My father insisted that faith meant loving others—even those who beat and bloodied him.

A black child growing up during the sixties, I was shaped by two powerful influences: first, two strong Christian parents who daily demonstrated their faith to me and everyone around them; second, the issue of race. Next to Christianity, issues of integration, voting, segregation, and “white folks” were the things most talked about in my house and my neighborhood.

This is the case for most black people of my generation. Racial consciousness has shaped who we are and is never absent from any situation. Yet it was precisely because of our strong Christian beliefs that my family took the point position in the battle for racial justice in our town.

As a child, I did not understand everything that was going on. Yet I was sure of one thing: I knew down to the core of my being that what we were doing was right in the sight of God.

Until my school years, most of us didn’t give much thought to hopes for racial justice. For years we had heard the grownups talking “hush talk” under their breath. We all cheered aloud as we listened to Martin Luther King, Jr., make his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, but his marches seemed far away. Though most people watching the evening news were shocked to see the Alabama police turn their dogs and water hoses on school-age children, we were not. We understood Southern justice. We had seen the news reports and could almost smell the smoke from Watts and Chicago. But we lived in Mississippi, “the Closed Society.” Things would never change here.

Still, something was in the air. All the teachers were talking about it, and I could see the fear and anger in their faces. Harper Vocational High School had an enrollment of ...

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