Laity

REFLECTIONS ON WHAT HAPPENED IN SELMA, AL,  in 1965

This piece is taken from a series of interviews with Rev. Kent Millard, retired United Methodist Clergy, who went to Selma, Alabama as a Boston University School of Theology student, after hearing Dr. King call for seminary students to come to Selma to support the voting rights marches.

RETHINK CHURCH: Dr. Millard, thank you for spending some time with me today to share your experiences at Selma. What brought you to Selma in the first place?

  1. KENT MILLARD: It was in March 1965 that Dr. King called Dr. Harold DeWolf, his major professor, to enroll some seminary students to come to Selma to support the voting rights marches.  A total of 80 students from Boston University School of Theology (22 students) Harvard Divinity School, and Andover Newton Seminary went to Selma to march for voting rights.

Segregation laws all over the south effectively prevented African Americans from voting, and some places required people to be literate before they could vote.  But it wasn’t the same requirement for everyone. If a white person came to register to vote they were given a first graders book to read.  If a Black person came to register they were given something written in German, French, Italian or some other foreign language, and if they couldn’t read it, were declared illiterate and disqualified from registering to vote.

I had heard Dr. King speak on television in August, 1963, when he gave his “I have a dream” speech at the Lincoln memorial in Washington DC and was moved in his dream of a time when African Americans  “would not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

I followed the Civil Rights movement closely and was inspired by Dr. King’s sermons about loving our enemies as a model of what Christ called us to do and by offering “non-violent resistance” to those who oppress others.  When Dr. King called and asked for marchers I said “yes” because I thought it was the Christian and moral response to which God called me.

RC: Was going to Selma anything like you had imagined? Did you have any expectations, hopes, or apprehensions?

KM: We knew that Rev. James Reeb, a Unitarian Minister from Boston, had been killed in Selma the previous week for marching for voting rights.  We expected that there would be confrontations with the KKK and others but we just prayed that we would survive and hopefully help move the nation towards justice for all people, regardless of race.

We ended up spending about 4-5 days in Selma while Dr. King negotiated with President Johnson. When seminarians arrived, they went through non-violent training led by Jesse Jackson and Andy Young. They were pushed and shoved and called names, to simulate what they might experience on these marches and gatherings, and all they were to do was keep singing and marching. If they were hit, they were to get to the ground and cover.

We were given these instructions: pair up and march, so that if law enforcement or anyone pulled you out of line, you’ll never go alone. One black woman I was paired with, said: “Sonny, you look scared. You march with me, you’ll be alright.” There were about 50-70 who marched to courthouse. Klansmen and others were shouting and throwing stones, but they didn’t attack because cameras were there.

When we marched to the courthouse in Selma, a black person would try to register to vote and be turned away.  Then a Black pastor would offer a prayer praying for all those hateful people shouting ugly things at us that God “would change their hearts of hate to hearts of love, their hearts of stone to hearts of flesh.”

Forty years later in 2005 I was invited to speak to a United Methodist pastor’s school in Alabama where I told that story.  Afterwards, a white pastor came up to me and said “I was in Selma at the same time you were but I was on the other side.”  I asked him “what changed you?”  He said “Jesus Christ.  I got so filled with hatred I couldn’t stand myself.  My wife convinced me to go to a Methodist revival meeting.  I went forward and confessed my sins and Christ came and replaced my hatred with love.  I decided to go into the Methodist ministry to try to undo some of the bad things I had done to people in my younger years.”

I remembered the prayer of the  Black pastor 40 years earlier: “turn their hearts of hate to hearts of love” and realized it had been fulfilled in the life of this man.

 

History of Hymns: “Let Us Break Bread Together”

by C Michael Hawn

Perhaps the most commonly sung song during Communion among United Methodists is the African American spiritual “Let us break bread together on our knees.”  What are the roots of “Let us break bread,” among the best known of African American spirituals? In a recently published article in the Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology, written by United Methodist Hymnaleditor, Dr. Carlton Young, he reveals the probable roots and major variants of this spiritual. Dr. Young suggests that this “spiritual was formed in the West African Gullah/Geechee slave culture that developed in the costal areas of South-Eastern colonial America, including St Helena Island, Beaufort, and Charleston, South Carolina . . ..”

The text of the version that is commonly sung in the United States was first published in The Journal of American Folklore (1925). The Journal included spirituals, as well as African American folk tales and proverbs that were collected by students at the Penn School on Saint Helena Island, South Carolina.

A second version appeared in Saint Helena Island Spirituals (1925) by Nicholas Ballanta, a very significant collection that included 103 Gullah spirituals. This version incorporates the same basic text, but with variations based on the slave dialect of the region:

Let us break bread togeder on our knees . . . 
When I fall on muh knees wid muh face to de risin’ sun
Oh Lawd hab mercy on me.

The third version was published in Augustine T. Smythe’s The Carolina Low-Country (1931). Not only is the text significantly different, but also the slave dialect of the region is even stronger in this version:

We will all sing tuhgedduh on dat day . . .
En I’ll fall upon muh knees en face duh risin’ sun,
Oh Lawd, hab mussy on me.

A final fourth stanza begins, “We will all pray tuhgedduh on dat day . . ..” According to hymnologist Jon Michael Spencer, the phrase “on dat day” suggests a use for the song beyond Communion. It is an eschatological reference envisioning hope and a reformation of the established social order beyond human history.

Each version incorporates the idea of “facing the rising sun.” One scholar suggests that this may come from the worship practices of Islamic West Africans. Another speculates that the sun was a symbolic West African source of spiritual light. Another phrase “on our knees” may have been a signal for a secret gathering, though this cannot be verified.

African American composer John Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954) arranged the first solo version with the three stanzas that are common to most hymnals in the United States. He also established the precedent of singing the final stanza up the octave. This practice is observed in several hymnals including The United Methodist Hymnal. This version of the spiritual was popularized by notable African American soloists in the mid-twentieth century such as Paul Robeson, Roland Hayes, and Marian Anderson.  As standardized as the text is, it has been subject to numerous alterations in several hymnals. These changes sometimes alter or eliminate the reference to the rising sun, perhaps because it is not literally accurate. Some include:

“When I fall on my knees, with my face to the Lord of life. . ..”

Others choose to replace the phrase, “on my knees” since many traditions do not receive the elements in this posture. To avoid this, some modify it as follows:

“Let us break bread together, we are one” or
“Let us break bread together in (or “with”) the Lord” or
“Let us praise God together, let us praise.”

Together in Song: Australian Hymnbook II (1999) alters virtually the entire traditional text:

Let us break bread together with the Lord . . . 
As we travel through this land, all God’s children hand in hand,
Lord, fill all our living with your life.

For me, the greatest loss in this version is the omission of the classic Kyrie eleison at the conclusion of each stanza, “Oh Lord, have mercy on me.”  These changes indicate the difficulty of transferring a song from one ecclesial or cultural tradition to another. However, the inclusion of a select number of African American spirituals in English language hymnals in countries such as Australia, Canada, and England is admirable and reflects the universality of one of the unique contributions of congregational song from the United States to the world. Alterations to congregational songs, especially those from folk sources, are common across cultural and national boundaries. In its most standard and historical form, this spiritual fits the practice and ethos of the Methodist Eucharist liturgy well.