The Ballad of Harry Moore

Preached at First Congregational Church of Oakland, December 14, 2014.I’ve had the story of one of our forebears on my heart recently on this Black Lives Matter Sunday. So while I was supposed to preach “People Get Ready,” my sermon this morning is actually “The Ballad of Harry Moore,” as written by Langston Hughes and set to music by Sweet Honey in the Rock.

It seems I hear Harry Moore; from the earth his voice still cries:
No bomb can kill the dreams I hold, for freedom never dies.
Freedom never dies, I say. Freedom never dies.
No bomb can kill the dreams I hold for freedom never dies.

Some people call Harry Moore the first martyr of the civil rights movement – he was killed by the Ku Klux Klan on Christmas night, 1951.

A teacher himself, Harry Moore fought for fair pay for Black teachers in Florida, and for the right to vote for Black people throughout the 1940s. He investigated lynchings and worked in the most rural parts of the state, where the risk was highest and the gains particularly hard-fought. During his time as a field organizer, Florida had the highest voter registration level of African Americans of any state in the south: 33%, despite it being some of the toughest terrain in which to organize. In fact, Harry Moore’s determination to work at the most hopeless edges of the movement had just earned him a demotion within the movement, and his opposition to an increase in membership dues actually got him fired from his position with the NAACP. But that Christmas was the Moores’ 25th wedding anniversary, and they celebrated that whatever their status in the organization, they continued to be part of the movement.

It happened in Florida, the land of flowers. It was on a Christmas night.
Men came stealing through the orange groves, Men of hate carrying dynamite.
It was to a little cottage, The family in the name of Moore.
At the window hung sprigs of holly, A fine wreath at the door.
It was on a Christmas evening, And the family prayers were said.
Mother, father, daughter and / Grandmother went to bed.
The father’s name was Harry Moore, of the NAACP.
He fought for the right for us to live. Black folk must be free.

It seems I hear Harry Moore; from the earth his voice still cries:
No bomb can kill the dreams I hold, for freedom never dies.
Freedom never dies, I say. Freedom never dies.
No bomb can kill the dreams I hold for freedom never dies.

I don’t know about you, but the story of Harry Moore makes me angry. And the words of comfort in the refrain do not seem like enough. There are other stories of lives taken too soon that make me angry, too, the stories of Michael Brown and Eric Garner mixing with the stories of Alan Blueford and Oscar Grant, whose mothers spoke at the Millions March yesterday. Their stories make me angry that not all lives do matter in America.

And their names and their blood mixes with that of the 43 students in Ayotzinapa, where the state government of Guerrero colluded with drug cartels to disappear the children of 43 mothers.

And it makes me think about the hope-filled passage from Isaiah this morning, about good news to the oppressed and binding up the broken hearted and proclaiming liberty to the captives. It makes me wonder why the creators of the lectionary – the readings that all of us in the Protestant tradition share as our scripture readings in church every Sunday around the globe – left out these verses, these verses that express anger at the people doing the oppressing of the people of Israel: “4They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. 5Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks, foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines; 6but you shall be called priests of the Lord, you shall be named ministers of our God; you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations, and in their riches you shall glory.

It could not be in Jesus name, Beneath the bedroom floor,
On Christmas night the killers hid / the bomb for Harry Moore.
It could not be in Jesus name, The killers took his life.
And blew his home to pieces / And killed his faithful wife.
It could not be for the sake of love / They did this awful thing.
But when the bomb exploded and the Moores died, No hearts were heard to sing.

And certainly no angels cried, / Peace on earth, good will to men.
But round the world, an echo hurled / The question, When, when, when?
When will people, in Jesus name, / And when will they, by prayer,
Know that each one has the right / To stand up everywhere?
When will people for the sake of peace, / The sake of democracy,
Know that no bomb you can make / Can stop us from being free?

A scary part of anger, of rage, is that it seeks to conquer, to know what it feels like to be on top after being on the bottom so long. That is not a comfortable feeling for many of us; it’s a hard thing to admit we feel. It’s a hard thing to admit the desire to seek revenge was a feeling of the people who wrote the bible. I understand the temptation to pretend it isn’t there, and I imagine the creators of the lectionary hoped to make our lives and our relationship to the divine a little less complicated by leaving it out.

I do not want to see us build an economy on the backs of strangers, on the backs of other nations, as the Isaiah passage hints at. But the irony is that by suppressing that narrative, that is exactly what America has done.

But you’ve heard me give that sermon before.

So instead, I want to mention something even more important:

The “hidden passage” in Isaiah is a testimony to the greatest word of hope I know: God understands our grief. God understands our pain. God understands our broken hearts and the resulting rage. We worship a God, my brothers and sisters, who can hold that pain, can empathize with it, who can offer us hope and comfort and solace in the way that we need it in the moment that we need it.

Scholar and spoken word artist J. Kameron Carter speaks to exactly what it means to suppress this God-given rage in this moment:

You ain’t feelin’ me
tuned out tune of deliverance
shout the victory
did you see dat dude crying
i mean, it hurts, i can’t breath
ruach ain’t flowing cuz she be flowin’

criminal grieving
criminalizing the grievers
grieving now criminalized
man-up don’t cry
that’s some bullshit be fucked up
the criminalization of grieving
when’d grieving ’come a crime?
good grief.

The passage we heard twice this morning – the Magnificat – it is worth remembering that the Nicaraguan rebels read that passage as they prepared for battle.

In the moments after word of Harry Moore’s death spread throughout the swamps and forests and towns and cities of Florida and then throughout the world, I imagine people grieving and raging. I imagine God in their midst, saying, “Yes—this is an outrage.” And I imagine God had something to do with the fact that civil rights groups across the country redoubled their efforts to confront the violent terrorist tactics of white supremacy with nonviolent resistence often grounded in the teachings of Jesus Christ. And I believe God is doing the same thing in our midst right now, saying to all of us, “Yes—this is an outrage. Black lives matter. ALL Black lives matter. Trans and queer and poor and imprisoned Black lives matter.” And God is holding us, and comforting us, and giving us the gift of one another in the streets and in our prayer groups. God is leading us towards Christmas Day, when God gives us the gift of power and transformation and the radical restructuring of oppressive systems of government…

and God is doing all of that through an innocent, vulnerable child born in an insignificant colony of an oppressive empire. God is giving us a savior, a leader, a comrade who will one day grow up to read this scripture in the temple: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn.” And those words, thousands of years old, remain God’s promise to us as they were to the people of Israel in exile and in the shadow of Empire.

So if you see our Harry Moore / Walking on a Christmas night,
Dont you fear and run and hide / He has no dynamite.
For in his heart is only love / For all the human race.
All he wants is for each of us / To have our rightful place.

And this he says, our Harry Moore, as from the grave he cries:
No bomb can kill the dreams I hold, for freedom never dies!
Freedom never dies, I say!
Freedom never dies!
No bomb can kill the dreams I hold, for freedom never dies.


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