As 2014 draws to a close, I wanted to celebrate four great rainbows for justice who passed away this year but left us a much better people and nation. My brother-friend Dr. Vincent Harding, much loved historian, theologian, social justice activist, and visionary, never lost sight of the “beloved community” his friend and colleague Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. believed our nation and world could become. A close confidant of Dr. King, he helped draft several of Dr. King’s most important speeches, including the landmark 1967 antiwar sermon “Beyond Vietnam.” His books include the powerful essay collection Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero, where he reminded us that too many of us enshrine Dr. King the dreamer and ignore Dr. King the “disturber of all unjust peace.” On his 81st birthday Dr. Harding told a Children’s Defense Fund audience that he believed America was a wounded nation, but still remained convinced we could become a more just nation if all of us committed ourselves to healing America and pushing her to live up to her creed.
I was also very blessed to call John Seigenthaler a friend and to share wonderful times with him on the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award committee which he chaired for a number of years. And in his last months, we shared a forum at his First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University about our civil rights struggles. Fellow Southerners, we were both devoted to making our region more consonant with America’s best values. John was an extraordinary journalist and a long term champion for justice and freedom. As a special assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy he served as an intermediary between the federal government, Civil Rights Movement leaders, and recalcitrant segregationist Southern state officials, moving between the worlds of his native Nashville and the new America he was helping to create. He was in Montgomery, Alabama trying to protect Freedom Riders during the May 1961 riot at the city’s Greyhound bus station when he was attacked and left unconscious in the street after trying to help two women Freedom Riders take shelter in his car. That experience strengthened his own commitment to justice. As editor, publisher, and CEO of The Tennessean, founding editorial director of USA Today, and founder of the First Amendment Center he was an unwavering champion of First Amendment Rights and free speech. Like Vincent Harding he never stopped believing that America could be better and honor her promises for all.
John Doar was also in Montgomery the day of the attack on Freedom Riders—just as he was there for so many of the violent, historic, and ultimately transforming events of the Civil Rights Movement. President Obama, when he awarded John the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, said: “He was the face of the Justice Department in the South. He was proof that the federal government was listening,” and later correctly called him “one of the bravest American lawyers of his or any era.”
He certainly left his mark on me as a young law student traveling for the first time to Greenwood, Mississippi in 1961. Bob Moses, Jim Forman, and other young Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) staffers were trying to register voters in that closed society. John Doar’s was the one telephone number I took with me. On the night of my arrival, the first thing I heard was about a shooting which frightened the Black community. The next morning, however, the SNCC workers convinced poor Black people to overcome their fear and to walk toward the courthouse to try to register to vote to show that violence would not stop the movement. They were met by police dogs and a milling mad White mob. After a dog lunged at Bob Moses and tore his pants, people began to scatter in terror, and all the SNCC workers were arrested, I ran to a telephone booth in the middle of the surly crowd and called John Doar. I was very emotional. In a very calm, steely voice, he said, “Cut out the emotion and just give me the facts.” It was a great lesson for a first year law student about getting yourself out of the way and doing your job regardless of the circumstances. I never forgot it.
A White Republican from Wisconsin, John served as First Assistant and then Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights from 1960 to 1967, leading the government’s response to everything from the attacks on the Freedom Riders to James Meredith’s desegregation of the University of Mississippi to the prosecution of the murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. He generally led right from the front lines alongside those he was helping and serving—including walking the whole five-day march from Selma to Montgomery, or living with James Meredith in his dorm room, eating with him in the cafeteria, and trailing him to class for his first few weeks after the campus was convulsed with rioting and violence. John later served as special counsel to the House of Representatives with respect to the impeachment of President Nixon and investigation of Watergate. Many years later, in an interview for the Eyes on the Prize series, he looked back on what the Civil Rights Movement had accomplished: “If you consider that during the period from 1954 to 1965, this country broke the caste system—now, there’s no other civilization that’s ever been able to do that, peacefully, without a revolution. And this, the American people accomplished through the democratic constitutional processes of the law.” John Doar was a key leader of the “processes of the law” that helped make this transforming change happen.
And one of the very brightest rainbows we lost in our national sky this year was the incomparable Dr. Maya Angelou. She was a lantern when the world was a darker place. Her lyrical words and indomitable spirit provoked anger, comfort, and hope for millions during the civil rights era and ensuing decades. As the first Black woman to compose a presidential inaugural poem in the nation’s history she was a role model for Black girls and everyone to dream of charting new and bolder courses to overcome all odds and lead their families and communities and our country to higher places. I am especially grateful for her friendship and generous support of the Children’s Defense Fund for four decades, particularly her dedication to helping celebrate and encourage youths who beat the odds of homelessness and violence and abuse and neglect. I will never forget her coming to Haley Farm in 1995 for the graduation of our first small class of Freedom Schools servant leaders who were going out to teach children how to love reading. Her limousine pulled up on the farm, she got out in full academic regalia, came under our small tent in front of Haley Lodge, and made all of us feel like this was the most important graduation ceremony in the world and they were the most important graduates. She engulfed us with her passion and confidence in them:
“Let me tell you who you are. You are the rainbow in the clouds for people whose faces you have not seen yet, whose names you don’t know yet, whose histories you haven’t been told yet. And you are, each one of you, individually, privately, each one of you is a rainbow chosen to be in the clouds for somebody.”
I will always remember her sharing that advice with many groups of young people over the years, including on a racial healing panel with Vincent Harding and Trayvon Martin’s parents and others who had lost children to gun violence. She received a rousing reception from thousands of people, half of them young leaders of color—including our DREAMers who did so much to prod the nation to reform our broken immigration system. After she spoke everyone in the room leapt to their feet and gave her a sustained standing ovation. None of us will ever forget her singular deep voice reminding us – “When it looked like the sun wouldn’t shine anymore, God put a rainbow in the clouds.” These were among the first words that welled up in me when she passed away and are an indelible part of her legacy.
Each of these four lanterns was a bright rainbow in the clouds for those unjustly treated, beaten down, and lost. All were willing to step up to make a difference, to lead when it could be dangerous, and to let their lives be shining examples for others. We should remember them when we face stormy and cloudy weather in our national life and become bright rainbows of hope like them.