In church this past Sunday, we sang the wonderful song of the black experience in the United States:

Lift every voice and sing, ‘till earth and heaven ring,
ring with the harmonies of Liberty.
Let our rejoicing rise high as the listening skies;
let it resound loud as the rolling sea.

I don’t recall when I first heard this hymn, but I know our little church in North Carolina has sung it three times in the last nine months. I predict we will need to sing it much more in the days and years ahead.

James Weldon Johnson, the celebrated American poet, wrote the lyrics in 1900 and his younger brother John Rosamond Johnson put it to music five years later. It is sometimes referred to as the Black National Anthem.

“Stony the road we trod” are the words that open the second verse.

They refer not only to the Middle Passage (when people were carried against their will from Africa to North America) and to their American Slavery (when people were denied every right and responsibility from 1619 to 1865), but also to the Sorrowful Retreat from the three amendments to the U. S. Constitution that followed the Civil War.

That retreat consisted of this: after military victory had been won, slaves declared free, laws enacted that guaranteed opportunity, and schools and churches founded for the advancement of colored people, the reaction set in. It was too much change, too much progress, too much freedom for a whole swath of the American population.

Powerful people, with legal, political, and religious consent, responded to this Reconstruction of the South with a movement of their own. This conservative reaction negated much that had been won, cancelled out many of the freedoms and opportunities newly enjoyed by so many Americans, and ushered in a long, sad, and stony road for the whole nation.

Almost one hundred years of segregation, denigration, and marginalization of Black people created the world into which I was born in 1950.

Poverty, danger, and death marked the period. Lynching was common. Denial of rights ubiquitous. It was a long weary walk back down that stony road.

Now we face another such walk.

During the 72 years of my life, segregation was declared illegal, the right to privacy was enshrined in law, barriers to the ballot box were removed, contraception and sexual activity were ruled the rights of adults, marriage was allowed across racial and gender lines, and time and time again the freedom to speak, vote, and serve were defended at the highest levels.

Often these measures of progress were established by the authority and power of the federal government.

But all this put in motion a counter movement, a backlash, a resentment of the worse sort.

What form did this pushback take?

First, segregation academies were formed to educate white children and youth away from the poor and the black people. Second, the culture war was launched by religious leaders to counter what they saw as the demise of their Christian way of life.

Third, the Federalist Society was formed to train a cadre of lawyers and judges who would limit the power of the federal government to overrule local and state officials. Fourth, the Republican Party swung steadily away from its tradition of enterprise, independence, and the separation of church and state to a political movement of God, guns, and anti-government anger.

Donald Trump rode this socio-political resentment to political power, and when he lost the next election, he egged on the rabble during the insurrection of January 6.

Even worse, Trump’s appointments to the Supreme Court—all from the Federalist Society—have swung the highest court into their corner of this cultural war.

The next two weeks will reveal the extent to which this modern reactionary movement will undo decades of progress on environmental controls, personal privacy, human and civil rights, gun regulation and safety, separation of church and state, and fairness in elections.

I fear another stony road lies ahead for all of us.

There are powerful interests—financial, legal, political, and religious—that wish to narrow our civil rights, undermine the privacy laws, and weaken the power of government to intervene on behalf of the weak, the poor, the refugee, the colored, the believer in any religion not popular in our country, and those who are truly marginalized from the centers of economic and political power.

Already much of this is happening, and more is coming. We will all be singing:

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by thy might, led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.


(June 2022)

Published On: June 20th, 2022 / Categories: Commentary /

Recent Posts