Last Tuesday, our country marked the 125th anniversary of the US Supreme Court’s verdict in Plessy v. Ferguson. This coming Tuesday marks the first anniversary of George Floyd’s murder. The two events are not unrelated.
Some background. During the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War, Congress created laws to make real the promises of the Emancipation Proclamation. For a season, the country flourished. Numerous people of color–especially from the South– were elected to positions in local, state, and federal government.
Uncomfortable with how quickly things were changing, Southern legislators resisted Reconstruction. In 1877, a compromise “led to the withdrawal of federal troops from the South.” At that point, “Democrats consolidated control of state legislatures throughout the region, effectively ending Reconstruction.” The first set of Jim Crow laws passed by Southern states required “railroads to provide separate cars for “Negro” or “colored” passengers.”
“At the heart of Plessy v. Ferguson was a law passed in Louisiana in 1890 [quote] “providing for separate railway carriages for the white and colored races.” It stipulated that all passenger railways had to provide these separate cars, which should be equal in facilities.”
Many of you will identify with Homer Adolph Plessy. Of mixed race, Mr. Plessy “agreed to be the plaintiff in the case aimed at testing the law’s constitutionality.” Many of you made trips to the courthouse to challenge laws prohibiting gay marriage. Mr. Plessy tried to make a trip on a train going from New Orleans to Covington, Louisiana.
“He took a seat in a whites-only car. After refusing to leave the car at the conductor’s insistence, he was arrested and jailed. Convicted by a New Orleans court of violating the 1890 law, Plessy filed a petition against the presiding judge, Hon. John H. Ferguson, claiming that the law violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.”
The Supreme Court delivered its verdict on May 18, 1896. “In declaring separate-but- equal facilities constitutional on intrastate railroads, the Court ruled that the protections of the 14th Amendment applied only to political and civil rights (like voting and jury service), and not to “social rights” (sitting in the railroad car of your choice). In its ruling, the Court denied that segregated railroad cars for Black people were necessarily inferior. Justice Henry Brown wrote for the majority: “We consider the underlying fallacy of [Plessy’s] argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.”
Thus was the inferiority of people who are Black re-codified into federal law 31 years after slavery ended.
The first Sunday of the “Say Their Names” art exhibit, I spent some time with Kai Lendzion in the gallery. I shared what I saw in his photographs. He pointed out things I wasn’t seeing. I commented on his use of a sepia tone on some of the photos he took in Selma in 2015. At first glance, those photos look like they’re from the 50s or 60s. Then you see the cellphones and realize the scenes are contemporary.
When I asked Kai why he used the sepia, he said he wanted it to look like pictures from the 50s and 60s. That’s when the deeper meaning Kai’s artwork was communicating: It seems like we’ve come a long way regarding racial equity. Certainly, strides have been made. But the sepia tone on Kai’s photographs from Selma begs the question: How far have we really come?
Heather’s painting of George Floyd’s death begs the same question. How far have we really come? Jim Crow laws, mostly, are off the books now. Most of our country’s laws support racial equity. As a country we have made progress toward racial equity…but how far have we really come? In our country, in our laws, in our justice system, in our social structures, do Black lives matter? Do Black lives really matter?
Today we celebrate Pentecost, the birthday of the church, it’s called. In the Scripture story, it happens 50 days (hence the PENTE part) after Jesus’ resurrection and 10 days after his ascension when he left the scene for good. Last week, just before his departure, we heard Jesus tell his disciples to go back to Jerusalem and wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit. Once the Spirit came, Jesus said, the people would be empowered to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and all Samaria and even to the ends of the Earth.
Today is the day! The people are gathered in Jerusalem when God’s spirit whooses in! Wind! Tongues of flame on everyone’s head! People who’d never before understood each other suddenly understanding each other! Peter preaching, reminding the community that the young people will see visions and the old people will dream dreams!
Pentecost is pivotal. Jesus’ followers become something new that day. They become a community. They become church.
Wind or breath is the key symbol of Pentecost. On more than one Pentecost over the years, I’ve had fans turned on during worship. One year we attached red streamers to the fan to represent fire. The reality didn’t quite meet our vision.
Breath. This has been a year of breath. Covid’s theft of breath. George Floyd’s cry as breath left his body, “I can’t breathe.” Even the breath-wind that brought sands from Africa to blanket our country last summer. It has been a year of breath, mostly, a fear of losing it.
Those of you who attended the opening for the “Say Their Names” art gallery will remember: It was a windy day! The most brilliant invention of the day were the garbage cans Beaver Wyatt created out of tomato cages and plastic bags. Genius! Trash cans would have blown away. Beaver’s trash cages? We didn’t lose a one!
As we set up then waited for people to arrive–and as I made my peace with what the wind was doing to my hair–I looked up into the trees and watched the leaves dance. After a brief rain in the morning, by afternoon the sun poured through the newly-birthed leaves.
Sometimes, I have to search hard for sermon illustrations. And sometimes they blow in, wreak havoc with my hair and shout, “Use me! Use me!” The wind blowing around on the front patio at the gallery opening? Yeah. It was Pentecost. And not just because of the wind.
There we were. All together, gathered as love had called us to do…There we were, making preparations, standing around, engaging in awkward chit-chat, when… Whoosh! Spirit blew in! Virtuous sang our hearts and minds into focus… Spirit kept blowing… We shared our stories… Spirit kept blowing… People whose stories we haven’t understood before started making sense… Spirit kept blowing… Gazing at the artwork in the gallery, we saw the visions of the young people! … Spirit kept blowing… Gazing at the artwork, we older folks began to dream dreams… Spirit kept blowing…
And as Spirit kept blowing, and blowing, and blowing…something shifted, something opened, something lightened…and suddenly, at last, we understood: God’s spirit gives us power! Power to listen… power to heal… power to change–our minds, our church, our city, our country, the world… God’s Spirit gives us power to create the world of which God dreams! …If we will only open our hearts…if we will only open our minds….if we will only learn to breathe together… [Video, with Wayne playing “Spirit of Gentleness”]
This sermon was inspired by this Pentecost Day Blessing by Jan Richardson.
When We Breathe Together
A Blessing for Pentecost Day
This is the blessing
we cannot speak
This is the blessing
we cannot summon
by our own devices,
to our purpose,
to our will.
This is the blessing
when we leave behind
when we gather
when we turn
toward one another.
This is the blessing
that blazes among us
when we speak
strange to our ears
when we finally listen
into the chaos
when we breathe together