"It all started with a kiss." That's how Brenda Lee Graham describes the brutality and racism that dramatically altered the lives of her brother, James Hanover Thompson, and his boyhood friend, David Simpson, in a tragic and often forgotten moment in North Carolina history.
In 1958 in Monroe, NC, ten-year-old Thompson and eight-year-old Simpson were, in Thompson's words, "playing with some friends over in the white neighborhood, chasing spiders and wrestling and stuff like that." A game ensued in which Thompson and an eight-year-old white girl, Sissy Sutton, exchanged a kiss. "The little girl gave me a peck on the cheek, and then she kissed David on the cheek. So, we didn't think nothing of it. We were just little kids."
Later that night, these two little kids were arrested and charged with molestation. Sutton had told her mother about the kiss, and her father and neighbors had gone looking for the boys and their families. Taken into custody by the authorities, the boys were beaten, detained for six days without any access to their parents, and then without any legal counsel sentenced to indefinite terms in a reform school with the possibility they might be released at age 21. After three months in detention, as local efforts turned to international outrage, the boys were finally released with no conditions or explanation. As Thompson recalls, "Nobody never said, 'Hey, look, I'm sorry what happened to y'all. It was wrong.'" Upon their release, one newspaper relayed that the boys' mothers had assured the powers-that-be that their boys were sorry and nothing like this would ever happen again.
It's known today as "The Kissing Case," because "it all started with a kiss." Throughout Holy Week, Christians recall that it often starts like that.
"So when Judas came, he went up to him at once and said, "Rabbi!" and kissed him. Then they laid hands on him and arrested him." (Mark 14:45-46)
The gravest betrayals, the most frightening abuse, and the most violent acts against sons and daughters of God often start innocently and quietly enough. They might start as innocently as a political rally this month, across the same state where Thompson and Simpson once suffered as boys, where a black protester was struck by a white supporter who would later say of the one he sucker-punched, "Next time we see him we might have to kill him." They might even begin as quietly as a piece of legislation we rushed into law this week, which at least one organization has called the most extreme of its kind in discrimination against LGBTQ members of our human community that are particularly vulnerable to mistreatment, prejudice and violence.
It's across my state and across my history, as much as I'd like to believe it's distant and past. As I wonder how it is that a kiss can turn so devastating, I recall that in the story of Jesus' last days -- while a mob gathered and Judas betrayed -- some slept, others were in denial, and still others assured themselves the worst could never happen.
James Thompson was never the same after his kissing case. He spent most of his adult life in and out of prison for robbery. "I always sit around and I wonder, if this hadn't happened to me, you know, what could I have turned out to be? Could I have been a doctor? Could I have went off to some college, or some great school? It just destroyed our life."
When it comes to the sins of discrimination and violence, they often begin in the most innocent and acceptable ways. But a kiss can destroy a life.
And often there's no Judas. There's just us.