Something Within Me I Cannot Explain: The Testimony of Myrlie Evers-Williams
Myrlie Evers-Williams has come in for some criticism for her invocation at President Obama’s inauguration on Monday. Some is from those who think religion has no place in the public rituals of a republic whose constitution forbids the establishment of religion. Some is from Christians of varying political persuasions who objected on theological or liturgical grounds to the content of the prayer offered by the first woman (and the first lay person) in U. S. history to deliver an inaugural invocation.
In the spirit of Sen. Lamar Alexander (a phrase never before used on this blog)—who, citing Tennessee author Alex Haley, said at the inauguration, “Find the good, and praise it“—here are some additional thoughts about Ms. Myrlie Evers-Williams’ invocation:
- Ms. Evers-Williams will celebrate her 80th birthday in a few weeks. Anyone who looks that good after eight decades on this earth has something to say that’s worth hearing.
- If it’s true that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”, then any American citizen interested enough in politics to pay attention to a presidential inauguration should also be aware that the Evers family was the fulcrum around and by which that arc was bent in Mississippi (and thus, across the United States) in 1963. Decades after his assassination, Medgar Evers’ blood still stained the driveway of the family’s home. Any American citizen interested enough in politics to pay attention to a presidential inauguration has, dare I say, a civic and moral obligation to listen to—and take seriously—pretty much anything Myrlie Evers-Williams chooses to say on such an occasion.
- More to the point, anyone who grew up in Jim Crow Mississippi, worked with her husband when they more-or-less were the civil rights movement in Mississippi in the 1950s and early 1960s, continued working for the next 30 years to bring his killer, Byron de la Beckwith Jr., to account under law, and (this is the important part) survived whole in body, mind and spirit as Myrlie Evers-William did, has wisdom worth learning from.
I’ll yield to my theological and liturgical betters as to their various critiques of the shortcomings of Ms. Evers-Williams’ invocation…but not before noting that:
- when she prays about “the spirit of our ancestors“, she’s speaking out of a deep tradition in the Black church that reveres ancestors who survived the Middle Passage, slavery and segregation with their spirits undefeated much as some Catholics revere their saints and martyrs (and for many of the same reasons);
- when she prays about “unborn hopes” and “disenfranchised votes” she’s not waxing poetic, but speaking from bitter experience;
- when she prays about “the vision of those who came before us and dreamed of this day, that we recognize that their visions still inspire us; they are a great cloud of witnesses, unseen by the naked eye, but all around us, thankful that their living was not in vain,” she’s not only invoking the power of the stirring conclusion to an ancient sermon preserved in chapter 12 of the Letter to the Hebrews, she’s also referencing the gospel music tradition that grew from churches like the ones her grandmother took her to in her youth;
- when she prays the words of the Pledge of Allegiance—”one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all“—as she learned it as a child before the McCarthy era added the words “under God“, you probably wouldn’t be wrong in hearing an implicit condemnation of the ways in which reactionary, segregationist, white Christian anti-communism invoked God to maintain a terrorist state in 1950s Mississippi;
- when she invokes “the prayers of our grandmothers: God, make me a blessing“, she’s almost certainly speaking literally about the prayers of the grandmother who raised her;
- when she concludes by praying “There’s something within me that holds the reins, there’s something within me that banishes pain, there’s something within me I cannot explain, but all I know America…there is something within“, she’s not appealing to some New-Agey feel-good pantheistic divinity, she’s testifying to the power of the Holy Spirit in the depths of her being that brought her from the driveway of 2332 Guynes Street in Jackson, Mississippi on June 12, 1963 as she rushed outside to watch her murdered husband bleed to death, having first made sure her three young children had taken cover as she’d trained them, to the Capitol of the United States on January 21, 2013 as honored guest and worship leader at the second presidential inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama.
Something within me I cannot explain indeed.