matter what stumbling blocks we may encounter along the way. That kind of faith says to a chubby pre-teen: there is a vision of the world that loves you even if it takes you 22 minutes to run a mile rather than just 10; there is a vision of the world in which sickness and death are not things you battle but realities you learn how to hold. There is a vision of the world, in which you don’t have to get angry and try to do it all on your own.

We’ve got a long journey ahead of us, friends. We’ve got problems, personal and global. Problems with our country, problems with our bodies, problems with our building. Problems that are so big and so deep, we may not know what to do or even where to begin. We may feel scared and yes, we may feel rage. But, the truth is, neither fear nor anger are going to sustain us for this journey. This journey’s too long; the road is too hilly; the storms are too fierce. What’s going to help us keep going, what’s going to help us get out of the boat and step into uncertainty, what’s going to help us travel the distance of the universe’s long moral arc, what’s going to help us in our fear and our grief and our anxiety, what’s going to help us make it—is a vision. What’s going to help us is a vision of the world, rooted in faith and repeated throughout history, that has enabled human beings to do incredible things. It’s a vision that defies expectations and makes room for miracles. It’s a vision that focuses on the path rather than the storm. It’s a vision that will help us to walk rather than sink.

Let us be together, friends, and let us envision with hope, courage, and faith.


Tony Coleman is an associate pastor at First Congregational Church of Memphis (aka First Congo). He grew up in a bi-racial, working-class family that called several Memphis neighborhoods home. After high school, however, he moved to the Northeast for college and graduate school. Tony is passionate about writing, art, and creativity – and how all of these can facilitate and sustain social change. He has been published in the Christian Century and various online magazines including Conversation X. In addition to matters of faith and the spirit, Tony writes and thinks about food, particularly baking and eating it.

The Natchez Trace Historical Tour: Expedition 2022

By Augusto Macedo

Famed American author William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past[.]” this proved to be accurate in our experience as we, a group of 13 (“G-13”) friends, cycled from April 1-6, 2022, from Natchez, MS to Nashville, TN on the Natchez Trace Parkway (“N.T.”). The NT is a managed National Park Service scenic 444-mile road through Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee that roughly follows the “Old Natchez Trace” and “Trail of Tears,” a historic travel route used to remove Native Americans from their homeland forcibly. Our lives became enriched daily as we journeyed and visited with the people of that region, who welcomed us and shared their knowledge and experience. They showered us with “southern hospitality.” After planning for over a year and meeting weekly for five months via Zoom, our cycling journey took six days with overnight stays in Jackson, Kosciusko, Houston, Belmont, Collinwood, and Nashville.

In Natchez, Executive Director Bobby Dennis of The Natchez Museum of African American Culture escorted us through the Museum. He highlighted, among other exhibits, “The Black Butterfly,” Daisy Newman, a renowned hometown opera singer. In addition, he challenged us to be the authors of “our own” stories. With our minds enriched, it was time to enrich our bodies with southern cuisine. A fantastic meal was prepared specifically for us by Chef Jarita Frazier-King of Soul Food Natchez. While feasting, she educated us about the meal’s preparation and her family’s quest to preserve Southern African American recipes. Complementing our visit, we were honored to meet Natchez City Ward 2 Adelman, Billie Joe Frazier, who shared the history of his city, its county, and the state of Mississippi.

The following morning, the first day of cycling from Natchez to Jackson began with a wealth of anticipation and the “Circle of Life,” where everyone circled together in prayer for a safe journey, our daily ritual before each ride. Afterward, we dined at Ms. Darlene Wilson’s Southern Style Restaurant & Catering before our respective two wheels began turning northward. When we entered the N.T., several historic stops emerged, including Emerald Mound, Mount Locust, and the Sunken Trace, providing a wealth of historical and educational opportunities. We unexpectedly met Nashvillian Brad Meshell on his N.T. 444-mile journey to raise autism awareness in honor of his son. After lunch, Major Taylor affiliate Jackson’s Soul City Cyclists Club graciously met up with us on the N.T. and escorted us into the City of Jackson. Later that evening, President Aree Williams hosted G-13 at his home to a southern spread that included fish, chicken, baked beans, coleslaw, corn-on-the-cobb, and certainly, southern iced tea. We were treated like royalty!

We met Oral Historian Alissa Rae Funderburk from Jackson State University (“JSU”) Margaret Walker Center the next morning. She gave us a tour of the Council of Federated Organizations (“COFO”) Headquarters, where we learned about COFO’s execution of voter registration and education. The Mississippi Freedom Summer Project was led by Robert (Bob) Moses, whose efforts Dr. King had described then: “Our nation sent out Peace Corps Volunteers throughout the under-developed nations of the world, and none of them experienced the kind of brutality and savagery that these voter registration workers have suffered here in Mississippi.” From JSU, we paid a visit to the state Capitol where we encountered a Post Reconstruction Era Confederate monument, which praised the enslavement of humans, a stark reminder that racism never really goes away. It just changes forms.

Leaving Jackson on our shortest daily ride of 55 miles to Kosciusko, we experienced the picturesque Ross Barnett Reservoir, Cypress Swamp, and more joshing with thoughts of “sexy blue,” “Dr. One Glove,” “Screwdriver,” “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere,” “G.C. a/k/a L.T.,” “Ms. Brown Rice,” “My Black Gummy Bear,” “u good?” “Professor,” “Black Bourgeoisie,” “Ms. Garmin,” “Doppler Master,” and “Mr. Heinz,” among others. Nicknames and key phrases led to laughter galore, which became daily shenanigan rituals!

Kosciusko native and retired educator, Mr. Charles Hall, visited with us and shared his wealth and rich experiences of his and Oprah’s hometown, including the horrific events described in Stokes McMillian’s book entitled: “One Night of Madness,” while we dined, more like threw down on collard greens with rice, Liberian style. In our Antebellum mansion over breakfast, we learned about Oprah’s financial support and the appreciated benefits to the local Kosciusko Boys and Girls Club.

From Kosciusko through Houston, Belmont, Tupelo, Collinwood, and finally Nashville, we toured the Bynum Burial Mounds built between 100 B.C. and 100 A.D., Monroe Mission, where the Europeans imposed Christianity on the Chickasaw Nation, Pharr Mounds, and Nomadic Burial Mounds built around 1-200 A.D., all the while marveling at the accomplishments of the Native Americans. We visited Commander Meriwether Lewis Memorial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, who died there in 1809. A surreal and amazing highlight was the Wichahpi Commemorative Stone Wall, where we were blessed to meet the spouse and dog of Tom Hendrix, who had hand-built the wall to commemorate his great-great-grandmother’s return journey after she was forced from her native land during the infamous “Trail of Tears and Death.”

The morning we left Houston, we had awakened to SAD news before Ms. Carol Koutroulis’ Bridges-Hall Manor (“BHM”) best-served country breakfast of the entire trip. Alexis Richburg, a friend, and brother, who had ridden with us on the 2021 Gullah-Geechee Tour to raise awareness for the cure of cancer, had lost his battle with cancer. The strong thunderstorms (thunder-boom!) that jolted G-13 and BHM were Alexis’s earthly farewell, and we dedicated that day’s ride to his honor. While in Belmont and after giving tribute to Alexis, we were reminded about the 1972 movie “Deliverance” and to be mindful of our surroundings, to which we adhered.

Doppler Master Glenn graciously informed us we had at least four category climbs to contend with over the next 95 miles into Nashville on the morning of our last cycling day. Shortly after that, we encountered and elected to take a “road less traveled,” a semi-paved road that led to a section of the original Natchez Trace Trail. We transported ourselves back in time as we traveled the 1.5 miles until it reconnected with the N.T. Cycling into Nashville was physically the most challenging as we encountered many rated long climbs often accompanied by strong headwinds. Still, we were elated at our safe completion of 444 miles without a single mechanical or flat tire! To the dismay of a few riders, there was no actual Mile Post (“M.P.”) 444 to indicate the end of our Amazing six-day journey. Screwdriver and Ms. Garmin went off in a desperate search to locate the M.P., to no avail! Fact, MP 444 doesn’t exist. As the day closed, Ice Cube reminded us that “Today was a good day!” While in Nashville, we visited Black institutions, including American Baptist College, Fisk University, and Meharry Medical College, and enjoyed a guided tour provided by Mr. Grant Winrow, a/k/a “the Mayor” of Tennessee State University. We also visited Black restaurants Slim & Huskies, Swett’s, and Prince’s Hot Chicken. We concluded our expedition with a tour of Nathan “Uncle Nearest” Green Distillery for some good ole Tennessee Whiskey, which we downed with homemade “fufu and soup” prepared by Screwdriver. Experience, simply PRICELESS!

Augusto Macedo masterminded the G-13 expedition. It included Carl Adoph, Edward Dunn, Glenn Daniels, A.J. Haney, Carole Harris, John Johnson, Jerry Macauley, Teddy Macauley, Carolyn Misick, Toni Moore, Latricia Turner, and Howard Tyndle.

About the Author

Augusto “Gus” Macedo is hilarious, fun, Liberian war survivor, child trauma survivor, husband and father extraordinaire, lawyer/entrepreneur, beautiful loving kind friend, seeker of knowledge and truth, carrier of light and wisdom, pursuer of equity, kind soul, and gracious spirit who explores history, especially African American history while cycling. He received his BS from Tennessee State University and his JD from Texas Southern University Thurgood Marshall School of Law. He resides in Maryland with his wife.

Free-ish Since 1865: The Meaning of Juneteenth

by Michael Brandon McCormack

With our heightened awareness of the Tulsa Massacre, Juneteenth, for many of us will “hit differently” this year. People who have never celebrated, and, yes, some who had never heard of, Juneteenth are celebrating this year. And that’s no shade to anybody who is just now learning about Juneteenth because we know that Black history has been erased, avoided, distorted, and inadequately taught in our public school systems- or for that matter in our universities. Even some of us who know about Juneteenth, or celebrate it, don’t know much about the history behind the holiday.

We just know that it is Black folks’ alternative to the 4th of July. The 4th of July, a holiday that celebrates American independence from the British, in 1776, at a time when chattel slavery was still deeply entrenched in the fabric of the United States, which celebrated its freedom while keeping people of African descent in bondage.

This contradiction between independence and bondage is what prompted abolitionist, Frederick Douglas, to pose the provocative question in 1852, “What to the slave is your 4th of July?” Douglas answered his own rhetorical question, insisting, “I answer, a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.” Frederick Douglas spoke these words in 1852, more than a decade before Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

But, make no mistake, it was not Abraham Lincoln who “freed the enslaved.” Enslaved Africans had been struggling, resisting, and fighting to free themselves for centuries; they had been striking blows at slavery with every mutiny on the ships, with every uprising on the plantation, with every destruction of tools, with every poisoning of the master’s food, with every abolitionist speech, with every late-night spiritual in the hush harbor encouraging their brothers and sisters to “steal away to Jesus,” which was code for escape. Enslaved Africans were not just sitting back waiting for Abraham Lincoln, the prototypical white savior figure, Black folks exerted their agency in the struggle for freedom. So, when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, in 1863, it just made official, what Black folks had been fighting for since 1619.

But it wouldn’t be until June 19th, 1865, a full two and a half years later, that word of freedom would reach the furthest corners of the Confederacy. It wasn’t until Union Army Major General Gordon Granger and 1,800 federal troops finally “pulled up” in Galveston and served notice, with General Orders No.3, stating “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free,” that it finally became official that slavery had legally ended in the United States.

And, when enslaved Africans heard the news, some were shocked, others set out to find family and friends who had been sold away, but many began to celebrate their legal emancipation. And, that celebration was the beginning of what we now call Juneteenth. So, first and foremost, Juneteenth is a day of celebration. We celebrate our ancestor’s struggles for freedom. We celebrate the sacrifices they made so that we could be here today. We celebrate, and give thanks, to all of those who lived and died and paved the way for us. So, it’s a celebration! We turn up! We barbeque. We dance. We play spades. We have pageants. Our Texas brothers and sisters have rodeos. Our Louisville brothers and sisters sip bourbon.

But Juneteenth is not just a day of celebration. It’s also a day of education. It is a day where we commit to educating ourselves on the history of Black people in America, and throughout the African diaspora, that has been erased, denied, and distorted. It is also a day for political education and consciousness-raising. Many have protested the injustices that are happening all across this country and that’s good. But we also need to educate ourselves on the policies and ideologies behind the issues that we’re protesting. We need to understand the ins and outs of different positions on reforming, disinvesting, and abolishing, not just the police, but the entire prison industrial complex and dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline. It’s a day to educate ourselves not only on policing, proper, but on all of the various ways that Black and poor and immigrant and queer and trans bodies are policed and controlled and surveilled and disciplined and punished in this country by everyday citizens, employers, teachers, and others. It’s a day of education because our ancestors have always understood that knowledge is power.

But Juneteenth is not just a day of celebration and education. It’s also a day of agitation. It is a day of recommitting ourselves to the ongoing Black freedom struggle. We know that while slavery was legally abolished in 1865, it was never fully eradicated. Sadiya Hartman argues that we are dealing with the afterlife of slavery. Slavery takes on new forms and permutations. White supremacy, anti-blackness, state-sponsored and vigilante violence, captivity, and Black death still plague us day in and day out. While we celebrate freedom on Juneteenth, we know that Juneteenth reminds us that for Black Americans, full freedom has always been denied, delayed, or diluted. That’s why we have Juneteenth shirts that say “Free-ish” since 1865. We’ve never been fully free, just free-ish, but every day, we’re fighting to get free-er and free-er.

With every generation, we have fought, or agitated, for a fuller realization of our freedom. And, despite what we often hear to the contrary, by news media and critics, this generation of young people and millennials are some of the fiercest freedom fighters we’ve ever seen. These young people are out here agitating, and disturbing the peace so that we can get free-er, and free-er, and free-er. They are calling for us not just to end police brutality, but to completely reimagine our notions of public safety. But, we’ve got to agitate not just for the reimagination and transformation of public safety, but also public education, and public housing, and public health, and public resources, and our entire conception of the public good.

And that takes all of us. All of us have work to do. Fred Hampton Jr. reminded us that all of us are not going to be some front-line freedom fighters, but all of us have a role to play in striking a blow for freedom! Activists have a role to play, politicians have a role to play, business owners have a role to play, educators have a role to play, ministers have a role to play, artists have a role to play, parents have a role to play, children have a role to play, you have a role to play, and I have a role to play. And not just the educated, professional, middle class, well-spoken, respectable folks, but the unemployed and those without formal education, our brothers and sisters in the streets, the so-called thugs and sex workers- all of us have a role to play in this ongoing Black freedom struggle!

Happy Juneteenth, y’all let’s celebrate this ongoing struggle for freedom!

Michael Brandon McCormack is a Hooks Academic Research Fellow and Associate Professor of Pan-African Studies and Comparative Humanities (Religious Studies) at the University of Louisville.


Black History Matters

by Elizabeth M. Gillespie

Nikole Hannah-Jones sparked a ripple effect of social change. It cannot be stopped now. She took her boulder of knowledge that is the 1619 Project and dropped it on the world. Tenured or not, the impact and influence of her work and the ripple effect of change it creates will be felt forevermore. Her contributions to consciousness-raising and creating a more just and equal society warrant her own place in the annuals of history. Still, Nikole Hannah-Jones challenged the status quo and, thus, she was subjected to what all great and brave challengers face – push back

Power never bends willingly, especially when it comes to demands for change to the status quo. Hannah-Jones’ tenure denial reflects this age-old fact, but it also brings up other bigger issues that we must address as a country. Firstly, what are the dangers of continuing to marginalize Black history in our education system, and secondly, what can we do to set a new precedent, one where Black history is taught as American history? At a time when more students are demanding an inclusive and fuller history be taught and greater efforts are being made at the state level to integrate Black history into schools, the time is now to embrace and adopt the 1619 Project.

Some of the consequences of marginalizing Black history to one short month a year are obvious. The Johns Hopkins University Institute for Education Policy found that few schools “teach Black history well.” In fact, the average American has a “spotty” knowledge of slavery and may only know a bit more about the Civil Rights Movement. A 2015 study found only 8 -9% of total class time (1 to 2 lessons) is devoted to Black history. Perhaps one reason for the lack of Black history in the American classroom is because teachers report feeling uncomfortable teaching about slavery and having a lack of resources to do so properly (not to mention 79% of K-12 teachers are white). There is also the issue that despite some states seeking to do more to teach Black history, other states are actively signing bills into law banning the teaching of Critical Race Theory.

We remain woefully uneducated about Black history and Black contributions to our country, which indicates a missed opportunity to foster a more understanding and sympathetic society. According to some, the reasons for failing to teach more Black history are twofold: it forces us to address our “ugly” past and it demands changes to our current American narrative. The failure to accurately and fully teach Black history in the U.S. impedes all progress and efforts to be better as a society. It heavily implies we are not as educated of a citizenry as we think. The continued denial and marginalization of Black history is both absurd, considering the truth about Black history in America is out there, and dangerous. It’s dangerous because teaching history only from the perspective of the “victors” or of the “powers that be” promotes and perpetuates racism through institutions and systems of power. This approach to history also precariously encourages a sense of white tribalism. The bottom line is that history is important and how it is told matters.

One might argue at the collegiate level, students are able to take electives that incorporate or focus entirely on Black history and are exposed to different cultures and ways of thinking, all of which lead to greater contact with diversity and new knowledge. Is this enough? What must we do to fully incorporate and teach Black history as American history? First, we start by doing just that. We must update and adapt our ways of thinking and doing by amalgamating Black history into all of American history. This means teaching the myriad of ways systems, institutions, and people have worked to oppress Black people in this country. It also means teaching about the many triumphs and achievements of Black individuals, groups, organizations, and cultures too. As Jania Hoover explained it, “the Black experience is not one dimensional” and, yet, it’s taught as such. To teach of their accomplishments, including the work of Hannah-Jones, we teach equality.

Crucially, we also have to train and develop our educators on Black history and provide the necessary tools and voices needed to give justice to the telling of Black history as American history. When it comes to teaching Black history at colleges and universities, we must not sugarcoat the truth. It’s a history that deserves to be told factually and with care to ensure Black voices and experiences are heard and validated. Sometimes, though, it takes enough people to want a change for a change to happen. Hannah-Jones did her part. It’s the rest of us that must demand change in our educational system and institutions.

Elizabeth M. Gillespie is a Benjamin L. Hooks Institute Academic Research Fellow and assistant professor in the Department of Public and Nonprofit Administration at the University of Memphis.

When Police Lie: The Initial Police Statement vs. Video Evidence

Many in the media took note of how many police officers took the stand against Derek Chauvin in his trial. We watched as former and current police officers testified against Chauvin, thereby breaking the infamous blue wall of silence. However, what many activists remember was the original statement from the police after the murder of Floyd. In the original statement, the headline from the department read, “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction.” Further, it read: “Two officers arrived and located the suspect, a male believed to be in his 40s, in his car.  He was ordered to step from his car.  After he got out, he physically resisted officers.  Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress.  Officers called for an ambulance.  He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later.” As the AP noted, it attributed Floyd’s death to “medical distress” and did not mention that Floyd had been “pinned to the ground at the neck by Chauvin, or that he’d cried out that he couldn’t breathe.”

As we remember the murder of George Floyd, we should also remember that the initial police reports are not always truthful. As the AP reports, “criminal justice experts and police accountability advocates say the problem of inaccurate initial reports — especially in fatal police encounters — is widespread. For so long, reporters just ran with the initial report from the police that, of course, comes from the officers on the scene. Whatever the police department said became the factual narrative. However, this has not always the case, as the deaths of Eric Garner, Walter Scott, LaQuan McDonald, and countless others have shown. As I mentioned when one of the reporters interviewed me after the Chauvin verdict, “If it wasn’t for this 17-year-old (Darnella Frazier) who took the video, Derek Chauvin would in all likelihood still be on the police force training officers. Sadly, this has been going on for a while, and it’s just now coming to light for a lot of Americans because of video evidence.”

Video evidence is bringing attention to another case where the police were not truthful in their initial statements. In 2019, Louisiana State Police said that they tried to pull over Ronald Greene for an unspecified traffic violation, but he led them on a high-speed chase. State police officers initially told his family that he died on impact after crashing into a tree during the chase. Still, according to the AP, “State Police released a one-page statement acknowledging only that Greene struggled with troopers and died on his way to the hospital.”

However, video evidence from one of the officer’s body cams disputes these initial reports. Not only did Ronald Greene not crash into a tree that night, but it also shows that he did not resist arrest. What the 46-minute clip does show, however, is a trooper wrestling Greene to the ground putting him in a chokehold and punching him in the face while another can be heard calling him a “stupid motherf——.” What it does show is Greene saying, “I’m sorry,” as another trooper delivers yet another stun gun shock throughout his body. What it does show is a trooper taunting Greene by yelling, “Look, you’re going to get it again if you don’t put your f——- hands behind your back!” What it does show is another trooper, after Greene had been handcuffed with his hands behind his back and legs in shackles, dragging him facedown.

What it does show is that no one thought enough about this man to render any aid to him as they left him unattended, facedown, and moaning for more than nine minutes. What it does show is Greene wailing as he is face down on the ground while one trooper sits on top of him, pressing his hand onto the back of Greene’s neck and punching him in the face. What it does show is another trooper punching him in his lower back. What it does show is another trooper once he got back into his patrol car, talking on the phone with someone saying, “And I beat the ever-living f*** out of him, choked him and everything else trying to get him under control and we finally got him in handcuffs when a third man got there and the son of a bitch was still fighting and we was still wrestling with him trying to hold him down because he was spitting blood everywhere. And then all of a sudden he just went limp.”

As this case gains more attention, we are also discovering more evidence of an attempted coverup. According to the AP, Lt. John Clary, “the ranking Louisiana State Police officer at the scene falsely told internal investigators that (Greene) was still a threat to flee after he was shackled, and he denied the existence of his own body camera video for nearly two years until it emerged just last month.” The internal investigation determined that the “video evidence, in this case, does not show Greene screaming, resisting, or trying to get away. The only screams revealed by the video were when Greene responded to force applied to him.”

As people continue to fight for police reform, the initial police statement has come under scrutiny. Long believed to be an accurate description of events, it is no longer the case. The truth of the matter is that some police officers do lie on their reports, and, as the case in Louisiana demonstrates, they have systems in place to cover up their lies. It took 474 days before Louisiana opened an investigation on the abuse and eventual death Ronald Greene suffered at the hands of state troopers. One could only guess what would have happened if there were no video. A recent survey showed that confidence in law enforcement fell under 50% for the first time in 27 years. When we go inside the numbers, we discover that while 56% of white adults have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence with law enforcement, only 19% of Black adults do. As Gallup writes, “This 37-percentage-point racial gap is the largest found for any of 16 major U.S. institutions rated in Gallup’s annual Confidence in Institutions poll.” So, if we are serious about police reform, we can start by holding police officers accountable when they give false police reports.

Andre E Johnson

Andre E. Johnson is the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute Scholar in Residence and Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Memphis. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram

Hooks Fellows Publish Essays in Listening Journal

We are pleased to announce that the following Hooks Fellows have essays in the latest issue of the Listening: A Journal of Communication Ethics, Religion, and Culture. Hooks Scholar in Residence, Andre E. Johnson guest-edited the special issue on Listening to African American Call Narratives and also has an essay in the issue titled, “Taking the Inward Journey: Prophetic Rhetoric’s Listening Function.”

In the essay, I examine what he calls “prophetic rhetoric’s listening function.” I ask, “how does the prophet know what the prophet declares? How does the prophet know what to say, when to say it, and how to say it? How does the prophet know when a rebirthing moment is taking place? How does the prophet get this revelation and thereby become empowered to share this “new” vision with society? I, therefore, maintains that before the prophet speaks or offers a prophetic witness, the one adopting a prophetic persona must engage in prophetic listening by way of taking the inward journey.

In “Must Thee Take the Man Exclusively”: Jarena Lee and Claiming the Right to Preach,Kimberly P. Johnson analyzes the feminist and womanist characteristics embedded in Jarena Lee’s autobiography and in her 1807 sermon in order to show how the two holistically work together to combat racism and sexism. More specifically, she examines Lee’s innate use of feminist and womanist discourse, which confronted the divisive structures of her religious denomination and the dominant power structures of social oppression, and the ways in which she broke down, resisted, and transcended religious patriarchy and social oppression.

In “A Wounded Healer: The HIV/AIDS Rhetoric of Rev. James L. Cherry,” Christopher A. House uses oral history methodology through an in-depth interview conducted with Rev.James Cherry, to examine the religiosity of the church leader in the vanguard of HIV/AIDS ministry within the Rochester, New York area. He does this by “exploring the rhetorical practices of Cherry, a national board member of the oldest and largest not-for-profit organization of its kind in the United States, the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS (BLCA). In so doing, House examines the ways in which Cherry deployed efforts to fulfill BLCA’s mission of educating, organizing, and empowering “Black leadership, including clergy, elected officials, medical practitioners, business professionals, social policy experts, and the media to meet the challenge of fighting HIV/AIDS in their local communities.”

In “Listening for the Call: Did I Get It Right,” Annette Madlock Gatison reflects on the role of call in her academic career. She writes, “Our ability to hear and discern and to not be influenced by how others see our call and role, or other life challenges can be difficult and at times conflicting. Well-meaning folk will quietly or loudly share their opinions. Our own voice with societal rules that are at times contrary to what God is saying or that are designed to fit the way we think it ought to be can be disheartening and confusing. It is my experience that clarity only
comes when you step out on faith.”

You can read these essays and others in the special issue here.

The Role of Faith in the Movement for Black Lives

On April 19, 2021, I had the opportunity to address the Canadian Forces College National Security Program. They were “virtually” touring cities in the American South to learn more about the particular needs of the population in each city. I was on the panel with Dr. Katherine Lambert-Pennington and Hooks Academic Research Fellow, Dr. Courtnee Mellon-Fant. Below is part of my presentation that addressed the role of faith in the movement for Black lives. 


In her important work chronicling the role of faith in the early days of the Ferguson resistance, Leah Gunning Francis argued that many of the BLM activists and protesters in the streets of Ferguson “demonstrated a very particular kind of embodiment of scripture and faith” and that activists “sought meaning through scripture in connection with their work for justice.”

Francis’ book is important because not only does the book chronicle the early days of the Ferguson resistance and the activism of BLM, but the book also chronicles the role of faith in those early days as well. It is important because the role of faith in BLM has always been one of contention. For instance, unlike the Civil Rights movement that it is often compared to, people often do not associate BLM as a faith-inspired movement or one that has anything to do with spirituality. This interpretation of the movement comes from a discourse that suggests perceived silence from churches—especially Black churches, during the early days of the movement.

However, despite the misgivings above on the role of faith and BLM, this did not stop many people of faith from joining the movement. In our research for our book, The Struggle Over Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter, Amanda Nell Edgar and I in chapter 3, focused on our participant’s use of religious language and their own understandings of religion, faith, and spirituality that described their involvement with BLM. In short, we examine the “rhetoric of these narratives and examine how participants say that their faith, religion, or spirituality led them to support #BlackLivesMatter both online and “out in the streets.” What we discovered was that for many Black participants, the movement motivated a return to get more involved with their faith as well as an appreciation for the legacy of the Black Church.

BLM, Pentecostal Piety and the Role of Faith

But, how did people of faith reconcile the history of BLM and their own religious beliefs? One way that religion and communication scholar Christopher A. House suggest is that “many BLM activists self-identify as “spiritual but not religious” and their activism is animated by a deep spirituality that is personal, yet not connected traditionally to a religious institution. One of the BLM founders, Patrice Cullors remarked in an interview:

When you are working with people who have been directly impacted by state violence and heavy policing in our communities, it is really important that there is a connection to the spirit world. For me, seeking spirituality had a lot to do with trying to seek understanding about my conditions—how these conditions shape me in my everyday life and how do I understand them as part of a larger fight, a fight for my life. People’s resilience, I think, is tied to their will to live, our will to survive, which is deeply spiritual. The fight to save your life is a spiritual fight.

Elise Edwards suggests that while people who are engaging spirit “know that social transformation involves politics and policy,” they also believe that “transformative work is ultimately a spiritual effort that requires a shift in consciousness.” She also notes that this transformation is “dependent on inner change, the type of reorientation that religionists call conversion.” While this “spiritual transformation does not necessarily require the aid of formalized religious communities, African American communities have consistently drawn on Black religion to propel and sustain transformative justice movements and cultivate resistance to racism and other death-dealing forces.”

Our findings show the importance of spirit as well. As we ask participants how does your faith, or the role of spirit play in their support of BLM, many of them not only saw a connection but for some, it was a major reason for being part of the movement. In listening to their answers to our questions of faith and religion, much of it sounded like Andrew Wilkes’ notion of “Pentecostal Piety.”

For him, he sees this type of spirituality as crossing denominational, religious, faith, and moral lines because it has before. He writes

Although the civil rights movement is commonly linked with the Baptist denomination of Christianity, we don’t do it justice to remember it as denominational simply because it was so strongly associated with a certain, charismatic Christian clergyman of color. The ideas animating the movement were of far more diverse origin. The civil rights movement saw Black folks (and non-Black folks) consecrate the American dream by way of the prophetic Baptist theology of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, yes. But it also involved the anointed agnosticism of Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s founding executive director and the generative force of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Ella Baker. The radical Quaker vision of a Bayard Rustin next to the ethical humanism of an Asa Phillip Randolph were also blended in. And also in the mix was the subtle, yet significant tradition of faith-filled lay activists like Fannie Lou Hamer and Marian Wright Edelman.

Drawing from Wilkes, we note two major points about Pentecostal piety. First, Pentecostal piety places a heavy emphasis on the role of the spirit, and second, Pentecostal piety places a priority on prophetic action. Wilkes calls it a “subversive civil religion.” If this is true, then it is a civil religion that functions as a prophetic witness.

Many of our respondents would agree that BLM acts as a prophetic movement that provides a prophetic witness to the contextual realities faced by many African Americans. If this is true, then BLM is part of the long African American prophetic tradition. This tradition was

Birth from slavery and shaped in Jim and Jane Crow America, the African American version of the prophetic tradition has been the primary vehicle that has comforted and given voice to many African Americans. Through struggle and sacrifice, this tradition has expressed Black people’s call for unity and cooperation, as well as the community’s anger and frustrations. It has been both hopeful and pessimistic. It has celebrated the beauty and myth of American exceptionalism and its special place in the world, while at the same time damning it to hell for not living up to the promises and ideals America espouses. It is a tradition that celebrates both the Creator or the Divine’s hand in history—offering “hallelujahs” for deliverance from slavery and Jim and Jane Crow, while at the same time asking, “Where in the hell is God?” during tough and trying times. It is a tradition that develops a theological outlook quite different at times from orthodoxy—one that finds God very close, but so far away.

BLM is then just the latest in the history of people standing up and providing clarity and witness to the atrocities happening to Black bodies.


Though many believed that Black Churches were not as active as they once were, many understood the tradition and the legacy of the Civil Rights movement and saw themselves as connected to the tradition. The tradition also gave participants theological license to rethink, reshape, and reimagine what spirituality would look like in the BLM movement. This too, as we attempted to show, is part of the Black religious tradition. Birth in the resistance of a narrative that told Black people that they were not created in the image of God, Black people always had to put forth narratives that not only included them but also remind them that they too mattered.

For participants of faith, BLM offered a way of understanding a personal relationship with spirituality as a bridge to past civil rights leaders. In this way, larger movement history worked to draw in new social justice participants implicitly through their individual connections to the Spirit. BLM is not an explicitly religious organization. Yet the history of Black liberation organizes bubbles beneath the movement for Black lives. When activists engage in a spirituality that moves from moral suasion to bearing witness, they are discovering new and transformative ways to handle issues, problems, and concerns that Black people face daily. As a liberative and prophetic movement, BLM activists have drawn of the Black liberationists movements of the past and discerned the contextual realities confronting them today. In so doing, just like the civil rights activists that went before them, BLM is no different in that regard.

Andre E. Johnson is the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute Scholar in Residence and Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Memphis. 

Reflections from the Derek Chauvin Verdict

George Flyod MuralOn April 20, 2021, a jury found Derek Chauvin guilty of the death of George Floyd. Many took to social media to share their thoughts on the trial and the verdict. We here at Uplift thought we would share some of those comments. 



Let’s say that Derek Chauvin is convicted and appropriately sentenced for the murder of an unarmed black man named George Floyd. Even if the best-case scenario is realized, it’s just one. One man. One conviction. One appropriate sentencing. Countless unarmed black people continue to die at the hands of police officers. 12 jurors cannot balance the scales of 400 years of white violence against black bodies and spirits. I can’t find hope in one conviction. It’s bad math. Hope happens when we change the equation. When every black person encounters white officers and the outcome is respect, recognition of each other’s humanity, and life not death. One trial, regardless of the outcome, cannot do that.-Ebony Utley

We now know exactly how depraved one has to be in order to be found guilty of murdering a Black person in the United States of America. And, just how much evidence is needed. The level of protest that is required. Justice shouldn’t be so hard. I truly pray that Mr. Floyd’s family finds some peace after this. What about the family of Daunte Wright, however? Or Adam Toledo? Breonna Taylor? Sandra Bland? Ayanna Jones? Michael Brown? I could go on, but, well, I’d run out of space. I wish I felt happier. What I mostly feel, however, is tired. And sad. We’re at a crossroads. Which path will we choose? It’s time to end the system of Warrior Cops. New systems of Community Policing must be established. The system we have protects property, not people. That’s what it was created to do. It’s time to try something new. #blacklivesmatter #AbolishThePoliceAmritaChakrabarti Myers

I’m not sure I completely realized how deeply this case was affecting me. I can’t stop shaking right now literally I can’t stop shaking— I don’t feel relief as much as grief because—in waiting for this trial to come and go—I have not been able to properly grieve. Seeing Chauvin taken away in handcuffs finally allowed me to grieve.-Yohuru Williams

A very strange relief. We are so used to racism winning. It’s so insidious. I will not celebrate that someone was convicted for murdering someone on camera, in front of the world, and showed no hint of remorse after. I am relieved, but, a conviction is at least what should be expected. One of the insidious racial moves is to make Chauvin a poster boy for the label “bad apple.” What we actually need to do is reassess the entire practice of policing. That was on trial, too.-Reggie Williams

I was 21 when the verdict came down for Rodney King. I am crying now. Not because justice has been served, but because of how many times justice hasn’t been served. I have been tense since the trial started because I firmly believed that Chauvin was going to get off scot-free. They are killing us, the punishment of one doesn’t stop that fact. Over 64 people have died at the hands of the police since this trial started. So, I am relieved, happy his family has some semblance of justice. But, I already know how much value my country puts on my life. And I will not forget.-Kimberly N. Brown

A man is dead. A guilty verdict is satisfying in a bittersweet way and will not bring him back. The American justice system has so failed and traumatized black people that many of us have no faith in it at all. So much so, that when what should be an “open and shut” case is actually decided correctly, we are surprised and relieved. The system has been known to turn on its own when doing so is necessary to preserve itself. I’ll celebrate when convictions become the “rule” and are no longer surprise “exceptions. We still have a lot of work to do.-Xavier L. Johnson

George Floyd: A Black Man Mattered | We Commemorate this Moment

George Flyod MuralAs a Black man, the value of George Floyd’s human and civil rights was affirmed yesterday by the jury in Minneapolis that found former police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murdering Floyd.

Like many of you, I am consumed with reading the many editorials and statements which rightly state that while this verdict represents progress in holding institutional authority accountable – in this case, a Minneapolis police officer for the horrific death of George Floyd – this is a step in addressing institutional racism, not a permanent cross over any finish line.

The fight for racial equity and justice continues today, tomorrow, and for years to come. I urge each of us, as I plan to do, to rest and recommit to the long struggle for civil rights, social justice, and equality.

But today, we commemorate this moment when justice prevailed in a Minneapolis courtroom. The jury resoundingly found that the life of a Black man, George Floyd, mattered.

Daphene R. McFerren
Executive Director
Hooks Institute

Sustained the Championing of Civil Rights and Social Justice: The Hooks Institute

It is ironic, if not exhausting, that seemingly basic issues, like the right to vote, remain at the forefront of dissension in American life. However, as Coretta Scott King poignantly stated, the struggle for civil rights “is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation.” When speaking about civil rights, the late Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks would say to young people, “it’s your time now.” The Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change programming seeks to fulfill the mandate of the civil rights movement and its legacies.

Universities have a profound role in engaging students and communities to encourage rigorous thinking and constructive action to promote racial equality, inclusiveness, and fairness. The Hooks Institute, an interdisciplinary center at the University of Memphis, plays this pivotal role. Our mission is teaching, studying, and promoting civil rights and social change. Our work is vitally important during this critical moment as the nation struggles with race, voting rights, and the increasing marginalization of minorities and the poor. The Institute’s scholarship and community engagement are made possible through the support of the University of Memphis, donors, and grantors. We are grateful for this support.

Held throughout the year, the Hooks Institute lecture series engages local and national thought leaders in the university and greater community to address the legacy of the civil rights movement and its continuing relevance to today. These events are free, open to the public, and available on streaming platforms.

As an outcome of a Policy Paper published by the Institute, the Hooks Institute formed a coalition that included the UofM School of Urban Planning and Policy and community development corporations to assess the impact of rent-to-own purchase agreements. These agreements, often entered by people of color and immigrants, contain draconian terms for renters. In October, working with local real estate attorneys, the Institute and the coalition led training for staff of the City of Memphis, Code Enforcement, on how to identify those in rent-to-purchase agreements, and, if appropriate, refer them for housing counseling. Additionally, in August, the Hooks Institute and UofM faculty trained the staff of a federal agency on the impact of race, poverty, and other disparities on Memphis communities.

The Hooks Institute’s historical narratives on civil rights and social justice include the Fayette County, Tennessee exhibit on voting, a short documentary series on civil rights history in Memphis, titled “Stories to Inspire Change,” and feature-length documentaries, including our upcoming documentary on civil and women’s right activist Ida B. Wells (1862-1931).

Created in 2015, the Hooks African American Male Initiative (HAAMI) focuses on increasing the retention and graduation rates and career readiness of African American males enrolled at the UofM. While the HAAMI programs aid students in achieving personal success, HAAMI also aids Memphis to become a destination for employers seeking a prepared workforce.

Because of the struggle for freedom and civil rights, African Americans, like no other group in American history, have fundamentally changed the nation’s Constitution, its laws, and the trajectory of American history. The beauty that can be found in this struggle is that the gains of the civil rights movement have benefitted all people, making the United States a more just nation.

The future of civil rights remains to be written. We remain optimistic about the future, but this future requires dedication and work from many. At the Hooks Institute, we are focused on ensuring that the struggle for civil rights is never forgotten and that its gains are sustained and nurtured for generations to come.

Daphene R. McFerren
Executive Director of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change

This article was originally posted by the University of Memphis Alumni Association. Read the original article through this link.