This is part 1 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.
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From Jim Crow to the Cross of Christ
Part I: Dennis Wilson
I had the opportunity to interview Dennis Wilson, a brother of ours here in the Southern CT Church of Christ and his story blew my mind. Dennis was born in 1957 in Brundidge, Alabama only 60 miles from Montgomery, Alabama. The Civil Rights Act, which legally ended Jim Crow laws wasn’t signed until 1964 and even then it wasn’t truly followed. So what does this mean? This means that up until the 7th grade, Dennis Wilson grew up in a world where he could see signs that said “white only” and “black only”.
I am 33 years old and being able to speak to someone that grew up living this experience is surreal. For many of us, we can think segregation is ancient history, yet we have many in our fellowship who actually lived through this. Why does this matter? It is important for us to learn from the experiences of those that went before us and understand how their stories can shed light on what is currently going on as we seek to bring light to this dark world. I pray that this story helps us all see that love can always overcome hate. Dennis had many reasons to hate. He told me, “I was raised in hate, we were taught to hate, it was the way it was…” Growing up in a world where hate is so pervasive and embraced can be for me hard to grasp.
Dennis Wilson background
What were your interactions with white people like?
“None, we didn’t interact. From 1st – 6th grade we had virtually no interactions with white people”
Dennis remembers very early on hearing about the Governor of Alabama, George Wallace stating that he would never let integration occur as long as he was alive. Sure enough when schools were finally integrated George Wallace stood at the entrance of the University of Alabama to block two black students from entering. Governor Wallace was unable to let go of the hatred he had for black people. His inaugural promise was actually “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”. This is the world that Dennis grew up in, a world where virtually everyone who was in law enforcement or government was white and would fight to not allow integration, a world where this was normal. However, Dennis told me that he has always “refused to be a victim” and as you read on you will see that he has held fast to that promise.
Governor Wallace attempting to block integration at the entrance of The University of Alabama
Dennis describes his time growing up in this environment as his time in Egypt. Not just because of the way he was treated, but also because of his own spiritual captivity. “Alabama was my Egypt – A lot of hatred on both sides, people thought their anger and hatred were justified. Everyone thought it was righteous to hate. They thought it was the morally right thing to do.”
Dennis told me that to this day he has a fear of dogs. He would often walk with his friends to a local hang out spot, a pond to fish and pick plumbs. Dennis and his friends would have to walk on the side of the street without houses because the side of the street with houses were houses owned by white people who “would sick their dogs on black people.” Dennis remembers one time that a dog was sicked on them; “We walked home bloody that day. I can feel the dog’s breath in my face to this day.”
A group of kids would ride their bikes in the street and one day as Paul was riding, Dennis remembers hearing a big crash sound. Paul had gotten hit by a white guy driving a truck and the driver never stopped to find out if Paul was okay. Paul was killed.
As I listened, I thought to myself, this is why “Black Lives Matter” is such a powerful statement. For so many years and even still, black lives have not mattered to many. These are just a couple of the many stories that Dennis shared that were the way of life for him growing up.
Hope for the future
So do not fear, for I am with you;
do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
Dennis’ time in what he describes as Egypt sounded awful. As I was interviewing him, I really was dumbfounded that a kid had to experience all of this. He was just a kid! It’s heartbreaking and still is for so many who deal with mistreatment because of the color of their skin. However even amongst the darkness, Dennis remembers a few moments that gave him hope for the future.
Seventh grade came around and it was the year schools were to be integrated. Dennis remembers hearing about how bad integration was going in the high schools. Police were often called in because of constant fights. Naturally, Dennis and his friends were nervous about their first day of integration.
What was that first day at an integrated school like?
He remembers all of his friends being apprehensive about it and worried by questions like: “Who is going to teach us?” “What is it going to be like to sit next to someone white?” “Will they try to make us sit in the back of the classroom?”
Dennis remembers being outside with his friends and the bell rang to go in and no one moved. No one wanted to be the first to go in. White kids were on one side and black kids were on another. Enter Beverly Wall.
Beverly Wall, a white girl, came right across the invisible line with a smile and friendly face and said “Hi! I’m Beverly and I’m glad I will be spending the school year with all of you, let’s go inside.”
What did you think about her?
“This girl is crazy! She is going to be smacked, but she doesn’t care.”
Dennis remembers one of the other times he felt a lot more hope about the future when Mr. Frazier, An African-American from his neighborhood became a police officer. Dennis felt like “equality might have a chance” when he saw this because this was unheard of.
As a kid, growing up in Jim Crow Alabama, Dennis saw the worst in people. Indeed, he readily admits he saw the worst in himself as well. As we were talking and he recounted how much hate filled his heart, there was a long pause. At that moment I realized how hard it must be to go back through it all. As a 33-year-old white dude, I felt unworthy of listening to his story. I was so moved by the reverence this man has for his relationship with Christ, I had to fight back tears myself.
Dennis says studying the Bible and learning about Christ was his freedom from the captivity of hatred. He describes it as, “leaving hatred behind in Egypt and entering Canaan with love.”
After 7th grade, Dennis moved to New York and as an adult, much later on, studied the Bible. “One of the things I left behind in Alabama and as I studied the Bible was to forget about all the hatred and anger.” However, letting go of all of that history and anger was not easy. “Everyone has triggers.” Dennis told me how seeing white people for a long time was a trigger for him and he knew that he was a trigger for them as well.
4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”…
18 Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized
Dennis remembers when he studied the Bible and realized that Jesus was put on the cross because of the hatred he felt. “When you can catch an image of Jesus on the cross and feel his pain of taking on all that hate and anger (he pauses) …there are tears coming from my eyes right now”. He remembers confessing his hatred and the relief he felt. “I feel for years we let anger fuel our way of life, it dominated our thinking.” Being able to let it all go and allowing Jesus to take it, was truly a moment where Dennis remembers being unblinded. He transitioned from Egyptian captivity of his own hatred to freedom to love all people. He found the strength to love that only exists in Christ. He told me “Hatred had to go; it could not be part of my walk.” With Jesus, Dennis now feels like “You know what the battles are.”
If you could give any advice what would it be?
Dennis readily admits that we still have a long way to go. He mentioned that although the “signs of Jim Crow segregation have come down, there are still signs of segregation in people’s hearts”. Dennis knows that there is a lot of anxiety, anguish, and fear right now. He holds onto a particular scripture more than any other through times like these:
fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Dennis told me “We have to keep our eyes on the author and perfecter of our faith. David defeated fear with honor, trust, faith. No matter the circumstances, God would get him out of it.”
Dennis spoke of the importance of honoring God. “When this topic comes up, I want to honor God and make sure we are fighting this battle with God.”
“We are not going to run [from this topic]. Yes, there will be the presence of fear, but our faith and trust in God will allow Him to lead us through it.”
After hearing all of this, I felt like I needed to take the rest of the day off and reflect. However, as God would have it, this happened to be the same day I was able to go to D.C. to see the words “Black Lives Matter” written on the street leading to the White House. After hearing a brother, I love and respect, recount his history to me of living in a world where black lives very obviously didn’t matter, this time it felt different for me seeing those words. As I thought about it, I could easily replace the first word with “Dennis Wilson”. Dennis Wilson’s Life Matters.
Think about someone you know who is black and say “[insert name] Life Matters” and watch what happens when you do.
Part II of this article will be about another brother in Christ who also grew up in Alabama around the same time, but who happens to be white. Tune back soon.