September 15, 1963 – A bomb blast at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killed four African-American girls during church services: Denise McNair, 11; Carole Robertson, 14; Addie Mae Collins, 14; Cynthia Wesley, 14. Image from CNN.com/AP photo.
If you were alive today, I would invite you to my home for afternoon tea. I would serve you fancy sandwiches and fresh-baked cookies. Dvořák’s New World Symphony would be our background music. I would tell you it’s my favorite classical piece and you would say, “Oh, that’s real nice, but can we listen to some Mahalia instead?”
We’d go on: “Denise is my middle name.” And you would say, “Now isn’t that something? Darla Denise. I’ll bet your daddy called you Dee Dee.”
“Yes, he did.” We would drink and eat and laugh.
Then I would ask how long it took you to heal after the bombing. You would tell me about your family, friends, church brothers and sisters, and strangers helping you and your three friends through painful times of recovery.
“All is well, now,” you’d say. “I’m about to retire. I’ll be 65 years old in a few months. Time to settle down.”
Eventually, we would get to talking about politics and the state of our country. I would tell you that I usually vote Republican. You would say “As long as you’re voting your conscience.” I would tell you I’ve been called an “Uncle Tom” because of it. You would say “Forgive them.”
At the end of our time together, I would thank you for being one of the many people God used to ensure a decent life for me. You would wave your hand, dismissing your courageous life as if it were as simple as doing the right thing.
If you were alive.
But you are dead.
You were 11 years old when the bomb blast took your life.
You knew that evil was present, danger was a step forward, death was a church building during those awful Alabama days of 1963.
But evil didn’t stop you. You put on your Sunday dress and showed up to that youth rally. Soon after you arrived, you were in heaven with God.
Evil had been working to stop you wholly since your first breath: No eating here. No drinking here. No shopping here. No swimming here. Don’t learn to read. Don’t learn to write. Don’t get a good job. Don’t go to college.
And the one that dug so deep and so wide: Don’t even think about voting.
And because of all this incredible knowledge I have of you, Denise, and the myriad of other brave children, women, and men who shared your grief — I am struggling.
You lost your life because people were trying so hard to give me one, but I have to tell you this: I do not want to vote in this presidential election.
Yes, I know. That sounds selfish and ungrateful.
Every election year, since I was eligible to vote, I thought of you and Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks and fire-hydrant-drenched children and solitary students with soldiers, and all the others who suffered and won a prize for me. I would walk proudly to the polls and cast my vote. When I switched political parties to align with my changed moral convictions, I knew I would have to endure the mockery that comes with being a black conservative voter. But on to the polls I went.
Skip voting? Never. Too many people paid for my privilege with humiliation and their flesh. Of course I would vote.
But today, as I consider the probable candidates for the president of the United States — as I watch their behavior and learn of their plans — all I can think about is how you deserve better than this, Denise.
I imagine that your family buried you with high hopes — that the vote for which they suffered would choose quality people who respect themselves, their offices, their nation, and the people they pledge to serve.
Your neighbors cut the ropes from lynching victims and vowed to continue the fight so that their children and grandchildren could vote for people who disagree civilly and intelligently and decently.
Our ancestors endured whips and spit and bullets so that I could mark a ballot with thoughtfulness and gratitude and “This one will do the best job.”
So, I don’t want to cast my vote, Denise. In my mind, none of the candidates live up to the standard for which you and so many others suffered.
My frustration is not new. Many times in the past I have been unhappy with the choices I had for American leadership, both Democrat and Republican, in all levels of our government. Never before, though, have I also felt shame, as I do now.
On Election Day, I will walk into the polling place to honor you and the others, as usual. I will vote on propositions and representatives and judges and where my tax dollars should go. But I will not lift my pen to the bubble next to a presidential candidate’s name.
If you were alive, Denise, how I hope you would understand.
Maybe I will change my mind before Election Day. I don’t know. I keep thinking about how you suffered, Denise. [UPDATE 11/6/16: I am not changing my mind.]
But what I do know is this: Politics will fade away, but my choices are eternal.
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. (1 Timothy 2:1-2, Holy Bible, English Standard Version)