Michael Tait: Reconciling the Races ‘Under God’ – Part 1
Craig von Buseck: Your book, 'Under God' is thought-provoking and inspiring. But it is also controversial, because you didn't only show the positive side of the struggle for freedom, you also showed the negative side -- the side where people were wounded or even killed in the fight for freedom. I am grateful to you for your approach because I believe the Church needs to understand where we have done well in race relations and where we have not done so well. Why did you take such a controversial stand?
Michael Tait: Well I think it's like a Tom Cruise movie I saw where he tells his friends that you can't enjoy the good in life until you've experienced the bad. For me in life, there is nothing worthwhile that came easy. A lot of times we don't want to show the ugly because it's just that – it's ugly, it's embarrassing, and it does not encourage people to want to support something.
Tobymac and I co-founded the E.R.A.C.E. Foundation – which stands for Eliminating Racism And Creating Equality. We found ourselves somewhat in a pickle, because to try to get these young people to understand our history as a nation and try to get us to reconcile in modern times is tough because you have to show the ugly side. That's not something that people want to deal with. They don't want to feel like, 'O.K., we did this. We're responsible for this. This is something that we brought on ourselves.' Nobody wants to be brought to the carpet. But once we go through the muck and the mire and the dirt of it, then the healing can begin.
But you have to show it because it happened, and it justifies the people in the past who went through it.
Craig: Was this book an outgrowth of this foundation?
Michael: Partly that, and then we went to Washington a few years ago. I grew up four blocks from the Capitol Building. And all my life I'd see this building standing there and I'd think, 'Hmmm, what's inside that building?' So recently David Barton, a friend of ours who founded WallBuilders and who we worked with on the book, took us on this tour of the Capitol. He explained to us a bunch of stuff that I've always heard about, but never really stopped to think in depth about and analyze. When I started to realize that this country was built on everything Judeo-Christian – and that there are Bible verses etched into the monuments, and Congress always started off with a prayer. Our founders held church in the Capitol Building, which was also the legislative building – that brings a whole new meaning to separation of church and state. When you learn all this stuff you start thinking, wait a minute, this is reality, and it's pretty intense. People need to know about this stuff.
Toby and I talked about how in today's world we're trying to get 'under God' out of the pledge, 'in God we trust' off of our money, and prayer out of our schools. It's a small leftist group that's trying to do this. But the point is, why are we trying to run from the very things that made us great?
This country was founded, not on just some religion, but on Judeo-Christian principles – Christianity. And we've been running away from that. Why mess with the foundation when it's great?
Craig: What criterion did you use to decide which stories you added to the book, because you had thousands to choose from?
Michael: It was tough because there's a lot of stuff to talk about. Obviously the stories had to be handpicked to some degree because you can't include everything. Throughout the whole book there are bits and pieces that link themselves together in history. A lot of the stories that deal with African-Americans were directly linked to slavery, and Harriet Tubman, and the Underground Railroad.
One of my favorite stories was about Lewis Latimer. His Dad escaped slavery because he looked like a white man. He pretended he was his wife's slave owner. These stories are intense. You think, all this was to get to where we are now. You hope that we've learned something through this long journey.
The stories in the book are right for now – for now, this is where we are.
Craig: You said you learned so much from these stories. What are some of the lessons you learned in putting this book together?
Michael: I'm still amazed at the perseverance and the determination that so many African-Americans had. And I'm thankful to the ones who died with the thought in their mind, 'I may never be free, but this is for my kids.' I think to myself, that is such a selfless act.
One of my favorite stories in the book is of Ruby Bridges who was just six-years-old and trying to go to school in New Orleans. She was shut out from that school until the National Guard was brought in. So she goes to school at six-years-old, just the sweetest little thing, with four national guardsmen walking with her – getting out of the car and walking her up the stairs to an empty school building. For a year her teacher taught her the alphabet one-on-one in the face of racial injustice and hatred. The parents in that community were being a bad example for their kids, not allowing them to go to school and not allowing them to play with Ruby because she was an African-American. When we researched this and found out she was still alive, I was like, 'I want to meet this lady, because she's done so much for the cause.'
But in stories like that where you see the perseverance and you wonder, how did you pull through?
Craig: As I was reading through that story in particular, I thought, 'All right, that was 1960, and I went to Kindergarten in 1970, only ten years later, and I experienced none of that.' Now I grew up in the north, in a totally different world. But I was trying to put myself in her place, asking, what was I seeing when I was that little. You're so innocent, and you don't realize what is happening around you. In the story she said that she would quote the protesters as she jumped rope with her friends, 'Two, four, six, eight, we don't want to integrate.' It's amazing.
Michael: And later on in the story it talks about how Dr. Coles, the school psychologist, would talk to Ruby and found out that she was not affected. He came in thinking he would have to deal with the stress and help her vent, but he discovered she was praying for these people. She would stop along the way and would say a prayer for them. That little girl, she was touched by God, man. I want to meet her.
Craig: The thing that really touched me in that story was the courage of that family – I mean, that's a little lamb – what courage they had, especially in that day, to put her out there where any kind of sniper or crazy person could have done who knows what.
Michael: And the weirdest part about that, too, was that after that first year had passed, the next semester when school started again, it was almost like it had never happened. Because people got tired of fighting and rioting, then after a while things started progressing and they saw that it was working, they kind of said, o.k., 'I'll put my sword down, put my gun down. The war is over.'
Craig: Let me just list some of the stories in your book and you can comment on what moved you to include them – Richard Allen: Lifting a People.
Michael: Man, that was amazing. He reminded me most of my dad, who was a cab driver and a preacher in Washington, D.C. Richard traveled along the countryside and cut wood, doing little odd jobs where he could. I thought about my dad that way. They were not super educated, but just inspired by God intellectually. When you read the story about how he became the first bishop of the African-Methodist-Episcopal Church, you think, wow. What a climb from buying his freedom, from his master's whips and scourges, and then going on to become this amazing man of God.
There's a saying in the Black community that the pastor is everything; he's your doctor, he's your banker, he's your parent. Richard realized that it is very important to not only bring along the African-American spiritually, but also physically. He was really concerned about the maturing of the Black person as a whole. At the end of the day, I parallel his life with my Dad's life, because my Dad was a man of God who didn't have much. He had no ulterior motives besides reaching out to people in his cab.
Craig: Wow, what a great place to witness to people.
Michael: Yeah, Harry S. Truman rode in my Dad's cab.
You think about these guys who grew up in hard times, and had every reason to hate people. Richard's Mom and three siblings were separated like most Black families were. Richard had every reason to be ticked at the world. But the love of God filled his heart and at the end of the day he said, 'I'm going to take this newfound grace, love, and mercy and spread it.' And he used it to make things better as he reached out to people.
Craig: How about a little bit more on the darker side, talk about the Springfield riots.
Michael: Yeah, that was pretty intense. When you think about Lincoln and what he did to free the slaves – eventually losing his life. These riots started, once again, just out of hatred. I'm reminded of the movie 'Rosewood'. When I got home from the movie, and was talking to a friend on the telephone, I just started crying – I started bawling, because in this movie it talks about the same thing that happened in Springfield. This Black kid is accused of doing something he didn't do – rape, stealing, you know, any way the racist could fabricate and weave this lie to entangle this Black person.
This lady is killed in the movie, and I thought of my Mom. To try to feel it deeper I try to connect with something in my life. So in the movie this boy is hanged and I thought, 'There is no justification for this.' Of course, there was no day in court for the African-Americans, it was a joke.
In the Lincoln story, riots broke out kind of in the same way. In Springfield, this Black guy is accused of killing the railroad engineer. In some kind of parallel crime, he's also accused of raping this White woman. Later on it was found that she was having an affair on the side. But a wonderful scapegoat would be to weave this little lie to say, o.k. it was the Black guy that killed the railroad engineer. And so a riot started and the sheriff had to run him out of town. The saddest part about it was this eighty-year-old Black man, William Donnegan, a cobbler who actually made shoes for Lincoln, he ends up losing his life because someone ended up taking out vengeance on him.
The thing that frustrated me in the study of this is that two Black people end up dying at the end of the whole thing and only one of the rioters is brought in under a charge for theft. He ended up serving only 30 days in prison. And you read that and it just frustrates you. I can’t help but think about in modern times, everybody freaked out when O.J. Simpson was found innocent. For the record, I believe that O.J. Simpson was guilty as sin. But I find it ironic that in the twenty-first century it's turned around. I mean, you couldn't buy a Black guy a pardon back then. Now it's a gross injustice on the other side.
But I love the quote at the end of the story where Lincoln said, America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we fall and lose our freedom, it will be because we destroyed ourselves. And it's very true.
Craig: I spoke with Will Ford, and you have a story from him about the kettle prayers. How did you come in contact with him and what did you choose that particular story?
Michael: Well, because I found it so odd. I used to sing the Negro Spirituals because my Dad taught them to me. He died seven years ago, but he would be so stoked if he were alive to know that this book is out there. He grew up in Alabama and his grandfather was killed by the K.K.K. And my Dad had every reason to hate, but he turned it totally into love. And he brought us up to love people. We had Jews in our house, and Italians, and White people, and it was awesome. I was really blessed to have a Dad like that. When you hear the Negro Spiritual like 'Steal Away to Jesus', they were talking about stealing away from 'Massa' to go find a quiet place.
Craig: 'Follow the Drinking Gourd'…
Michael: Exactly! And you hear that and you go, 'ding!'
Craig: 'Wade in the Water'…
Michael: Yeah, 'Wade in the Water', talking about the Underground Railroad. They have meaning that I'm not sure a lot of Blacks, or Whites for the matter, even know. We just enjoy the melodies because they were so infectious. But the songs are, lyrically, very passionate. You kind of get caught up in the whole slave thing, but if you know where it really comes from, it grips your heart.
So in the story of the Mattie girl and the kettle, it talks her Uncle Charlie being whipped by a slave master because he was caught praying. They said that if a slave was praying he became lazy and not too fruitful. They felt that praying was distracting for the slaves. Little did the slave master know that this was the only hope that the slave had. This was their time to get away and find that complete solace and keep the gun, so to speak, away from their head. I couldn't imagine sun-up to sun-down, brutal treatment, and seeing your kids being dispersed, it's just horrible to think about. But praying into a kettle, and Mattie was wondering, 'why the kettle?' They would go into the barn, and I guess it would just muffle the voice. It's an amazing story.
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