Color of Love: An American Story of Friendship

Color of Love: An American Story of Friendship

By Jimmie Lewis Franklin   

On a warm day in March 1965, Davis (“Dave”) Darrell Joyce and I, fellow doctoral students at the University of Oklahoma (OU),  began our slow, purposeful, walk toward the Student Union Building on north campus. Spring had begun to register its impact across the sprawling acreage with budding flowers,  chlorophyll green leaves dangling from trees, and expertly manicured hedges that highlighted the historic library and administration buildings.  This was beautiful OU,  a university established before Oklahoma statehood in 1907.  An unusually  quiet day–seemingly to me at least–described our surroundings, as birds chirped and then sailed effortless through the air,  and as most students spoke quietly to each other in passing on this friendly campus.

During our  brief trek toward our appointed destination, Dave and I spoke little, perhaps a bit about conventional “wind and weather topics.” But, as I remember, that was it! We knew each other, to be sure, since we were history majors,  and both of us taught as graduate assistants in the Department of History.  Why we had decided to walk together that particular day, rather than separately toward the Student Union, remains a mystery to us after fifty-five years.  We keenly recognized, of course,  that we were living through America’s modern-day civil rights movement,  and that hate, defiance toward social change, and violence had already taken an ugly toll of energy and lives.  That powerful movement had now touched the OU campus in a sad and meaningful way: we were headed that spring day in March–a young black and a young white man still in their mid-twenties–to celebrate the life and work of a thirty-eight year old reform-minded Unitarian-Universalist minister, James Reeb.   Reeb had heeded the call of Martin Luther King, Jr. to come to Alabama for the historic Selma to Montgomery March that ultimately helped fuel passage of a Voting Rights Act that granted African-Americans the franchise.   Following a dinner at a local Selma restaurant, Reeb and two other white ministers became victims of white hate when proponents of hateful resistance to the March viciously clubbed them, especially Reeb, who later died in a Birmingham hospital on 11 March, 1965.

Hardly do I or Dave remember much of what speakers said at that sad memorial.  I do vividly recall, however, what one of the Presbyterian ministers, my wife’s boss,  said in his prayer to the small gathering that March day. He mourned  the loss of Rev. Reeb’s  life and prayed that it would “not be in vain.”  I experienced mixed emotions at several levels as I stood there on an OU campus that had outlawed segregation just thirteen years earlier.   An uncontrollable ambivalence unexpectedly seized me!  I had heard a similar phrase just nine months before at First Union Baptist Church in Meridian, Mississippi, two blocks from where I lived in the summer of 1964.   Those words sharply and painfully echoed within my mind and body as I remembered the prayer for  James Chaney,  Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, victims of a brutal lynching by Klansmen determined “to protect a culture and a way of life.”

As I stood there at the Reeb Ceremony with Dave, I thought of the power of the teachings of Christ, but more about white hate that had taken so many lives throughout American history.   The thoughts created within me a generalized hatred against “white folks,” especially those who remained silent while violence continued to take both black and white lives in America.   But almost miraculously, “something took hold of me.”  Dave and I had walked together to the Ceremony for Rev. Reeb , and at a time when close black and white friendships did not meet with grand acceptance by many folks, even by some professors,  on a campus that was technically and legally “desegregated. ”  How could I rationalize an almost blinding hatred when two of my other close friends even now–one a Mennonite, the other Methodist–detested violence and racial bigotry?  (Dave, incidentally, ultimately became an active Unitarian-Universalist in his progressive church of approximately 2,0000 members, one of the largest congregations of that denomination in the country). I could not reject them or become a victim of raging hate.

As much as anyone,  Dave, a long time fighter for justice,  understood then as now, the devastating impact of  hate.  That is one major reason I was elated he had left the gathering for Rev. Reeb shortly after it ended.    During the solemn event,  a young white student,  who looked no older than, say, nineteen, sat behind us near the outer wall of the Student Union waving a small Confederate flag, as he mumbled something inaudibly, but not loudly enough to disturb our assembly.  Once the Ceremony ended,  I went over  to engage the young man in conversation.   I inquired about his flag and protest.  He said enthusiastically and unapologetically without any remorse whatever that “Reeb deserved what he got!”  He had gone to Selma “to make trouble!”  And the people in Alabama had a right “to protect their state.”  I then asked the young man whether the United States Constitution “gave every citizen the right  to peacefully protest and guaranteed the right to travel safely to and within any state in the United States without fear of intimation or violence?”  It was  mostly a rhetorical question.  I had witnessed the face of hate many times before, and I left before the flag-bearing youth could finish his emotional rant, knowing well that he cared little about the life of some folks such as Rev. Reeb or those for whom  the minister gave his life–OR the American  Constitution as amended, especially the 14th and 15th Amendments. That young man of nineteen then, would be about seventy-four or seventy-five years old today,  and I wonder if he recalls–or wants to remember–the Reeb Ceremony, or if he would make the same statements today about a child, grandchild, or another loved one  involved in the fight for social justice or human rights for other Americans.

My contact with that OU student in 1965 at the Reeb Ceremony helped to cement a lasting association between Dave and me that has lasted more than fifty-five years, more than any other longtime friendship from OU days.  Dave and I did not remain at OU together long after then.  In fact, I left the following year.  For about five years we had little contact, but I was able to keep in touch with him through mutual friends in Oklahoma; fortunately, we were able to write each other from time to time.  One of our most pleasurable moments came when he and his wife, Carole, stopped to visit my family once we moved to Illinois in the 1970s.  Fortunately, the computer age would enable us to collapse both time and distance.  Within the last twenty-five years, we have stayed in very close contact with each other.  I have been honored to work with Dave on two of his many major professional publications, and he has carefully critiqued some of my writings.

Neither Dave nor I had read widely, or taken some kind of instructional course, on how to “behave” toward each other.   If we came to hate bigotry and  the disrespect among people for other’s culture, those things had something to do, we believe, with our MOTHERS’ religious, moral, and ethical teachings—SOUTHERN MOTHERS, Lena Moton Franklin and Gladys Marie Joyce–one black,  the other white.  Those women lived  miles from each other, never met or knew each other, and  inhabited two different social worlds!  Dave wrote movingly of his mom in a short, but culturally meaningful essay in a chapter in one of his fine books entitled,   “Some Wisdom from My Sebastian County [Arkansas]Mother.”    Racial hate—especially for Martin Luther King, Jr., and other black activists had no place In Gladys’ household!  Despite a life under Mississippi Jim Crow, my saintly mom taught her children the destruction and pain hate could bring; and she did not permit denigrative language in her household.  Saintly Christian she was, my mama admonished, perhaps relying on Psalms 37:7-9 that she perfectly paraphrased: “God in his own time was gonna make [thangs ]right.”   Should we ever meet those two mothers again in the afterlife, we will thank them for their teachings and for a friendship between their sons that has survived a great deal of meanness, outright hate , and discomfort, but as adults grew to appreciate the meaning of LOVE and the power of RIGHT, DIVERSITY, PERSONAL FRIENDSHIP, AND THE MEANING OF PATRIOTISM WITHOUT HYPOCRISY.  FOR MORE THAN FIVE DECADES!

What I wrote in 2013 in the Introduction to one of Dave’s excellent volumes, Recollections of a Hitherto Truthful Man, still brings some degree of HOPE to me in a now troubled land.  I wrote nearly eight years ago that his monograph reflected “tensions within our culture that [call] for reasoned debate . . . and civility in our personal relationships and politics as our country struggles  to fashion policies that serve the general welfare of all its people. . . .” I ended with the optimistic note that Dave’s book should constitute a “clarion call for us to rekindle a spirit of national unity  [so] that . . . America does not falter in the continuing quest for the good life” for all its people.  To achieve that admirable goal, Dave has expressed both explicitly and implicitly many times since then-even more than this writer–the hope that thoughtful Americans endeavor to discover the meaning of the Color of Love in relationships with one another. Certainly, the more than half a century of true friendship between the two of us, Davis Darrell Joyce and Jimmie Lewis Franklin, has taught us heartfelt lessons about the “Color of Love” that we could hardly forget!  Far more is involved than a vital part of our human existence–maybe it is a part of what I prefer to call–our religious DNA.