by Kevin Cummings, Messenger Staff Writer
Francis Walter, a Sewanee resident and Episcopal priest, was both witness and activist during the civil rights upheaval of the 1960s. He shared scenes from that tumultuous time on Jan. 14, the afternoon before Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
“I’m talking about another world and a lot of you never lived in it and don’t understand it,” he told a chapel peopled with community members and students on the St. Andrew’s-Sewanee School’s campus.
Walter, 85, was in the close company of Dr. King three times in his life, but never spoke to the man because he says he was intimidated by King’s celebrity. Walter also discussed the aftermath following the death of Episcopal activist Jonathan Daniels and described when he feared he himself would be shot by a man named “One-Eyed Jack.”
Part of the Selma Inter-religious Project, a coalition of religious denominations supporting black leaders during the Civil Rights Movement in the South, Walter was also a key organizer of the Freedom Quilting Bee in Alabama, a program to generate income for black families from the sale of handmade quilts.
Emmanuel Thombs, 18, an SAS senior who is African-American, said on Jan. 16 that Walter’s story gave him perspective and emphasized the importance to not watch history “but to be active in my world and insert myself into history.”
“My dad lived most of his childhood under segregation and he always proclaims how much different of a world today is,” Thombs said. “It’s hard for me to truly understand the world in the 1960s and the idea that ‘we’ve come a long way’ because I have never experienced the things those living in that time period did.”
A short discussion near the end of Walter’s talk between Thombs, Walter and fellow Episcopal priest Joe Porter, centered on how far the country has come in race relations and the distance left to go.
Racism is more subtle today, Walter noted. Porter said he does not believe strides have been made in the economy, education and healthcare.
“We’ve come far in political democracy but not in economic democracy,” Porter said. “That’s a big thing in this country, the total wealth as a percentage has not risen significantly at all for African-Americans from those days.”
Thombs asked Porter how to combat inequalities, and Porter said as a follower of Jesus and the teachings of Dr. King, having an open heart is the way to reconciliation.
Thombs said on Jan. 16, like many, he does not know the answers to balancing racial inequality.
“People often call me a pessimist for saying that I don’t truly believe there’s any way to fix inequality without erasing the foundations that this country put in place long ago,” he said. “I hope that my opinion will change as I grow older and learn more about the way the world works.”
King, Daniels and ‘One-Eyed Jack’
With his thick twisted cane resembling a deer leg flanking a clear glass of water atop a wooden stool beside the lectern, Walter spoke to the group in a soft Southern tone.
The first time Walter was in the presence of Dr. King was at a speech on New Year’s Day in the 1950s at the International Longshoreman’s Association Hall in Mobile, Ala. Walter and three others were the only white people in attendance and were given a position of honor on the podium directly behind King.
“Exactly the opposite if they (black people) tried to go to white churches —hatred, hate stares, call the police” he said. “I saw this gift of hospitality over and over again in black churches.”
He said “King’s voice went to my bones” during that speech. At two meetings of civil rights activists in the 1960s, Walter also shared a room with Dr. King and he attended King’s funeral in Atlanta, where afterwards area black churches shared “consoling food, served with dignity.”
Speaking both extemporaneously and reading from a forthcoming book about his experiences, Walter also talked about the death of Jonathan Daniels, an Episcopal seminarian and civil rights activist who was shot and killed on the steps of a grocery store in Hayneville, Ala., trying to protect a black teenager, Ruby Sales.
Daniels was supposed to meet with Walter the day before his death to discuss Walter assuming Daniels’ duties, but Daniels was jailed with a group of other activists, and the meeting never happened. He was killed shortly after being released from jail by a white man who objected to their presence at the store—where they had gone for a cold drink.
Some Episcopal bishops and other church leaders were not happy with what Walter, Daniels and other activists were doing. Two splashes of sunlight in the shape of windows decorated the wall behind Walter as he remembered calling area Episcopal churches to invite them to participate in a memorial for Daniels in Selma, knowing that they would be portrayed negatively in the press for their absence from the service and would be risking their jobs to attend.
“I enjoyed sticking it to them,” he said, but added that he struggled with guilt for 45 years for putting the church leaders in “a moral crisis.”
But standing against racial oppression is an imperative for a follower of Christ and with the help of his wife Faye, a clinical psychologist, Walter was able to work through his painful emotions about those phone calls, he said.
It was in the days after Daniels’ death that Walter thought his own life was in jeopardy at a small black church in Greensboro, Ala. Approaching the church, one of many holding memorial services for Daniels, he saw that the parsonage’s porch was adorned with bullet holes.
Inside the church a group of men, part of the Deacons for Justice, were armed with shotguns and plenty of enthusiasm.
“They were the happiest young black guys I’d ever seen in my life,” he said, “…not under the white man’s thumb anymore.”
After the service, as Walter went to the car to leave, a white man began to cuss him, so he returned to the church. Parishioners identified the man as “One-Eyed Jack,” the person who had shot up the parsonage. They provided an armed escort for Walter out of town.