Following a Kindly Light, and Casting One
There is an endless, ragged road from the almost-forgotten prelude to history that played out in 1947 to the combination protest and ritual yesterday when dozens of people gathered for the 262nd consecutive Saturday at the northwest corner of Route 59 and Middletown Road in Nanuet in Rockland County to protest the war in Iraq.
They began it before the war had even started. Yesterday began their sixth year of vigils with no end in sight. Thinking of them and the faithful at other weekly vigils in towns large and small, it’s hard not to wonder what keeps them going.
George M. Houser does not wonder. He was there in 1947. He was on the corner yesterday. At 91, he’s one of only two people alive who participated in the first freedom ride through the segregated South that preceded the famous one of 1961 by 14 years.
And at a time when religion in American politics almost invariably means the religious right, he’s a vibrant reminder that faith cuts through politics from more than one direction, with more than one message.
Mr. Houser, a Methodist minister, isn’t forgotten. He’s often cited in civil rights histories and has been featured in several PBS documentaries as a co-founder of the Congress of Racial Equality and a longtime participant in efforts to end colonialism in Africa.
But to understand his most remarkable moment it’s essential to remember that before Rosa Parks there was Irene Morgan.
Mrs. Morgan, who died in August, was a black woman who worked in a plant that made World War II bombers. The mother of two small children, she was returning to Baltimore aboard a Greyhound bus in 1944 after a visit to her mother in Virginia. When told to give up her seat to a white passenger, she refused, as Mrs. Parks did 11 years later, and took her case to court.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1946 that segregation in interstate commerce — as distinguished from local transit — was unconstitutional, a ruling largely ignored in Southern states.
To test it, Mr. Houser and the pioneering civil rights leader Bayard Rustin organized the first freedom ride into the South, dubbed the Journey of Reconciliation. In April 1947, 16 blacks and whites exchanged proscribed seats on interstate buses over two weeks, blacks in front, whites in back, from Washington through the Upper South.
Sometimes they were ignored or even supported. Sometimes they were arrested and even attacked. Mr. Rustin and two other protesters served 22 days on a chain gang in North Carolina after being arrested for violating Jim Crow laws.
The pillars of Jim Crow did not immediately tumble and fall. But Mr. Houser figures they didn’t have to.
Instead, he said, the experience taught him first that a small group of people with an idea can have a huge impact over the long stretch of history.
Second, he said, it taught him that you have to take the first steps even if you don’t know where they will lead.
“I have kind of a theme, which comes from an old hymn,” he said. “‘Lead, kindly light, amidst the encircling gloom/Lead thou me on/The night is dark and I am far from home/Lead thou me on.’ And then it goes: ‘I do not ask to see the distant scene/One step enough for me.’
Continue reading the main story
Continue reading the main story
“And I believe that,” Mr. Houser said. “I believe one step is enough and you take it, as long as you have faith you’re doing the right thing to begin with.”
Of course, Mr. Houser’s relative youth may shape his point of view. He was conversing at the time with Irving Wolfe, 94, who also lives in Skyview Acres in Pomona, a cooperative community to which they both moved in 1949. There’s still a free-book kiosk near the entrance, and a sign proclaiming the community, which is about 30 miles from Manhattan, “a nuclear-free zone” — Mr. Houser’s touch, it turned out.
Mr. Wolfe’s knees can’t hold up to two hours of standing, but he’s a regular at the Rockland Coalition for Peace and Justice vigil, too, even if he needs to bring a chair to make it through.
There’s no guarantee that the religious left gets it right any more than the religious right does. And they were joined yesterday, as usual, by an equally committed crowd across the street of flag-waving supporters of the war.
Still, for a nonagenarian shaped by the leftist politics of the Depression era and the struggles against Fascism, it might seem a little Sisyphean: all these years to contemplate Iraq, the Middle East, Afghanistan, Iran, global warming and the rest.
But then Mr. Houser said he had seen Jim Crow come and go, seen Africa pass from colonial rule to self-rule not without enormous pain, past and present. Steps forward. Steps back.
So yesterday they joined the other regulars, ranging in age from 13 to Mr. Wolfe’s 94. The vigil faithful had a dinner planned last night. And unless the world ends, they’ll be back there next Saturday, however distant, however out of sight the shore.
By Peter Applebome on 12/02/2007