My mother died on February 23rd. A son doesn’t forget that about his mama leaving this world.
It was unanticipated. She had health issues but I was caught off guard.
The call came early Sunday morning. They were taking her to the new Piedmont Newnan Hospital. I jumped in my Tahoe, headed down I-75 to the Connector, then veered right on I-85 to Newnan. She was dead before I got there, so no sweet cinematic goodbyes. Just a corpse in the Emergency Room on an exam table. Her jaw was dropped, as dead people do. The look, I will never forget as it had none of the life, joy, and mischief that normally ran loose on her face. As I am writing this, I remember a moment we had a few weeks before, with her holding court, with her mouth “set” in a way that dared response. That was the woman that shaped me into the mess I am. That was the woman that loved me through a loss that knocks many out. That was the crazy-ass woman that I shared with my contemporaries who enjoyed her as their senior high Sunday School teacher. That, that was my mother.
It hit me as I climbed in my car to go to Newnan that this was the anniversary date of my ordination as a deacon in the Episcopal Church. February 23 is the Feast Day of St. Polycarp, a martyred bishop in the early church. Bishop Judson Child ordained me on that day, in transition to being ordained a priest six months later. I remember taking note that Polycarp waited until he was is his nineties to be martyred, which I thought was incredibly smart strategic planning for his career. Since that day, I had been paying particular attention to the servant model Polycarp embodied, reviewing my own commitment to that passion and evaluating how I was doing as a servant to others as I always wanted to have that attitude as a central part of my leadership. Now, February 23rd would be associated with my mother as well, as she too incarnated a spirit of servanthood to her children, biological and education related.
On Feb 23, 2020. Ahmaud Arbery, a local football star at Brunswick High School, is running in a neighborhood called Satilla Shores, two miles from where he lived with his mother. As he ran, he noticed one truck, then another, began to follow him, yelling at him, threatening him, saying they were going to blow his f***ing head off. Finally, after five minutes, seemed like five hours to him, he sees a truck parked in the middle of the street, blocking his way. Seeing a man with a shotgun at the front of the truck, Ahmaud veers to the right to go around on the opposite side. As he nears the front of the truck, the man has raised his shotgun to a shooting position. Ahmaud makes a fateful decision to turn and face the shooter, who responds by firing the shotgun, hitting Ahmaud in the shoulder. Ahmaud reaches forward, and the shooter fires another round of buckshot, designed to bring down a deer, into Ahmaud’s chest, sending him onto the asphalt to bleed out, with no help rendered by his attackers. They just watched, mouthing a few racist comments about their prey. Sunday, Feb. 23, Ahmaud Arbery dies from these two shotgun blasts. The shooters have accomplished their mission: a black man is no longer running in their neighborhood.
Two years later, February 23, 2022, I am writing this article. I had been at the State trial in the previous months of October and November. I sat with family members, huddled with the community members who came to the Glynn County Courthouse lawn, gathered with local clergy who were praying for peace, watched the national media buzz, as the trial took place.
I made new friends with Miss Annie Polite, an 87 year old activist, born in Brunswick but spending her teaching career in New York City. And, I came to know my new best friend, Zack Lyed, an eighty three year old self-styled preacher, who grew up in Brunswick as a boy, but kept on learning in Vietnam, Morehouse, and anywhere he happened to land. He scares most folks to death with his learned rants, but I know an ally when I see one. I have not laughed as hard and felt as deep as I have with Zack for many moons. It’s good to find a brother.
A jury of all whites except one black convicted all three killers, sentencing the shooter and his father to life in prison without parole. The third defendant who helped in the chase, and ironically provided the video footage which made the conviction a slam-dunk, got a life sentence but with the possibility of parole. Had there not been video evidence provided by his phone, I am one of many people who think these three might have walked away free. This would have been the repeat of the performance of an all too frequent narrative in the Gothic South of a bunch of rednecks chasing down a black boy that they think “done wrong”, as they kill him, either by lynching with a rope, just so’s all can see, or in this case, the blast of a shotgun.
Not this time.
The verdict came down before Thanksgiving, which was a joyous moment in our community, ‘cept an empty place at the table where Ahmaud would have sat with his family.
The sentencing occurred a few weeks later. I confessed that I was troubled by the sheer celebratory reaction of the crowd at the courthouse when the life sentences were rendered. People were cheering, laughing, high-fiving. It seemed out of place to me. There was one black minister who was in his black preaching robes, dancing and waving his arms wildly in enthusiasm, like he had won the 20K on Family Feud. My problem was that I was left sobered by the trial, for this young man’s life was cut down viciously, his promise of life stolen. I identified with the parents, whose loss of a son could not be assuaged by a sentence, no matter how severe. Their son was dead, gone.
What I missed was that in times past, not too long ago, a crime like this, with a black being killed by a white, would simply “go away”. No one would have to face judgment, no one would pay the cost of the crime, simply because it was a black person. That, dear friends, is the historical reality we carry around with us, whether you happen to like it or not, whether or not it makes you feel uncomfortable or not. That is why the shouting, and the celebrating took place….because that thing we brag about, justice, was actually made a reality in that moment. The white killer did not walk away. The black man received justice, just like our laws have promised but sometimes did not deliver in the Jim Crow South. It was reason enough to shout, holler, even laugh. There was joy in the camp that evening. It was meet and right so to do.
It’s Feb. 23rd, in the year of 2022. These three killers faced hate crimes in the Federal Court, to assess the action to see if race was at the core, or “heart”, of the murder. This trial was much shorter, with much less national press presence, but it was incisive to the level of racist hatred in the hearts of all three of these men.
To be honest with you, that was not much of a surprise. These three looked to me like they came from Central Casting of a John Grisham murder in the Southland movie. But what caught me was that these are my neighbors. They go to the grocery store with me, they eat barbecue at places I go to, they drive on the street with me. I was stunned by the level of foundational hate they expressed toward blacks. They even tipped their hats to the sexual nuance underneath that would be found in a Harper Lee novel, or an Emmett Till documentary. Frankly, I was floored, leaving me reminded of the place of race in our land that I hoped, prayed, was in the past. Foolish mortal.
The verdict this time is the same, guilty on all charges, with life prison terms.
Today, on Feb 23rd, 2022, we are gathering at the very place where Ahmaud was chased down, shot, and left to bleed out. We gather with members of Ahmaud’s family to try to bring some comfort, two years after the killing. Clergy from a variety of traditions will mark this time with prayerand hope for the healing that may come. We will sing, and pray, and say some words, as we continue to try to make sense out of all this, to wrestle some blessing from this tragedy.
That is a good thing, a necessary thing, to mark the moment. But the real issue is what are we to do now? Here in Glynn County, we are continuing to meet around dinner tables, real and cyber, to talk about our experience of race in our lives, our feelings, our hopes, our fears. I have done this before in Tyler, Texas where we made good progress, but the going is slow, sometimes painful. It is modelled on the reconciliation model of Archbishop Tutu in South Africa. Now, it’s time to do it South Georgia style, which will have its own particular and peculiar flavor and vibe. But, it is work we must do.
We remember Ahmaud on the February 23rd, rejoicing with our cry, led by Miss Annie “Justice for Ahmaud”! We gather together, embrace to offer comfort, raise voices in prayer. But on Feb. 24th, we must get up and begin the work again, to help this country live up to its promises for ALL people.