Things Left Undone

Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
BCP, p. 360

“He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.

As Episcopalians, as often as we go through the liturgy, we confess our sins to God, the things we have done and the things we have left undone. The part we play in our sins of commission are often more readily recognizable and thus more likely to be confessed and repented of than in our sins of omission.   

With the end of Reconstruction in Texas, segregation and suppression controlled the physical movement, social advancement, and political participation of African Americans in Texas. Laws requiring segregation of railroad cars, waiting rooms, restrooms, restaurants, entertainment establishments, and residential neighborhoods severely hindered African American mobility and advancement during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Ku Klux Klan, enacted violence and terror on Texas African Americans, and lynching became an increasingly prevalent form of racial intimidation. Between 1885 and 1942, there were 468 documented victims of lynching in Texas, the overwhelming majority of whom were African American.

At the turn of the 20th  century, African American Episcopalians faced struggles that threatened their physical as well as spiritual well-being, both within as well as outside of the Church. Within the Church itself, African Americans faced the fallout of being part of a Church, where no matter how well-meaning the majority members were, they never seemed to fully know what to do with or be willing to embrace effective solutions to their “Negro” problem. Within their own missions, African American congregations constantly faced financial struggles, the challenge of finding adequate and sustainable places to worship, and an ongoing shortage of Black clergy qualified and willing to serve in the South. Even more dire, however, were the challenges they faced outside the Church, where not only was their survival as a congregation threatened, but their very lives. Daily they faced the harsh reality that their lives could be taken by fellow citizens who, upstanding or not, hooded or not, yet bore the open wounds of bitterness, resentment and desire for vengeance caused by having lost a war and what had once been their human property, which they were now being forced to somehow accept as equal to themselves. These festering wounds of the blood thirsty could only be quenched by taking “justice” into their own hands and deciding just how and if those who bore the legacy of slavery should live. Too often this led vigilantes to acts of violence, Black suppression, and even to the hanging tree. This was both the horror and the reality that African Americans in general faced, as well as those in the Episcopal Church, throughout the towns in Texas and beyond, and often times from church folks, whether by active participation or mere consent.

As Thomas Paine had declared during the American Revolution more than a century earlier, “These are the times that try men’s souls,” lynching was at this time the monstrosity that tried the soul of the nation and the Church during the first half of the twentieth century. The lynching that took place in Colorado County, Texas in November of 1935 sparked both outrage and action by then Bishop of Texas, Clinton S. Quin. On November 11, 1935, two Black teenagers, Ernest Collins, 15 and Benny Mitchell, 16 were hanged there by a mob of 700, after being accused of raping and killing a young White woman. This mob action took place In spite of efforts made by Episcopal priest, the Rev. E.B, Marmion, Rector of St. John’s Church in Columbus. “Preaching to his own people,” the newspaper article read, “the Rev. C. G. Marmion, 33 year old Episcopalian Rector of St. John’s at Columbus, Texas, tried to prevent the lynching of two young Negroes…Climbing on top of an automobile at the scene of the hanging, he shouted, “Let the law take its course.” Boos, jeers, and cries of, “Get another rope” drowned out his words and brought an end to his efforts. The County Attorney afterwards publicly said the lynchings were “an expression of the will of the people,” and a local judge called the lynchings “justice.” 

While the Rev. Marmion’s cries fell deaf on the ears’ of the executioner’s, they did not fail to stir something in the Bishop of Texas. Bishop Quin’s diary entry for November 11, 1935 read:  

November 11.  This is the day the Rev. Gresham Marmion at Columbus did the best he could to prevent a lynching in Colorado County.  I have already told Mr. Marmion personally how proud I am of him for what he did and how humiliated I am to think that the Church and its interpretation of the Christ Life have not made enough impression to prevent a thing of this sort.

His concern did not rest there. During his address to the next Council meeting in January, 1936, Bishop Quinn expressed his concern over the “disgraceful lynchings” that had taken place in the state of Texas for the period of fifteen months prior to Council. Simply passing resolutions was no longer enough, he seemed to suggest, but indicated the need for solutions to “build up a Christian atmosphere that might lead to a change in attitudes.” 

The proposed resolution of the Eighty-Seventh Annual Council called for “all lynchings and those attitudes which lead to lynchings to be condemned by all Christians and for Council to pledge itself to do all in its power to eradicate the evil of lynching and to promote attitudes of understanding, appreciation, and good will between the races.” Bishop Quinn did not attempt in his address to exonerate his listeners, regardless of their level of participation in the lynchings that had taken place. Instead, he pointed out to them that whether bystander or active participant, they played a role in the evil taking place. Inaction did not declare them innocent, but in some ways made them accessories to the evil that was taking place by not speaking against the evil. Neither could the Church claim innocence. The Resolutions of Council called for the Church to teach a message that resulted in a change of heart and course of action. Perhaps the final, “Be it resolved” in the Resolution to Council was a clarion call to the Church, the people of God, to begin living the Gospel that was being preached:  Be it further resolved, That this Council pledge itself to do all in its power to eradicate the evil of lynching and to promote attitudes of understanding, appreciation, and good will between the races.

An African chieftain was quoted as saying, “Why don’t you preach to your own people, who hang and burn black men in the streets?” to an American missionary… as the missionary asked his permission to proselyte among members of his tribe.” At the very least, the great sin for so long left undone had been uncovered and named. The times, the tragedy, the words spoken by the Bishop all called for such preaching and the putting into practice of that which could bring about change in the hearts and behaviors of people, so they might genuinely “walk in [His] ways to the glory of [His] name.  Repentance, however, can be a lengthy and a rugged road.

Council Notes
Lynching in Texas files (newspaper article from Columbus Texas Nov. 12, 1935
The African American Story, Texas State History Museum online
The Equal Justice Initiative Website
 “The Brooklyn Daily Eagle” (Nov. 12, 1935)

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