Marcus Cooley was the pastor of the Morning Side Tabernacle in the heart of the Queensburg neighborhood. The black Baptist church had opened its doors to COFO and SNCC in the first days of the 1964 Summer Project --- and paid the price with drive-bys and burning crosses. For reasons he couldn't quite put his finger on, my father had always felt uncomfortable in Cooley's presence. The Negro pastor's demeanor somehow registered a slight demurral to the widely established fact of my father's ministerial preeminence.

He asked Cooley if he could visit him in his church office. (The burst of moral energy did not include a biracial lunch at the Manhattan Café.)

He said that was fine. Come on by.

Cooley might have wished his white pastor colleague had picked a better afternoon for a visit, whatever it was he wanted to talk about. Cooley had let a church member who owned a barbershop try out a new hairstyle on him, a kind of proto-Al Sharpton perm that draped over his scalp like peat moss. Cooley explained that his deacons had talked him into it, saying he needed a new image. The two Baptist preachers shared a laugh, and my father admitted that his deacons had said more or less the same thing, only they thought he should stop jogging around town in dirty jerseys and sweatpants.

After the church secretary served the pastors coffee, my father began speaking.

"Brother Cooley, I'm here to tell you some really good news. I know you've been critical of the white pastors in town. You don't think we've done enough to help the Negroes, and, you know, you're probably right about that. But what I want to tell you today is that as far as I am concerned all that's going to change from here on out." He reached into his pocket for evidence, beaming a proud smile.

"You know what I have here?" he continued. "I have letters from two different seminary presidents offering me teaching jobs. And do you know what that means?"

The Negro pastor smiled faintly.

"That means I am free." My father let the words come out slowly. "Free at last, I guess you could say. I'm free to do what's right, because I no longer have anything to lose. This means I can finally get up in the pulpit and speak about the race issue, about those things you and your people are concerned with, and I don't have to worry about what happens. If I lose my pulpit, I'll still have these offers in my hand."

Marcus Cooley was well versed in the subtleties and pitfalls of Southern racial etiquette. He knew how to navigate the rhetorical waters as well as anyone. He tried --- mostly with success --- to restrain himself during the various biracial clergy gatherings he always found patronizing and offensive. But my father's remarks made him mad. Through the east window of his office, he could see the ruins of the Freedom House, bombed so many times it finally waved the white flag in defeat, and beyond that the elevated stretch of the interstate from where Klansmen routinely fired shotguns on the Negro homes below. He was tired of handshakes and promises, tired of feigned gratitude.

"I understand what you're getting at," Cooley said. "I really do. And I appreciate your coming here today. But, Dr. Marsh, the truth is you're not free at all. You have no idea what free means."

Cooley leaned forward in his seat and rubbed his forehead with both hands.

"A man isn't free when he takes a stand because he has nothing to lose," he said. "Surely you understand this. Surely you understand that until you are willing to lose everything, you will never know what it means to be free."

My father's smile vanished. He felt as if the wind had been knocked out of him, and after a few false starts, he told Cooley he hadn't meant to say he wasn't willing to make sacrifices. He just wanted to tell him he was ready to lend a hand.

The black preacher laughed softly.

"Dr. Marsh, Vernon Dahmer was a friend of mine, He left behind a wife and eight children. Their lives will never be the same. You gave one of his killers the Man of the Year award a few weeks ago, and now you expect me to think you care about justice."

"I didn't know anything about Clifford Wilson. Nobody did. You know that. In a million years, I wouldn't have knowingly done such a thing. I am absolutely ashamed about that, but I can't change what happened."

"And what have you done with that shame? Have you told your people to support the law of the land? Have you told them that racism is a sin against God? Have you told them black people should have the same rights as whites? What have you done with that shame?"

My father returned the letters to his pocket. He was now getting rather mad himself. Slow down, boy, he thought.

But the Negro pastor wasn't finished. He pulled a copy of Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham City Jail" off the bookshelf and began reading aloud. Cooley had picked a passage on the hypocrisy of white Southern clergymen who cautioned patience while violence raged unchecked. My father couldn't believe what he was hearing.

    I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate, [Cooley read.] I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the white Citizens' Council or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action;" who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advised the Negro to wait until a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

That pretty much summed up Bob Marsh, Cooley seemed to be saying, pausing in his reading.

He would have continued, but my father interrupted him. "Why don't we get together again sometime soon and pick this up then. I've got to get on back to the church now. I do thank you for the chance to talk, though."

"That's fine, Dr. Marsh," Cooley replied. "But let me just say one more thing before you go. I'm a Mississippian like you, a preacher in the Christian church like you. Not only that, my father was a preacher, and so was his father before him. The last time our church was bombed, my son asked me where God had been when the Klansmen showed up. You know what I told him? I said, 'Child, don't be afraid. God will never leave you or forsake you. God will always calm the stormy waters. He did it two thousand years ago, when the disciples were fearful and the master stretched out his hand, and he will do it today.' You know what that boy did? He put his head on my shoulder and started crying.

"Now the thing is, I'm not sure I know what that means anymore. I'm not sure I'm really able to say that by my own lights. But when I saw the fear in my son's eyes, I just fell back on the one thing a Negro pastor in this town has to say --- what he'd better say if he's going to be able to look himself in the mirror. And it was kind of like God talking to us.

"Dr. Marsh, my question to you this afternoon is, When are you going to start listening?"

--- From The Last Days
Charles Marsh
©2001, Basic Books

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