VOICES: The justice equation: Faith, hope and action

By Sophia Bracy Harris, Equal Voice Newspaper

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, I attended two events that caused me to reflect on what it takes to defend the principles of justice and morality.

The first was the memorial service for civil rights veteran Robert "Bob" Mants, Jr.

On my way to the service, I sifted through memories of those days of struggle and Bob's courageous role. I suspect millions have seen the photo of Bob (above, with Mants in cap), the young man standing behind John Lewis on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday, looking calm but unyielding moments before troopers attacked the peaceful, unarmed demonstrators. I wanted to pay my respects to Bob and his legacy.

The other event -- a talk by theologian Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners magazine -- brought my attention to the current challenge facing Alabamians of conscience: the state's cruel immigration law, HB 56.

Elements of these two events made me think deeply about faith, hope and action, concepts that have propelled my own lifelong quest for justice.

Alabama's immigration law is regarded as the toughest in the country: In the words of Alabama state Sen. Hank Sanders, who has called for the law to be repealed, "HB 56 was intended to make the lives of undocumented immigrants intolerable."

Today, families are afraid to leave their homes for fear of parents being detained and deported. There have been reports that the children of parents awaiting deportation have been placed in foster homes rather than with relatives. Laborers lacking proof of residency required by HB 56 have fled the state, leaving crops rotting in fields.

And while the Hispanic community has been the most notable target, two automobile executives (German and Japanese) were arrested for not having required documentation when stopped by police. Yes, this law feels frighteningly like South Africa's apartheid.

Jim Wallis made that comparison to apartheid during an impassioned appeal at the Church of the Ascension in Montgomery, Ala., to repeal HB 56.

We have a moral obligation to challenge unjust laws. How long this injustice stands will depend upon the actions of you sitting in the audience and others who believe we are called to be a refuge, provide sanctuary, shield and surround those who need protection, as we challenge our government to make right what is wrong.

Wallis pointed out the irony of politicians and media commentators -- notably, Fox News -- claiming to be defenders of the religious foundation of Christmas, its sacred symbols and the nation's religious heritage, while vigorously supporting Alabama's immigration law -- what Wallis termed a “miscarriage of Christmas.”

Wallis chose scripture to augment his case against HB 56 and its supporters, citing Matthew 25:35: "For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me." Wallis encouraged his audience to reach out to immigrants. He directed the audience to look around and see the face of God in each of us. He reminded us of Martin Luther King Jr.'s letter from the Birmingham city jail to clergy, urging their involvement when the hearts of those in power were unyielding.

Wallis then shared a prayer that an elderly sister in his Washington, D.C., ministry offers each Saturday before serving hot meals to those in need: "Lord, thank you for waking me up this morning clothed in my right mind. I thank you that my bed last night was not my cooling board. And, Lord, help us to welcome you when you walk through this line today." This prayer lifts up the notion that "when you do it to the least of these, you do it to me."

Jim Wallis reminded us that people have taken risks throughout history for freedom and justice, and he proposed that we offer refuge and sanctuary to immigrant families. I told myself, in that moment, that Bob Mants understood such challenges; he had lived and fought accordingly.

I knew Bob Mants, mostly from a distance, for 35 years. He was not one to talk about himself. Early on, I knew of his connection with the Black Panther Party in Lowndes County, the place of my father's birth. In the past year, I learned more about the extent of his involvement in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and, at his memorial service, I learned that he had been a Morehouse College student and a hard-hitting intellectual.

I brought my son, Alden, to Bob's memorial. Alden, born in 1980, is not unlike many young people his age who have little sense of what our lives as African-Americans were like just 50 years ago. The questions he raised about the stories he heard at the service reinforced my yearning to help young people learn about the stalwart individuals, both well known and unsung, who have struggled for justice.

I want the next generation to understand the principles of this fight and recognize the courage that even the threat of death could not diminish. I had asked Alden to accompany me because I wanted him to learn more about Bob's life and the lives of the 40 or so SNCC members present -- persons such as Dorothy Cotton, Charles Sherrod, Bernard Lafayette, Constance Curry and Gwen Patton, to name a few -- many of whom I consider mentors.

Bob Mants was my elder by several years. He was skeptical of folks he didn't know, slow to trust strangers, myself included. But having endured the hatred and ugliness that accompanied integrating the rural high school near my home, I felt I didn't need to prove myself to anyone. Over time, Bob was persuaded that my work as an organizer helping to establish child care facilities in the Black Belt was legit. He would stop by my office, perch on the corner of a table and ask me questions, or, occasionally, offer a brotherly opinion. His advice was available if I needed it.

I found that Bob respected what he saw in action and little else. His life was about taking care of the least among us and fighting for what was just, without grandstanding. At his service, an elderly lady, who appeared alone in her sadness, sat two seats away from me. She said, "He lived just two doors from my house. Each morning he would stop by and check on me and ask if I needed anything." She wiped her tears. "I already miss him." Bob's son eulogized his father as "an ordinary man who did ordinary things extraordinarily."

The last time I saw Bob Mants was in May 2011, in Albany, Ga., where we attended the Southwest Georgia SNCC reunion, passing on lessons of the movement to the next generation. While buying books, I became irritated with a vendor. Bob, within earshot of the disagreement, called out, "All right over there, troublemaker…" "Hey, I learned troublemaking from the best," I replied. Laughing, he retorted, "I've got your back."

Here I find the common thread linking those two pre-Christmas events. Jim Wallis urged us to follow scripture and realize that people of faith cannot sit passively while anyone is made to suffer unjustly. We must act on faith that a just world is possible -- even though we have not seen it.

With the courage to hope for justice, action is the only course to follow. Each in his own way, Jim Wallis and Bob Mants have acted -- and inspired others to act -- in defense of the least among us. Jim Wallis is right: HB 56 is a nightmare. And, it is clear, immigrant families need the likes of Bob Mants, people who are trustworthy, compassionate and willing to take a stand.

Bob's passing leaves civil rights advocates looking to the next generation for recruits to defend and advance the cause of justice. I hope my son, and my daughter, will be among those standing up for justice. Today, immigrants need to know -- with the commitment that Bob Mants always showed -- "We've got your back."

Sophia Bracy Harris is co-founder and executive director of the Federation of Child Care Centers of Alabama (FOCAL) and Alabama director of the Southern Rural Black Women's Initiative for Economic and Social Justice (SRBWI). Photo from the Civil Rights Movement Veterans website.