I was a sickly little kid through much of my time at Park Elementary School in Wichita, KS – especially the first grade -- so much so that my parents and I had to live within a couple of blocks, at most, of the school so it would be easy for my parents to walk me to class. (Dad worked and mom never learned to drive.) In fact, on a couple of occasions, including the time covered in this story, we literally lived next door to the school. I was not deathly ill with some life-threatening disease. It’s just that, for reasons too complicated to tell, my immune system was so weak that, if there were a single virus particle anywhere inside, say, the orbit of Neptune, I was sure to catch it. Like any kid, I wanted to play outside, but most of the time, I just didn’t have the energy. My mother consulted with my first-grade teacher and decided that I should study at home. So mom went to the school and picked up my textbooks, and my teacher would regularly send mom her (my teacher’s) lesson plans so I would know what texts to read and what to write about.
My teacher also would convene the kids in her first-grade class to make and send me “get well” cards. So a couple of times a month, I would get a batch of dozens of cards in the mail, one construction-paper-crayon-and-library-paste card from each kid in the class. I looked forward to those fortnightly mail-calls, because, my immune system being compromised, the outside world was quarantined away from me for fear of what I might catch from visitors. But there was one exception to the quarantine. Somehow I managed to convince my parents to risk my health by inviting in a little African-American girl, Marcia, one of the few friends I made in first grade, who came to see me in person at least once a week, at first usually on Saturdays. She never came on Sundays because that was the day she and her parents went to church. But almost every Saturday, Marcia’s parents would walk her to our house and drop her off. Marcia’s parents and mine would visit briefly before Marcia’s parents left her with us. (Both my parents' families were from the wilderness of 1920s / Great-Depression-era northwest Arkansas, hardly a Petri dish for breeding racial harmony. But my maternal great-grandparents were slave owners turned abolitionists -- in Confederate Arkansas -- who freed their 3 slaves and hired them back as paid farm-hands on their big spread, where they heard the cannon fire from the Battle of Pea Ridge. Those 3 ex-slaves more or less raised my grandfather, who grew up utterly without racial prejudice, and he and my grandmother raised their 9 kids the same way. My mother's attitude rubbed off on my dad.) Then, when the visit was over, at least one of my parents would walk Marcia back home. Our two families lived on different sides of the tracks in more senses than one: Marcia and her folks in a lower-lower-middle-class borderline slum; my folks and me, only a few blocks away, in a solidly working-class, blue-collar, middle-middle-class neighborhood of small lawns and one-car garages. But somehow it didn’t matter, certainly not to Marcia and me.
For as different as we were ethnically and socially, Marcia and I did have one thing in common: we were both congenital nerds. (“Nerd” was not a word then in the middle ‘50s, but you know what I mean.) Marcia was passionate about dinosaurs – I often wonder if she became a paleontologist or evolutionary biologist in adulthood – and I was equally passionate about astronomy. She was a quiet but articulate little girl, articulate with me, anyway, because she could talk to me – and I with her. Marcia and I communicated. We were simpatico. We signified, you see. We were also ordinary kids. Even after I got much better a year or two later and could start attending class and even after we were in different classrooms with different teachers, Marcia would come over to my place and we would watch the Saturday-morning cartoons, talk about the last episode of The Mickey Mouse Club, etc. (At one point, I even confessed to her that I had a crush on Annette Funicello. She didn't laugh at me.) But she would also talk to me about dinosaurs, and I to her about astronomy, after and sometimes during the cartoons. We read each other’s books: hers on dinosaurs; mine, on astronomy. I often think that the books Marcia loaned me chiseled the first cracks in the façade of my fundamentalist-Baptist belief in the literalness of Genesis I had been taught as a kid, and set my feet on the path to the discovery of the majestic pageant of evolution through natural selection a few years later. I sometimes wonder if the books on astronomy I loaned her prepared her to believe in the Big Bang. And now you know one more reason why neither of us could talk to our parents.
Like the poor widow who gave the mite in the Gospel story, Marcia could, in one sense, not do much. But, during those twilight months of isolation, she did for me what no one else could do.
Fast forward … I got better. Got healthier. We moved farther from Park Elementary, still in Park Elementary's ambit, but in a different neighborhood. I gradually lost touch with Marcia, not only because of the moves, but also because we ended up in different second-grade classes with different second-grade teachers. Ditto third grade. Ditto fourth. Etc., etc. Our visits gradually tapered off, and our paths never intersected again. I don’t know what happened to Marcia or where she is today. Fast forward now to April of 1968. Dr. Martin Luther King is in Memphis, TN, supporting sanitation workers in their struggle for justice. He is standing on the balcony of his room 306 at the Lorraine Motel when a sniper / assassin named James Earl Ray ends his life with a rifle bullet. (Perhaps all of a week before, if memory serves, he had given a speech at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, in which he said “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward Justice”.) I am a sophomore at Wichita State University, an undergraduate studying math, physics, and philosophy. I participate in memorial services and marches in commemoration of Dr. King. I am also the evening Sunday School director for our church. One Sunday morning after church, the Sunday after Dr. King was assassinated, I happened to be passing by our pastor and one of our deacons as we all left the church building, when I overheard the pastor say – these were his exact words – “Well, it’s been a good week; the stock market is up and we killed us a [Negro]” – except the pastor used a different word beginning with “n,” not “Negro”. I rounded on him, as furious at myself for my tears and for my voice shaking as I was with the pastor for his blatant bigotry. In the presence of the deacon and within the hearing of several members of the after-service crowd leaving the church that day, I said he was a disgrace to his vocation, to his God, to his Saviour, and to that Bible he always carried so ostentatiously tucked under his arm for celebrating the murder of anyone, in particular, the murder of a brother Christian and a brother minister. I don’t recall what he said in response.
One of my duties as evening Sunday School director was to give a sermonette at the beginning of services. After being haunted all week by Dr. King’s murder and that whole Sunday morning by the pastor’s slander, I could not but do what I did. It was a case of Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders, Gott hilf mir: "Here I stand, I can do nothing else, God help me". That evening, when we returned for Sunday-night services, my sermonette consisted of a eulogy to Dr. King, in fact, to all those, white and African-American, who had devoted, and in not a few cases given, their lives to be antibodies against the virus of racism and injustice that had infected the American body politic for some 400 years. I even read excerpts from Dr. King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail. That was on the Sunday evening following Dr. King’s assassination in Memphis. The following Wednesday, the church, unknown to me, convened a secret meeting and voted to exclude me from membership. I left the church. Soon thereafter, so did my parents.
The church tradition in which I had been raised was highly authoritarian, and the social pressures to conform were powerful, pervasive, and subtle ... and sometimes, as on this occasion, not so subtle. The official; denominational creed was not so much theology as a species of Fuehrer-worship. So why did I do what I did? Where did I find the guts to take such a stand? Partly it was the education I was receiving: I was being taught to think for myself.
But mostly it was Marcia.
I didn’t do it for God. I didn’t do it for Jesus. I didn’t even do it for Marcia. I did it because of Marcia. Marcia mattered to me. Her opinion of me mattered to me. Her parents’ opinion of me mattered to me. I wanted to be the person they believed I was. (Only in later years did I come to realize how rare a thing it would be for black parents of that day and age to allow their only daughter to play with a white boy, even when the white boy’s parents were around.) What would Marcia think of me, what would her parents think of me, if I let that racist pastor’s racist remark pass utterly unchallenged? What would they think of me if I failed, not only to challenge the remark and the attitude behind it, but if I failed to challenge both publicly, explicitly … high, wide, and handsome? Entirely without intending to do so – and certainly without knowing she did it, and most of all without preaching to me – Marcia and her parents called me to be better than I was, better than my church and my (especially religious) culture had taught me I could be. I wanted the person they thought I was to be real, not just an artifice, least of all an affectation, not to please God, not to please Jesus, not even to please them, but just to be ... human. They called me to be a better self.
So I remember Marcia.
Then [Jesus] sat down opposite the offering box, and watched the crowd putting coins into it. Many rich people were throwing in large amounts. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, worth less than a penny. He called his disciples and said to them, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the offering box than all the others. For they all gave out of their wealth. But she, out of her poverty, put in what she had to live on, everything she had.” – Mark 12:41-44
James R. Cowles