How do you rebuild after the profound grief of losing your hero and one of your best friends?
I recently saw that the new Selma Film, out soon, includes a space for two people who deserve to be better known: teacher Richie Jean Jackson and dentist Sullivan Jackson, her husband. I wrote the below essay about what Mrs. Jackson, my 6th grade teacher, taught about healing after tragedy. She reviewed and edited it shortly before she died. (For instance, she always insisted that Dr. King be referred to as Dr. King, not simply King. While not AP style, it was her style, a style she earned through her tremendous unsung courage in changing our world.)
I grew up in Selma, Alabama, a town made famous by the 1965 voting rights movement. I moved there from an east coast Air Force base when I was in third grade. I had a New Jersey accent. I did not know what I was in for.
The saving grace for me was the public school system. For a brief generation, it was a gem. The dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was fragile and hopeful. Some of the teachers who had led the movement now taught us, working in a fully integrated environment. They challenged us to remember that we weren’t just competing with each other: we were competing against kids from places like Andover and Exeter. We had to take our educations seriously.
One teacher who stood out was Mrs. Richie Jean Sherrod Jackson, my 6th grade teacher. She has just released a book about her role in the Selma movement called “The House by the Side of the Road: The Selma Civil Rights Movement” (University of Alabama). Her family housed King and other great leaders, such as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, during the Selma movement. When you read about the Selma movement, you are in no small part studying Mrs. Jackson’s and her husband’s hospitality.
It was in her living room that Dr. King saw Lyndon Johnson announce the signing of the Voting Rights Act, saying, “We shall overcome.” It’s one of the only times she saw King cry. And from her house, Dr. King, when tired, would call Mahalia Jackson and ask her to sing to give him strength and solace. Or sometimes he’d just drive over to Selma and park his car behind their house where he would get some rest.
As Mrs. Jackson tells of the celebrities and politicians who flocked to be with Dr. King, you realize that it was the gift of hospitality and friendship that made possible so much work in the Selma movement. It was also a network of long-standing friendship between Juanita Jones Abernathy and Coretta Scott King (originally from nearby) that created a safe haven for the Selma movement.
After Dr. King’s death, as Mrs. Jackson sat with Mrs. King at the King home, she recounts how Jacqueline Kennedy walked in. Mrs. Jackson realized the two were both widows of assassination, and gave them their space. She and her husband were surprised to be asked to the funeral (seated in front of Sidney Poitier).
After hearing about her book, I called her up to thank her for teaching me. As a grateful adult, I was able to ask her about her experience in Selma and what she thought of the big questions in life, including resilience and forgiveness. And I was met with deep insight delivered in a sonorous Southern accent worthy of the best preacher.
I asked her, “Mrs. Jackson, you always treated your students equally, and with respect. How were you able to do that consistently over the years, after the days of segregation? How did you avoid becoming bitter?”
She told me something I’ll never forget.
“Well, when life becomes so heavy that I’m ready to let it go, I have a system to do that. When you’re ready to ‘let it go,’ then have a seat. Look down at your left foot and tell it ‘Let it go.’ Then your right foot, and tell it, ‘Let it go’.”
Mrs. Jackson said you leave the spine and brain for last. “The brain is the hardest. Sometimes you need for God to get the cobwebs out of your brain. But it can be done. And after you do this, you don’t need a $60 massage!”
I tried it. It worked. And when I want to “take it back” I now hear Mrs. Jackson’s quiet, authoritative voice, “Let it go.” Yes ma’am.
I’ve met people who sigh and shake their heads when they learn I grew up in Selma. I take it that they haven’t looked past the Selma March images of 1965. If they had, they’d see that those teachers who helped their man get a Nobel prize didn’t quit with the march. They stayed and helped a generation of us live in an integrated environment where people were honestly wrestling in the blood sport of racial politics.
Selma city schools are struggling today. The town’s population is declining. But there was a time when we lived on the positive side of civil unrest. Our teachers dared to invent a new, fragile future.
The essay originally appeared in Duke University’s Faithandleadership.com site.