John Milton Wesley
by John Milton Wesley
[This is the text of John Milton Wesley’s speech to the 2007 winter meeting
of the National Newspaper Publishers Association ~ NNPA ~ in Phoenix, Arizona.]
Thanks, NNPA President John Smith and Foundation president Dorothy Leavelle for this opportunity. And thanks to Mr. Cloves Campbell, publisher of the Arizona Informant newspaper, and, of course, to my client, Mr. Moses Brewer, manager of Diversity African –American markets, Coors Brewing Company, and to my CEO, Ms. Sylvia Cordy of Cordy & Company, Inc. – she’s my boss, by the way.
And, of course, thanks to all of you, for you are indeed the Black Press of America, and though I may not have been the first choice for this evening’s speaker, I don’t mind being the tenth choice, for tonight you have honored me with your presence.
I am happy to be with you again so soon. I enjoyed my first visit last June in Detroit for your summer meeting, and I am delighted to be with you again.
So, I am here today, thankful to be your guest and delighted to have this opportunity to share more of my work and musings with you.
Initially I had planned to speak to you this evening on the subject “In the beginning was the word.” I had thought I would take a text from the book of Genesis and expound on the importance of coming to know the power of the word of God and the importance of using it to encourage the manifestation in our lives of the desires of our hearts; however, a series of events in the local headlines and the response – and lack of the same – prompted me to take a different path and choose a different subject and theme. I was led instead to choose: “I am too Black to turn back.”
For once I began to reflect on the history of the struggle for respect and equality by people of African descent, the brutality of the slave trade, the denial of human rights and the historical documentation of their survival against all odds. I was again reminded of our invaluable inheritance as African Americans today. Add to this our own personal and collective spiritual evolution which has brought us thus far by faith, it is plain to see why we are indeed too Black to turn back.
Some unknown author once wrote that “the mind once stretched to a new dimension does not shrink back to its original form.” I agree, and have decided, as the Apostle Paul suggested, to “press on toward the mark of a higher calling.”
The writer Phillips Brooks wrote, and I quote: “God has not given us vast learning to solve all the problems, or unfailing wisdom to direct all the wanderings of our brothers’ lives, but he has given to every one of us the power to be spiritual and, by our spirituality, to lift and enlarge and enlighten the lives we touch.”
And so this evening I have chosen to speak with you briefly about my own lessons learned before, during, and after the Civil Rights “Movement,” and [about] people famous and infamous whose Blackness inspired me. They still steer me from beyond – even to this day when my back was and is, as the noted Theologian Dr. Howard Thurman would say, “against the wall.”
And every now and then all of us find ourselves with our backs against a wall. If you are living in America today, and you are an African American, your back is against the wall. If you are a resident of the state of Arizona, even if you live in the suburbs as I do, your back is against the wall.
When John Kerry – a multi-millionaire – and all his advisers in the political party most African Americans support are totally bamboozled as they were in the 2004 election by the party we are afraid to be identified with (as if one political party is really better than the
other) and, in the process [of the campaign], that party spends more money than the winner and loses, we are left with our backs against the wall.
However, anyone could have come here this evening and told you that; so I have come to offer something more – that is, a reminder that there is no cause for alarm. We have all been here before. This too shall pass. And despite our present preoccupation with who the father of Anna Nicole’s baby might be and whether or not Barack Obama attended a Madrassa when he was in kindergarten, we will in the final analysis all stand before our Creator and be required to give an account, not for someone else’s actions but for our own. We will not be granted a reprieve from this responsibility because we are African Americans and have suffered much at the hands of our oppressors. There will be no grants of immunity because of mitigating circumstances or taking the 5th amendment to avoid incrimination.
Hopefully, in the twenty minutes I have this evening to speak with you, I will be able to share through my own experiences and daily rituals how we can prepare for that ultimate accounting. I have asked God to use me to give you something to help us prepare for our own final edit, when the only wall behind us will be the life we have lived, and the only photos will be snapshots of how we served our Creator and treated our fellow man.
You see, when I got the infamous call on “9/11,” it was not the first time I had found myself with my back against the wall. I was born Black in America, in the delta of Mississippi; however, fortunately for me, there was a picture of Jesus hung on that wall, and though he stared down on me in all of his blond and blue-eyed glory, I was, as a child, transfixed by his message and his majesty. One thing was abundantly clear to me even then – that was, his work and life model had stood the test of time. In moments of joy and pain, I heard my grandmama call his name.
Next to the picture of Jesus was one of my grandfather, Will Sanders, on a hunting expedition with noted racist Mississippi Senator Theodore Bilbo. My granddad was known for his “word” and his bar-be-que. Bilbo was known for his plan to send Black folks back to Africa. [In the picture] my granddad is seated on a wooden box surrounded by a deer hunting party of some of the most racist white men in the country, yet his face is the picture of calm because he is secure in himself.
The memories of those photographs are indelible in my memory. This past October, when I visited the vandalized shell of the house where I was born in Ruleville, Mississippi, (though the floor beneath the wall was littered with broken glass, left behind tattered cloths, empty beer and liquor bottles and discarded syringes), in my mind’s eye I could see myself as a child lying on my cot, hear the fire popping in the pot bellied stove, smell teacakes cooking in the kitchen, while the voice of Mahalia Jackson sang woefully in the background, “Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.”
In 1935, Dr. Howard Thurman led an African-American delegation to South Asia. In India, he and his wife Sue met Mahatma Gandhi. They talked about oppression and freedom and nonviolence. Gandhi asked them to sing an old Negro spiritual, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord.” Dr. Thurman, on the other hand, wanted to know how Gandhi’s principles could be used by Black folk in America whose backs were against the wall. Thurman returned to the United States and began reflecting about how the life and teachings of Jesus specifically applied to those facing suffering and oppression. In 1949, he synthesized that thinking in one of his best-known books, JESUS AND THE DISINHERITED.
Howard Thurman said: “There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls."
Dr. Thurman’s words have echoed in my head throughout my life, as God has allowed me to be an eyewitness to “HIStory.” They continuously remind me that belief in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are integral to my survival, that my quest for knowledge of my people and myself should be personal and unending, and that my ultimate freedom will depend on my ability to answer the call of my own heart.
Sometime between 55 – 65 A.D., James the brother of Jesus taught that the moral life comes out of one’s human nature. That evil could be eradicated by moral and ethical behavior. In the book of James chapter 1, verses 1-4, he writes:
“Count it all joy, brethren, when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
Now James identified himself as “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” When I became familiar with his writings, I was of course intrigued by this notion and wanted to know more. In verses 5-8 James goes further in his advice: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask God who gives to all men generously and without reproaching, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave on the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways, will receive anything from the Lord.”
Early in my childhood I took the message of James to heart. One of my first lessons was to:
I learned to do this by attending Sunday School and Church often with my grandmother and grandfather. They reinforced my formal and religious education by encouraging me to stay in school, demanding that I attend Sunday School and Church, and yes, join the 4-H club, and cultivate my talents and social skills.
I write about this in the Emmett Till story in the book titled AN EAR TO THE GROUND (which I coauthored with Arun Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson), in my new book SALVOS, and in the new anthology THE BRIGHTER SIDE OF DARKNESS, a 50 year memoir on “Brown vs. the Board of Education” published in 2004 on the 50th anniversary of the decision.
I also find the Apostle James’s admonition to do the following seven things very helpful:
2. Slow to speak
3. Slow to get angry
4. Put away all filthiness (that includes filthy language)
5. Get rid of all weaknesses
6. Receive God’s word with meekness…and
7. Implant God’s word in your heart
Along with lesson one, these principles guide my life.
Harriet Tubman once said, “I have freed a thousand slaves; I could have freed thousands more, if only they knew they were slaves.” She undoubtedly knew even then that before her people’s journey toward freedom could begin, her greatest task would not be to remove the chains around their necks and ankles, but around their minds. This was echoed later when another picture was added to my [childhood home] wall behind me. It was a painting of Harriet Tubman on the Underground Railroad, with a bible in her hand and a shotgun under her arm, leading her brothers and sisters to freedom.
And so another lesson I learned early was that “attitude was the key to freedom.” Webster defines attitude as “a posture, a state of mind or feeling.”
Over time we evolved and thrived as a people first colored, then Negro, then Black, and later African American. Regardless of the characterizations, the gifts of our ancestors’ love and sacrifices continue to remind each new generation that we are indeed too Black to turn back.
Poet Claude McKay perhaps said it best in his poem, “If we Must Die.”
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the murderous lot.
If we must die, oh let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
Oh kinsmen! We must meet the common foe;
Though far outnumbered, let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back.”
It did not take me long to realize as a child that my back was against the wall because I was obviously treated differently by white people because of my color.
After growing up in the delta of Mississippi for the first 13 of my young years, I moved to Jackson, the state capital, the night Medgar Evers was shot to death in his driveway. That was the summer of 1963. Later that summer, my “Godmother,” Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, was beaten severely in Winona for attempting to register to vote. She would never fully recover from the attack.
At that time, only 9.2 percent of all Black students were attending integrated schools in the southern and border states. The federal government had given the school systems until the fall of 1967 to desegregate or lose federal funding. All were desegregated by 1966. Still, just 14 percent of Black students in eleven states were in mixed schools. Most southern cities set up private academies to avoid integration. Just a year earlier, President Kennedy was forced to send 12,000 troops to Ole Miss to restore order after James Meredith was admitted. Two people were killed and many were injured. Three hundred soldiers had to remain on campus to insure Meredith’s safety until July of 1963. There was no doubt our backs were against the wall.
The following summer, three civil rights workers – James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman - were murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi, while registering Black people to vote. Two years later in 1966, during my freshman year at Tougaloo College, James Meredith set out on his historic “March against Fear” down through the [north] delta of Mississippi. He was shot [south of the Tennessee line in Desoto County, Mississippi]. Dr. King, Floyd McKissick, Stokeley Carmichael, Rev. Jessie Jackson, and others came down to finish the march, which I had joined.
Dr. King decided to lead a small group of the marchers to Philadelphia, Mississippi, in honor of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman. The group was stoned and attacked by a mob. The police did nothing to prevent or end the attack until some of the marchers began to fight back.
Later during a stopover on the march in Greenwood, Stokeley Carmichael told the gathering, “What we need is Black Power.” On June 17 of 1966 the media spread our request (though misunderstood) worldwide.
On a more personal note, two years later when I was 19 years old (1968), after being mentored by Dr. Margaret Walker Alexander and poets Audre Lloyd and Dr. John Oliver Killens, I received the Readers Digest & UNCF first place award in poetry; however, prior to flying to New York in May to be feted at the Readers Digest compound in Pleasantville by Mr., and Mrs. Wallace, while boarding at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan, there were several other obligations to be fulfilled. You see, though born with my back against a wall, some from an historically Black (Tougaloo College) College (Dr. Ariel Lovelace and Dr. Ernst Borinski) saw potential in me. They helped me received a full vocal music scholarship and even allowed me to major in Political Science and English Literature. All I was obligated to do was perform nationally with Tougaloo’s concert choir.
First there was the participation in a mass meeting in Memphis in late March for the Garbage Workers Strike; then, in early April, [there was] a concert at Carnegie Hall along with my colleague, Walter Turnbull, founder of the Boys Choir of Harlem. We were accompanied by Duke Ellington and his orchestra. The night was April 4th, and Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis moments before we took the stage. I was pained by the hatred that could kill a body, but buoyed by the spirit that lives on.
You see, I had heard King say the night before, “I fear no man, I’m not worried about anything, I just want to do God’s will, Our people will get to the Promise land, Mine eyes have seen the Glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Later in the summer of 1972, (I was 23 years old) on the final day of my fellowship at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, I attended a pizza party for one of my instructors, CBS news correspondent Michelle Clarke, the first female African American to hold that title for CBS news. This was an informal affair – 10 or 12 of us sitting around in the lounge on 121st and Amsterdam Avenue, drinking sodas and eating pizza while waiting for Michelle’s limousine. Soon the driver arrived and she left for a short flight to Washington to board a flight to Chicago to cover Hubert Humphrey, who was running for president. Unfortunately it was the summer of Watergate and she boarded a plane carrying Howard Hunt’s wife, the Watergate “bagman.” The plane crashed enroute. And regardless of whether or not there was a connection, the loss for me was painful, real, and hard to comprehend. Once again I found myself up against a wall.
Despite it all, I continue to find strength in the legacy of our people, and I remain too Black to go back.
Socrates wrote: “The shortest and surest way to live with honor in the world is to be in reality what we would appear to be, and if we observe, we shall find that all human virtues increase and strengthen themselves by practice and experience of them.”
Each day is a day I celebrate the history of African Americans by seeking to embody their dreams, lift their burdens, emulate their ideals, give them hope, and build my own collage behind me of the triumph of their human spirit, made up of my own daily snapshots of service to my fellow man.
And so I have come to challenge you this evening to stand firm, my brothers and sisters, for we are too Black to go back. Despite the fact that to be a young Black male in Baltimore is to be an endangered species, we are too Black to go back. Despite the fact that the powers that be seek to deny us as a people even today with equal access to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, we are too Black to go back. Despite the fact that poor healthcare, the drug epidemic, crime, violence, inadequate educational opportunities, disenfranchisement, and even America’s enemies seek to rob us of our rightful place even in this hour, we are too Black to turn back.
Our charge is to move forward boldly, against all odds, to finish the work our heroes and “sheroes” started, and to do so daily by serving God through our efforts to raise the consciousness of others, for we are a people too Black to turn back.
I leave you this evening with the words of Dr. Margaret Walker Alexander, taken from her poem “For My People.”
USADS is proud to welcome John Milton Wesley, an internationally acclaimed writer, to our pages. Read one of his poems here.
And don't miss this article by Mr. Wesley: The Passing Of Tim Russert
BIO: JOHN MILTON WESLEY
Place of residence: Ellicott City, Maryland
Birthplace: Ruleville, Mississippi
Grew up in: Delta of Mississippi. Moved to Jackson on June 12, 1963, the night Medgar Evers was gunned down in his driveway.
Day job: Partnership development, marketing, media and idea development, consulting
Education: Tougaloo College, Mississippi. Yale University. Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism
Anthologies: Black Southern Voices. Mississippi Writers, Volume III
Serial publications: Essence Magazine. Prevention. Pipeland Magazine
Awards: Reader’s Digest United Negro College Fund First Place Award for Poetry, 1968. Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Outstanding Community Service Award, 1988. National Conference of Blacks in Government
Current project: Novel and screenplay set in 1957 Mississippi
Favorite book: Living Well is the Best Revenge by Calvin Tomkins
Belief: Despite fame, weather will determine the attendance at your funeral.
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