Maceo Snipes

by Michael Usey; John 1.43-51

I had driven two days, 30 hours, 2000+ miles to get from San Diego to Louisville in August, 1980. I slept in my sleeping bag on top of my 74 blue Nova somewhere in Northeast Oklahoma, in Cherokee Nation territory, much to my mom’s chagrin.  Arriving on the afternoon of the third day, I was less than thrilled to find my living space at the seminary was a tiny monastic room in a men’s only dorm.  Ooof–a step way back socially.  I was tried and, since I was the only Baylor grad to go to Southern that year (somehow everyone else thought the San Francisco seminary was a sexier choice), I was ready to hop back in my car and head home. At that moment, I met Tom Bary, who lived in the tiny room across the hall.  Tom was a North Florida grad, looked like a taller Woody Allen, had my same weird sense of humor, along with an absolute passion for theology and justice.  We became friends.

He introduced me to many of my best seminary friends too, including the Rev. Cindy Weber, who is still the pastor of Jeff Street Baptist in Louisville, Clarence Jordan’s old church.  Being from the Florida coast, he either understood me or pretended too.  He was a year ahead of me; his first assignment was as youth minister at Neptune Baptist in Jacksonville, where he served for 12 years. After 2 years in Tennessee, he returned as pastor at Neptune Baptist, an interacial congregation right on the beach in Jacksonville in 1996, where he served for 24 more years until his death last Xmas from the Rona.

We weren’t the same personality: his energy was intense, manic, mine laid-back  His last sermon before spending a month in ICU was 44 minutes long.  His last message to me was when he wrote, “Michael, I was sitting in a deacons prayer time yesterday morning. I was looking at the sanctuary and the deacons praying and praying as well. I thought about a moment in time, probably 1981, you and I were sitting on a bench at Southern and we were talking about prayer. You were talking about the unhindered experience of just sitting and praying and the freedom of talking to God unbound by the religious trappings of posture, closing one’s eyes, etc. Then we prayed.  Why such a memorable moment, I can’t recall, but it was.  Thought of you and just wanted to say- thanks – it made an impression and is still a great lesson.”  When you pastor, it’s difficult to stay in touch with seminary friends, since we are serving in different states.  But he was a friend when it mattered and this morning’s text in John’s gospel is a fitting reminder of Tom’s friendship to me.

In so many ways, it was the unlikeliest meeting. Nathanael didn’t even want to meet the guy. He was just doing it as a favor to his friend. I mean, honestly? The one of whom the prophets spoke? Some self-appointed teacher from that back woods little town of Nazareth? It turned out, though, that this guy, Jesus, at least had a sense of humor. He quipped right back– Glad to meet you, Nathanael . . . an Israelite without deceit. Now, it might have been a backhanded compliment. Maybe Jesus was saying he appreciated Nathanael speaking his mind–didn’t take offense at the whole Nazareth comment. But we who are overhearing this conversation realize there’s a double meaning here. Jesus’ calling Nathanael an “Israelite,” because it brings echoes of the Jacob story into the conversation. Jacob of the Hebrew Bible. Jacob, the deceiver, who would be known as Israel–this is Jesus’ pun. But Nathanael is an Israelite without deceit.

Well played, Jesus. Score in this conversational sparring about hometowns: one all. An unlikely beginning for a relationship. Wait a minute, though! Nathanael’s smiling, but his mind is racing. Jesus wasn’t there for the Nazareth comment. How did Jesus know what he had said? But even more–Nathanael presses further: How do he know me?

Jesus says he saw Nathanael sitting under that fig tree, but it had to be an extrasensory seeing, a spiritual seeing.  In John’s story of Jesus, Jesus knows many things he should not be able to know.

So–Philip was right after all. Now Nathanael is convinced. The traditional phrases come pouring out of Nathanael’s mouth. You are the Son of God. You are the King of Israel. Jesus confirms it with yet another Jacob reference–this time to Jacob’s ladder. He says, “The angels will go up and descend on the Human One.” That is, upon himself.

He’s talking now about Jacob’s experience at Bethel in Genesis 28 where heaven approached so close to earth that the inhabitants of the two realms could meet. Now in Jesus–not just in one geographical place–in Jesus, the realm of God would come that near. It was an unlikely beginning to Nathanael’s walk with Jesus, but why not? What is more unlikely than heaven touching earth?

Heaven is where love reigns. Where there is room for all God’s children at the table. Where, in the words of a friend of mine, nothing’s broken and no one’s missing.

Not at all what earth is like. We know what earth is like. A glance through the morning paper shows us a world that couldn’t be more different than God’s realm of love . . . war, global warming, political gridlock, children without health care. And yet, in Jesus, the unexpected happens. And Nathanael sees it. Heaven gets a foothold on this earth. Sojourners’ Jim Wallis says, “In Jesus, God hits the street.” Nathanael–now a follower, however unlikely–will walk that street, too.

I love it that this passage comes up in the lectionary on this particular weekend. It reminds me of another unlikely beginning. I began last week, before the Epiphany insurrection, thinking about Maceo Snipes.  Do you know his story? Maceo Snipes must have felt a great sense of pride after he cast his first vote in the contentious 1946 Democratic primary for governor. Like many black WW2 veterans, Snipes returned home, to Butler – a town in western Georgia with less than 2000 residents – with an honorable discharge and a determination to exercise his rights as a citizen.

For months, Snipes had considered the risks associated with his exercise of the franchise. Even by Jim Crow standards for racially charged elections, this was a particularly fragile time for a black man to seek to vote. The most provocative campaign issue was specifically whether any African-Americans should be allowed to vote in the Democratic primary. Georgia had long allowed only whites to vote in the Democratic primaries; advocates of the whites-only primary said blacks could vote instead in the general election. But since Georgia was essentially a one-party state where winning the primary assured victory in a pro forma general election, the black vote had no influence.

The Georgia political establishment vowed to defy a federal court decision earlier in 1946 that truck down the whites-only primary. So Snipes was seeking to vote in the first election held without the statewide ban on black voting. That campaign pitted one of the most racially polarizing figures in Georgia history, two-term former Gov. Eugene Talmadge, who pledged to reinstate the all-white primary, against a somewhat more progressive James V. Carmichael.

Despite threats from the KKK in the run-up to the July 17 primary, Maceo Snipes took the bold step to become the first African American to cast a vote in Taylor County.  What happened over the next several days in Butler and two hours away in Monroe, Georgia, would grab headlines across the nation, especially in the African-American press, and prompt a young Morehouse College student, Martin Luther King Jr., to write a letter of response to the editor of The Atlanta Constitution.

The day after Snipes voted, four white men arrived in a pick-up truck outside of his grandfather’s farmhouse, where Snipes and his mother Lula were having dinner. The men, members of the local Klan chapter, called for Snipes, who came outside to meet them. During their encounter outside the house, Edward Williamson shot Snipes in the back. Williamson, like Snipes, was a WW2 veteran.

Snipes was wounded and struggling but still ambulatory as he and his mother walked three miles. Snipes and his mother went to the home of Snipes’ sister Katie, whose two sons, Sam and Eddie D., drove their uncle to Montgomery Hospital in Butler. Snipes waited in a hospital room that better resembled a closet, as the doctor on duty attended to other patients.

Six hours lapsed from the time Williamson shot Snipes until the doctor performed surgery to remove the bullets. There is a thread of medical neglect found in other Georgia civil rights cases: Not long before he died, Snipes was talking actively with his family. The white doctor at one point said Snipes would need a transfusion, then said it would be impossible because there was no “black blood” available at the hospital. Mirroring every other facet of life in the Jim Crow South, the enforced separation between blacks and whites extended to blood transfusions.  Without a transfusion, Snipes died from his injuries two days later, on July 20.

Five days later, in Monroe, two black couples — Roger and Dorothy Malcom and George and Mae Murray Dorsey — were abducted and taken by a mob of 15 to 20 white men to the Moore’s Ford Bridge above the Apalachee River near the Walton and Oconee county lines. Tied to trees, they were being beaten and shot to death. Mae Murray Dorsey was seven months pregnant.

Rumors subsequently spread throughout the community that anyone attending Snipes’ funeral would meet the dead man’s fate.  And so — in the dead of night — the funeral director of McDougald Funeral Home in Butler, joined by Snipes’ uncle Felix, buried the deceased in an unmarked grave in Butler Cemetery.  To this day, no one knows the precise location of Snipes’ burial site.

A coroner’s court convened in July 1946, to review the cause of Snipes’ death. Williamson told the coroner’s jury that Snipes owed him ten dollars. Williamson, accompanied by a man named Linwood Harvey, a sawmill operator, said he went to Snipes’ home to collect the debt. The exchange between the men turned hostile and escalated.  Williamson claimed that Snipes pulled a knife. Pleading self-defense, Williamson testified that he retrieved a gun from the glove compartment of his car, and shot Snipes twice. Coroner J.D. Cooke and the jury found that Williamson’s actions were justified, despite relatives’ testimony that the victim neither owed Williamson any money nor possessed a knife.

A young Morehouse College student, then a teenager, was deeply disturbed by the Snipes and Moore’s Ford killings, and by the overall white response that suggested a misunderstanding among whites about the motives of blacks. In a letter to the editor that Martin Luther King Sr. would later say was the initial “intimation of [his son’s] developing greatness,” Martin Luther King Jr. criticized the white distortion of black interests, that challenged southern white hypocrisy, and provided a sophisticated statement of black goals that would carry him and the civil right movement for the next two decades.

“I often find when decent treatment for the Negro is urged,” the young King wrote, “a certain class of people hurry to raise the scarecrow of social mingling and intermarriage. These questions have nothing to do with the case. And most people who kick up this kind of dust know that it is simple dust to obscure the real question of rights and opportunities. It is fair to remember that almost the total of race mixture in America has come, not at Negro initiative, but by the acts of those very white men who talk loudest of race purity. We aren’t eager to marry white girls, and we would like to have our own girls left alone by both white toughs and white aristocrats.”

“We want,” he continued, “and are entitled to the basic rights and opportunities of American citizens: The right to earn a living at work for which we are fitted by training and ability; equal opportunities in education, health, recreation, and similar public services; the right to vote; equality before the law; some of the same courtesy and manners that we ourselves bring to all human relations.”

By taking the risk of voting under the threat of death, by his struggle to survive a bullet and medical neglect, and by inspiring the man who would go on to lead perhaps the most significant movement in American history, Maceo Snipes, in the end, prevailed.

So when the Rev. Dr. Raphael Gamaliel Warnock was elected in Georgia to the US Senate, 75 years after Snipes’ murder, many of us who formerly lived in Georgia (as Ann and I did for 6 years), we remembered Snipes’ courage.  There is a long line of courage and love that connects his bravery to those of Warnock, through the lives of many, many others.  

My friend the Rev Tom Bary, Nathaniel the apostle, the brave WW2 vet Maceo Snipes, a teenaged MLK, Jr., and now the Rev. Dr. Senator Warnock: Heaven is where love reigns, where there is room for all God’s children at the table, where nothing’s broken and no one’s missing, because in Jesus, the unexpected happens., In Jesus, God hits the street. These followers hit the streets with him, and mighty things happened.  We can too.