This is part 2 of a 3 part series following 2 incredible men of God (one black the other white) who both grew up in Alabama during a time of segregation. This story follows their paths from an environment that taught hate to now being best friends through Christ. To read Dennis’s Story (Part I) click here.
You can read part I of the story here
You can Check out all of our devotionals from our new series on Culture & Race here
You can check out all of Devotionals here
From Jim Crow to the Cross of Christ
Part II: John Rountree
I had the opportunity of interviewing an amazing brother in Christ, John Rountree. John is a white man who was born in Birmingham, Alabama during some extremely tumultuous times (1957). John Rountree grew up about 2.5 hours away from where Dennis Wilson grew up and around the same time period which is why I was so interested initially to interview both of them. The fact that they are from different races, such great friends, and brothers in Christ even though they grew up in a world that never would have allowed that to happen is a testament to God’s power.
As John reflects on the differences he and Dennis had growing up in Alabama, he readily acknowledges that “we had diametrically opposed experiences”. John courageously acknowledges the disparities to shed light on this evil. “I lived in a neighborhood that Dennis wouldn’t have felt comfortable walking through.”
It can be argued that the Climax of the Civil Rights Movement occurred in Birmingham where John was born. There was an extremely violent government response to the 1963 demonstrations against white supremacy. Police dogs and fire hoses were used against non-violent protestors. The imagery of this scene enraged the nation and public outcry led President John F. Kennedy to propose civil rights legislation that became the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Kennedy later said, “The events in Birmingham… have so increased the cries for equality that no city or state or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them.” After Martin Luther King Jr.’s arrest in Birmingham in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
John grew up in an environment that necessitated these protests in 1963.
John Rountree Background
Q: Can you share a little about your background?
“I am 63 years old. I was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1957. My family moved to New York City in 1962, when I was 5. We lived in NYC for 2 years before moving to Chappaqua, NY, where we lived for the next 16 years. “
Even though John left Birmingham at 5 years old (more on that later), he returned to Birmingham every summer to visit.
“I was in Birmingham at the height of the civil rights movement, but lived in an all white suburb and I was shielded from what was happening at the time. I went to an all white school and we attended an all white church. There was no social integration of black people and white people that I remember. Although I don’t remember any overt violence against African Americans, I do remember going to a movie theater once and seeing a separate door for African Americans that led to the balcony. I also remember seeing the extreme poverty of black people in neighborhoods very close to ours and being confused by it.”
Q: Given your young age, what did it all mean to you at the time?
“I didn’t understand it. It was just what everyone did, so I thought it was normal. Black people had to sit in the balcony [(of movie theaters)] or the back of the bus and that was the way it was. I had no point of reference at the time, I just thought it was the way it was.”
As he said this, I reflected on how no one is born racist. Here is a young kid, younger than 5 years old with no frame of reference who is being indoctrinated, even at a young age.
John remembers driving from his grandfather’s house, in Eufaula, Alabama to the all white country club and passing these dilapidated shacks just down the road where many African Americans lived.
“I remember feeling concerned for this and wondered why is there such a discrepancy between the way they lived and the way we did.”
John mentioned to me the power of the status quo where he grew up. The status quo was in fact so strong that it created a sense of hopelessness in him. “I saw the injustice, I knew it was wrong, but my saying anything wasn’t going to change the way it was.”
John talked about how no one had the courage to disrupt the status quo.
“I do believe a lot of people knew in their hearts that it was wrong, but they didn’t have the courage or convictions to make any changes. To make changes you had to go against the tide and risk being an outcast.”
This really piqued my interest as I was listening; It had me thinking that it is a parallel battle today. To be able to go against any cultural norms that are wrong today, it takes the two things John spoke about: Courage and Conviction.
If you read Part I of this series, you read about the governor of Alabama at the time, George Wallace who was committed to seeing segregation persist. One of his slogans as he ran for office was “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Dennis Wilson (from part I) recounts how much anguish and disdain this governor caused for so many black people in Alabama. This is where things got really interesting with John’s story.
John’s dad, a lawyer, was asked by Governor Wallace to represent him!
“Around 1960, my dad was an up and coming lawyer and was asked by Wallace to represent him on a couple of matters, but he declined. “I am certain it was because my dad didn’t agree with where he stood on segregation.”
This overlap in Dennis and John’s stories just blew my mind. The same Governor that caused so much pain for so many asked John’s Dad to represent him! In 1962, John’s Dad made the decision to move his family to New York.
“A big part of his decision to leave Birmingham was to shield us from the overt racism that was going on at the time and that he had grown up with.”
John leads our chapter of HOPE Worldwide here in the Southern CT Church of Christ and it occurred to me to ask him if growing up seeing such awful disparities contributed to his desire to give back by volunteering for a charity that serves the poor. He took a second to collect his thoughts before responding, as my question provoked him to reflect deeply as to how his past may have shaped the way he is now. He responded with a thought he is most likely still thinking about and processing. He mentioned how, in some way, he desires to “make amends for the sins of my culture”. He then added “It is not a conscious thing at all.”
“It [HOPE Worldwide] has helped me process what I witnessed as a child and it helped me to come to terms with it and make peace with what I saw as a child. As a child, I knew it was wrong, but I had no way to process it. HOPE Worldwide has given me an avenue to really give back.”
As a white man myself, I get the sense of responsibility you feel when you see disparities growing up. How can one not feel a burden to make a difference when you can clearly see inequality?
How can we see someone thirsty and not want to give them a drink? (Matthew 25:34-36).
I often look at the example of Moses who chose to be rejected over the riches of Egypt. Moses chose the consequences of being an ally and an advocate to the oppressed over maintaining his status (Hebrews 11:24-26).
I think what I am realizing is that there is pain in one’s soul when you see others hurting and this pain exists even if we don’t consciously recognize it. I am realizing more and more as I speak to people how central the conscious or unconscious observance of systemic racism is to the way we all grew up in the U.S. (regardless of our particular race) I believe systemic racism and its effects impacts our soul even if we don’t consciously acknowledge it.
The Danger of Comfort Zones
I asked John to share some of his thoughts on the overt racism he saw when he was a kid and the systemic racism he sees now. He shared that
“It is not the way God intended humanity to be…It [racism] was sin and it is sin [now]. It was a sin that people grew accustomed to. Satan was at work making people feel comfortable with it.”
When John said this, it struck a chord with me. It showed me in reality, just how dangerous the desire for comfort can be and how slick Satan is with how he can lull us to sleep in our comfortable bubbles. We want to stay comfortable, don’t we?! Let’s be honest, we hate discomfort! We don’t like “rocking the boat” or having uncomfortable conversations, so we can be tempted to guard our comfort at all costs. This is dangerous because this desire to maintain comfort can lead us into a false sense of security.
It made me think about Jesus’ teachings we all know so well in Luke 9:58:
“Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
If we are going to follow Jesus’s example of compassion for our neighbors (Luke 10:29-37), we will face discomfort.
We, as Christians, are most equipped to embrace this discomfort because we receive true comfort directly from God!
2 Corinthians 1:3-4
3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.
Learning and Growing
Q: What are you learning right now?
“The current situation has been a wake-up call for me on the issue of race in America and more specifically in our church. I have begun to look at my past and how that has shaped my attitudes towards people of color. I have begun reading the Michael Burns book, Crossing the Line. I have begun reaching out to my African American brothers to see how they are doing and get their perspectives. I am committed to doing whatever I can to contribute to the healing of any racial wounds within our Church and to promote open discussions on race.”
Q: What are you looking forward to continuing to grow in?
John mentioned how he is really going after trying to learn more about African American history in general such as “what was going on and what was happening in the sixties in Birmingham and some of the milestones of the Civil Rights movement”. He also is very excited about diving into his own history and how his personal history impacts the person he is today.
“Looking back, I can see more clearly the sin that was prevalent at the time and how Satan was at work. Many of the same attitudes still exist today in the world and I feel compelled to re-examine my own attitudes toward race from my background and uncover any false thinking or hypocrisy in my life.”
I thought about how crucial this is. We just had Michael Burns do a “Race, Culture & The Kingdom” workshop (video here) for our church and he spoke about the word “sankofa”, a word in the Twi language of Ghana that translates to “go back and get it”. In other words it is important to look back in order to move forward.
“Everyone is shaped by their childhood. People react often based on their history and experiences. The way to channel this for good is to understand how the things that happened to us as a child can still affect us negatively. If you can put your reactions into the context of your history and upbringing, they don’t have as much power. You can observe your reactions and change how you behave to reflect your values as an adult.”
Advice from John
Q: What advice would you give to your white counterparts during this time based on what you are learning?
Based on where John is at now, he suggests the following:
- Understanding History: Learn about African American history and your own personal history.
- Conversations: Have conversations with both African American and White brothers and sisters in Christ about this history.
- Action: Take some sort of action. Find a way to help and heal the society we live in.
- What is your personal history with race? How has it shaped your lenses and reactions?
- Are you okay with being uncomfortable for the sake of showing love?
- Do you feel you have the courage and conviction necessary to go against the status quo when necessary?
I really appreciated how John was willing to push through the discomfort of speaking on this as someone who readily recognizes he has benefited from privilege. It takes courage and conviction to share this story that John shared and I respect his willingness to be uncomfortable.
Thank you Denise Goodman for editing and tune in to our next article, part III that will be posted on our facebook page that finishes the Journey of Dennis & John from Alabama at the height of the civil rights movement to brothers in Christ here in Southern CT Church of Christ.
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