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Father's Day and Memories of the Civil Rights Movement


It's Father's Day, and for commentator Neil Morgan, the son of a white minister in North Carolina, this brings back a powerful memory as his father's role in the emerging civil rights movement.


The hand-cranked phone rang that stormy afternoon in the parsonage at the farm village of Creedmoor in North Carolina. My father answered and turned pale. A desperate voice cried out that the four Hester(ph) sisters had been struck by lightning as they cropped tobacco in the family fields. Would the pastor please hurry. My father raced to his bicycle, his youngest kid close behind, to leap on its back saddle. I clutched his waist as we skidded across red clay streets. With each lightning bolt, thunder rocked frail frame houses, but he pedaled on, his white hair flying.

When Father had begun taking me on his pastoral rounds, my mother had warned, `The boy will see too much too young.' `But,' my father answered, closing the subject, `he may learn something about good and evil, about right and wrong.' Through his 70 years of pastoring, such teaching was my father's quest. He became an early rallying point for the civil rights movement. Liberal editors of newspapers and periodicals across three states printed his letters appealing for equal rights for black people. He wrote once, `I have all my life been opposed to betting, but I will bet $1 that the Supreme Court will strike down the North Carolina ruling that an eating facility owner has the right to choose whom he'll serve.' With the landmark Greensboro lunch counter decision, he won that bet and dropped his winnings in the next Sunday's collection plate.

In his robust 90s, a letter in the Raleigh paper asked: `Can no one silence this old man?' No one ever did, but his faith in a caring God was shaken by that lightning bolt during his final pastorate in 1937. We hurried together on that dreadful day to the tobacco field where the sky had struck the four Hester sisters dead. I remember only two sounds, the terrible moans of their parents and the unrelenting drip of raindrops on tarps that were thrown over their bodies. As tears mixed with rain on Father's face, he held the parents in his arms and cried out, `This cannot be God's will.' To me, that seemed undeniable, but in that village and in that time, some of his congregation believed that all good and all evil were God's will. Their minds held images of a God who could rain down hellfire and brimstone.

So Father did what he did best: He started writing his sermon for the funeral. I saw him on his knees in his study, praying with Bibles at his side in Hebrew and Greek and Latin, seeking words that might reassure both him and his people of a loving God. Headlines brought thousands to the funeral, blocking the dirt streets of little Creedmoor. Beside a wide grave with its four caskets, Father began bravely, `Faith and reason cannot always be reconciled.' And then he tried to make his case to preserve his people's faith in the wake of a terrible act of God.

He lived to be 101, writing letters and sermons nearly to the end. As two black men shoveled the clay over his casket, one turned to me and said quietly, `Your daddy was a friend of ours.' And, thank God, of mine.

LUDDEN: Writer Neil Morgan is a commentator for member station KPBS and founder of VoiceofSanDiego.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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