Activist Faith

Activist Faith

Erasing Racism

mlkimages.jpgToday is my birthday. It’s also Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. It’s not every year I am able to share my birthday with a national holiday, and I’m honored to enjoy my birthday on the same day as one of our nation’s heroes.

To celebrate, I’m “leaking” an adapted excerpt from my upcoming book Undefending Christianity: Embracing Truth Without Having All the Answers (Harvest House, March 2011). Enjoy!



In kindergarten, racism was not part of my vocabulary. My friends had skin of all kinds of colors in our somewhat urban environment. We were brothers and sisters, friends and buddies. Whether learning to tie our shoes or eat glue, we were one family.

Second grade presented a different twist. My parents left the city like an episode of Beverley Hillbillies. Only in reverse. We lived in a trailer, used an outhouse for a few months (Don’t ask!), and built our own home. We were redneck before redneck was cool.

And I changed schools.

On the first day, I sat in class with twenty other eight-year olds and noticed something markedly different: everyone had the same skin color. I distinctly remember whispering to the boy beside me, “Where are all the other kids?” I don’t think he understood what I meant.


For the next several years, I experienced the Middle-America, all-white, small town world. It was weird. I only saw people of color when we played basketball or football against another school in the next county. And on TV. But I knew people of other colors existed “out there.” I silently vowed to find those friends once again someday.

In college, my world changed yet again. This time, I had classmates from all over the planet. Some of them only spoke English well enough to pass the test for admission to the school. I loved it! I took a semester of Spanish, a semester of French, and even half a semester of German. I could say “hello” ten different ways and embarrass myself with a hundred new expressions.

Then I moved again, this time south to Dallas, Texas. Here I learned that racism had only more recently legally ended. Many parents the age of my own parents had lived through legalized segregation.


Though people continued to thrive in a variety of skin tones, I noticed subtle differences. Like the fact that Hispanics worked every position at McDonalds except manager. African-Americans could be my acquaintances but didn’t get too close. Asians of various types owned my favorite buffet restaurants orand mostly worked at hospitals. Indians had chosen to dominate the hotel business. And Koreans had lots of churches.

I also discovered that real Native Americans actually still existed. They owned the casinos (but only in Oklahoma). And they looked a lot like me.

Later, I consulted some Mormon family research website that pointed out that I, too, was part Native American. To be exact, I’m one-sixteenth or so Cherokee Native American, give or take a generation or two, just enough to grow a ponytail if I want and not call it a midlife crisis.


After grad school, I met an African American pastor named Dyron. Everyone called him D like the letter, which was sometimes confusing since people sometimes called me D too and we would both look up when people called our names.

But we had way more in common than the first letter of our names.

D told me he was born in a little town called Whitewright. From the start, he knew life had been stacked against him. He would say, “It’s tough to grow up as a black man in a town called White Right.” At the time, I thought he was joking, but the town of Whitewright, Texas is really on the map of the nation of Texas (Texas only pretends to be a state. It really is a country. Just ask any Texan.).

One day, D and I were drinking coffee at Starbucks and talking about life. He said hi to someone he knew who walked by. H because he seemed to know about every other person who walked through the door. But after this particular church member of his left, D shared something that caught me off guard.


“People gonna be talkin’ bout us meetin’ together like this.”

I asked D what he meant. He explained that even though white and black folks pretend to get along a lot in the South, they really don’t handle black and white friendships very well. At least in his experience.

Looking back, I should have taken D’s comment more seriously, but I kind of filed it into the back of my head for future reference.

Later, I invited D to speak at my church’s youth ministry meeting. The students loved him and he communicated with excellence.

And I thought I might lose my job.

No one had told me that a black man had never spoken at my church since it had been started in the 1970s. I later told D I wanted him to preach to my whole church but didn’t know if I could arrange it. He understood.


He had the same problem at his church.

Martin Luther King, Jr. used to say that Sunday at eleven a.m. was the most segregated hour in America. He was right, but sometimes the truth hurts. It’s like hitting my thumb with a hammer. I know it’s not right to cuss, but I sure feel like it.

My predicament now is that I know the problem but not the solution. Now my goal is to find and live more stories of Latinos and Gringos and Filipinos and guys with one-letter names like D who are worshiping together, praying together, and living together as brothers and sisters in unity.

Once upon a time I read a quote that said all wars are ultimately civil wars because we are each brothers and sisters, one to another.

Or, to put it another way, to erase racism we must each become an eraser.


The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dillon Burroughs.


BURROUGHS is an author, activist, and co-founder of Activist Faith.
Dillon served in Haiti following the epic 2010 earthquake and has
investigated modern slavery in the US and internationally. His books
include Undefending Christianity, Not in My Town (with Charles J.
Powell), and Thirst No More (October). Discover more at

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Charles Powell

posted January 17, 2011 at 1:55 pm

One of the moments I cherished most as a child were those days when my mother and I would eat at the Kress department store lunch counter. Just to see it made my heart race with anticipation.
The lunch counter area was located on the left side of the building and was set off from the rest of the store by a chrome-railed four foot high fence with a gated entrance which reminded me of saloon doors from a cowboy picture. All along the rail were a number of orange booths with white Formica tables, but to me the real stars of the lunch counter were the eight chrome stools covered in orange naugahyde all planted straight and deep along the lunch counter like so many live oak trees in the Laurel city park. Behind the counter lay delights the likes of which young boys dare not dream. It was a place where Ice cream sundae’s, chocolate malts, hamburgers and a menagerie of other pleasures were all magically conjured using machines that aroused the eyes the ears and all the others senses.
Every time we shopped there I carefully crafted an argument for mother that we should treat ourselves to lunch seated at the counter even if it was still a little early in the day for lunch. We were kind of poor so we didn’t order a large meal usually the Blue Plate Special. My mother would eat the meatloaf and I would eat the mashed potatoes and gravy which came with her meal and we would split the yeast roll. As far as I was concerned the whole thing was a meal fit for kings all served at a real lunch counter like on TV. It was all really quite wonderful and I would have been content to take every meal there for the rest of my life until one day when I asked my mother about the signs posted over the counter. She was always so very patient with me and my sister when we asked her questions, so she read them all out loud to me and the explained what they meant. One read “Blue Plate Special,” another read “Chocolate Malts,” still another read “Fountain Drinks” then she stopped reading leaving out one sign. For some reason I had to ask her what that sign read.
I pointed to the neglected sign and asked, “Mama what does that sign say?”
She leaned over close to my ear and told me that she would tell me about it later, but I was not content with her answer so I asked even more insistently . . . and more loudly.
“Why can’t you tell me what that sign says right now?”
My question, tone and insistence had gotten the attention of the man behind the lunch counter who was not pleased with my curiosity and was giving my mother looks that inferred I should be quieted.
She whispered again.
“Charles . . . that sign reads ‘Whites Only.’ It means that only white people can each here.”
Whites Only.
Whites Only.
I looked at the sign for a few seconds and observed that it appeared markedly different from the other signs posted above me. The other signs used colorful scripts with whimsical drawings that might just tantalize a sick person right out of a coma, but the “Whites Only” sign was printed in cold block letters printed with black ink on white paper.
It looked very official.
It looked like it was the law.
The law written among the lunch specials and it wasn’t meant for me to read or notice. The system was designed for me to want the lunch special and chocolate malts and they invited me to consume fountain drinks until I almost burst, because I was qualified.
I was . . .“Whites Only.”
I was incredulous with regard to the matter of this “Whites Only” thing. When you are six years old mothers hold all of the wisdom of the universe. So I asked questions about the matter as if I was making a legal argument the likes of which Clarence Darrow would have been proud.
“But Mama . . . I see black people right across the store shopping for soap, but they can’t sit here and eat with us?”
It just didn’t make any sense.
“Yes Charles that’s right.” Then I asked the perennial kid question.
“But Why Not?”
My attention to the question at hand was interrupted by the counter man angrily slapping my mother’s check in front of her and telling her he would take the payment it right away. He looked at me as though he was very angry at me. Mother paid the bill and we left the lunch counter and the store without completing the shopping we had planned on doing following our meal. She held my hand as we briskly walk out of the store and down the sidewalk in silence. My mother was probably worried if there might be a burning cross in our front yard that night. I wasn’t sorry that I asked the question, but I was sorry that my mother looked so worried.
No one really ever has to tell a six year old when he has crossed a line that adults fear to cross
He knows.
I knew.
As we walked to our car I didn’t ask mother any more questions about the sign or the man behind the lunch counter or the reasons why black people could not eat seated alongside white people and I never asked mother to eat at the lunch counter ever again.
Not because I had embarrassed my mother with my questions and;
Not because I feared the lunch counter man and;
Not because the food wasn’t good.
I never again asked to eat at the lunch counter because I never wanted the privilege of being “Whites Only” ever again. From that moment forward until today I became a watcher of signs.

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posted January 17, 2011 at 8:32 pm

Thanks so much, Charles! Great story.

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Judy Hay

posted January 25, 2011 at 5:45 pm

I pastor a small Presbyterian Church in Columbus, GA. When I began, we were predictably all-white and elderly. We are encouraged to have multi-cultural preachers at our pulpits. I am the first woman to serve as pastor here and since many of my colleagues are black, I have invited many to preach over the years. They have become loved by my congregation. But that is the key word – love – isn’t it? So let me back track.
Sherwood’s congregation was just that a congregation a mere six years ago. Many were friends, cordial and cared about one another, but they were not a family. we had to learn that we are all God;s children and we had to love one another if we truly loved God. It took awhile, but now we truly are family.
So in that, though there are a couple of hold-outs, our arms are open to all. We have Hispanic and black members, although on any given Sunday our congregation may still be all-white. We are still small, but we look on the heart, not the skin, and welcome people with the love of God which are why they have come through our doors after all, to find God.

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posted February 15, 2011 at 7:32 am

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