Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (I Chronicles 1) transports me to Selma, Alabama, late 90s, where our group of Freedom Bus Riders gathered at a fine dining establishment, called, oddly enough, White-Force Cottage. J.L. Chestnut, the first African American attorney in Selma, was our special guest for the evening, prepared to tell stories of his work with Thurgood Marshall in the early days of the civil rights movement, but he soon got upstaged. As it happened, Paula Dempsey, my colleague who helped organize the trip, had called ahead to find Mars Hill College alumni in each city we were to visit, to elicit help in arranging food and lodging for the group. Our one Selma alum, a woman from the class of ’54, had been glad to help, but she asked if she could bring a friend to dinner, to share “the other side of the story.” Paula and I were both a bit apprehensive about this, wondering if she was planning to bring a Klansman to give the opposing view of all we were learning. We had spent the day with Marie Foster, one of only 2 women to have completed the historic march from Selma to Montgomery. She was quite a story-teller herself, proudly showing her shoes on display in the Voting Rights Museum, and talking about how painful it was to make the five day journey after receiving blows to her knees on the Edmund Pettus Bridge with the clubs from the mounted police. We were all there on the White-Force porch, waiting on our alumna and her friend, and as two older women turned to walk up the sidewalk, J.L. Chestnut’s jaw dropped. I don’t believe it, he said. That’s Annie Lee Cooper. Nobody has seen her in public for decades. We confessed our ignorance and asked who Annie Lee Cooper was. Marie Foster filled us in – You remember on Eyes on the Prize when it showed the voting registration drive we had here in Selma, and Sheriff Jim Clarke tried to get tough with a woman in line, prodding her in the back with his billy club? Yes, we remembered. Annie Lee Cooper had been the large, imposing woman who forgot all about her nonviolence training and coldcocked the Sheriff, dropping him with a powerful right hook to the jaw. It took two deputies to restrain her, and she spent the day in jail, victimized with a brutal beating. She had not been in the limelight since, and this was the first time, according to attorney Chestnut and Marie Foster, that anybody had seen her. The “other side of the story” she told was riveting, and was not something Juan Williams or Taylor Branch or any other journalist documenting the movement had learned.
For our current generation and generations to come, those for whom even the larger than life figures like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks are destined to fade onto the pages of history books to take their place alongside Roosevelt and Lincoln and Jefferson, names like Annie Lee Cooper and Marie Foster and J.L. Chestnut are bound to fade even further into the footnotes of obscurity. I think of them when I begin reading through the list of names in a book like I Chronicles. We know virtually nothing of their stories, but were we able to go back in time and stand on the porch of Canaanland’s version of a White-Force Cottage, and see some of these figures approach, I can imagine the Chronicler’s jaw might just drop. I mean, what do we know about a man named Egypt, other than he had a cousin named Gomer and sired the Ludites? We know that Nimrod was a mighty warrior, and Er’s son Peleg’s lived in a time when the earth was divided, but that’s about it, until we get to Abraham. But for every name, there had to be a story, some told and re-told until they finally faded from memory, some forever hidden from the public eye. It’s how history happens, it’s how the promise is carried from generation to generation, through the obscure footnotes as much or more than through the epic dramas.
I’m forever grateful that we got to hear Annie Lee Cooper’s “other side”, which was more accurately a “rest of the story” narrative, before she died a few years later at the ripe old age of 100. Her beating that day in the Selma jail had left her terribly disabled; her mouth and face were disfigured and she had not received medical attention. She had lost part of her tongue, and as a result couldn’t speak for many long years, and lived with terrible pain. Annie Lee had barely started telling her story before Marie Foster interrupted, confirming the account for us all, She’s telling the truth! I was right there. That’s how it was. This interruption happened another couple of times, once with Marie getting me to stand up and play the part of Annie Lee so she could demonstrate in slow motion the right hook, until Annie Lee finally got irritated with Marie and said, I’m not saying another word until you sit down and keep quiet. After the awkward moment passed, Annie Lee continued, telling us how she had lived in poverty for many years, raising her children the best she could. One day she was watching the televangelist faith healer Oral Roberts on television, and had a conversion experience. She joined a local group of Oral Roberts devotees, and became prayer partners with a white woman, the Mars Hill alum who had arranged our visit to Selma. Some time later, Annie Lee awoke in the middle of the night and had a vision that she was in a terrible battle with demonic forces. She began praying in earnest, and in the midst of her prayer, poison began spewing from her mouth, and kept coming out for what she thought was hours. Finally, in the early morning, she recovered, and began cleaning the floor of all the poison that had left her body. Once the house was clean, she realized she was free from pain, and more than that, she could speak. She found that she had forgiven all of her tormenters, and had found a best friend in this white woman, her prayer partner. That, we learned, was what our alum wanted the group to hear, Annie Lee’s testimony of faith healing and forgiveness and friendship across the great divide. I doubt that Almodad’s, Sheleph’s, and Hazarmaveth’s stories could have been more surprising or inspiring.
How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.