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The PC(USA)’s advocacy director engages New York Avenue Presbyterian Church crowd with his scholarship on Black protest

The Rev. Jimmie Hawkins outlines his book, ‘Unbroken and Unbowed,’ then entertains questions during an online gathering

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Jimmie Hawkins was among those taking a stand against gun violence at the March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy of Jimmie Hawkins)

LOUISVILLE — As the speaker Wednesday for New York Avenue Presbyterian Church’s McClendon Scholar-in-Residence Program, the Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, who leads the PC(USA)’s Office of Public Witness and is the denomination’s advocacy director, spent the first half-hour talking about his book, “Unbroken and Unbowed: A History of Black Protest in America.” Read previous reports about Hawkins discussing his book, published in February 2022 by Westminster John Knox Press, by going here, here or here.

Watch the presentation here.

Once Hawkins had completed his initial comments during Wednesday evening’s event, Don Edwards, the principal and CEO of Justice and Sustainability Associates in Washington, D.C., offered up a response and asked Hawkins a few probing questions.

Edwards told Hawkins he’s to be “applauded for adding to the canon of Black historiography.”

“Black protest is not the entirety of African American history in this country,” Edwards said, “but it gives us a lens through which to look. You have refocused people. Your work contradicts the miseducation of Americans.”

Hawkins said the harsh treatment of NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who famously took a knee during the National Anthem to protest racial injustice and police brutality against African Americans, was the spark that expanded his own work on Black protest from an article to a 345-page book.

“We want America to be America again, like Langston Hughes said,” said Hawkins. Hughes called America “the land that never has been yet.” To Hawkins it’s a “place where every human being has value.”

Asked by Edwards about “the spiritual component that undergirds the ability to remain unbroken and unbound,” Hawkins said that spirituality “has always been intimate to Black protest.” Once enslaved people began hearing and taking to heart the story of Exodus, “they slowly began to adopt Christianity, and it became an important part of protest in this country.”

Most insurrections against enslavers “were planned and carried out by Black preachers,” Hawkins noted. “They were engaged in the community and they had a freer voice in the community.” When Black people would form a new church, it normally included a school as well, Hawkins said. “They educated during the week and worshiped God over the weekend.”

Edwards asked Hawkins to explain his “personal experience” with injustice. “When did the dots begin to be connected for you?” Edwards asked.

Hawkins said he grew up in the church, “a place where I was affirmed and accepted. People loved me unconditionally.” On the day the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered, Hawkins, who was about 9 years old, watched his mother, who was transfixed to television reports. “I knew what had happened impacted her,” he said. “She sat there motionless the whole time.”

In those days the family would shop at the local drugstore in North Carolina, but Black diners still were not welcome at the lunch counter. Hawkins’ mother would tell her son, “That’s just the way it is.”

“I began to think, something is off-kilter here,” Hawkins told Edwards. At school, the textbooks were all secondhand, most of them well-worn. Teachers tried to make up for the condition of the texts by distributing book covers to their students at the beginning of the school year.

Don Edwards (Photo courtesy of Justice and Sustainability Associates)

Edwards then narrowed the focus of the questions, asking Hawkins, what is Black protest? “People think of movements. Is that the sum total of Black protest?”

Hawkins said he thinks of protest “as resistance to oppression in a multiplicity of ways.” When he speaks to congregations and mid councils, he’ll often mention his own four arrests during protests, then add: “You don’t have to get arrested to protest.”

“Any resistance to oppression has to be ongoing, and you have to have justice at the center of what you’re doing,” Hawkins said. “There is a sense we are all children of God — not all the same, but we are one in the eyes of God.”

“At the center of my protest is, I serve a God of protest. Justice is a part of the very being of God, and because I am created in God’s image, I must work for justice too,” he said. “It’s our right to speak out and be an individual, but we also must develop a ‘we’ mentality.” With advocacy offices in Washington, D.C. and New York City, Presbyterians have been doing advocacy work for seven decades now, Hawkins said, yet “many Presbyterians don’t know these offices exist.”

“To be an American is to have the sense that protest is your right. There is a larger call from God that supersedes the American context,” Hawkins said. “We know how far this country has come in a short period of time. It’s a much different day than it was, but we still have struggles to overcome. America is still evolving due to protests” being staged in communities across the country, he said.

During the final half-hour, the large online crowd got to ask questions. In answer to one, Hawkins said that “by and large, Black protest has been leaderless. The masses of Black people have resisted. The Spirit of God was moving from community to community saying, ‘Do this.’”

Hawkins was part of the Moral Mondays, a grassroots movement founded about 10 years ago in North Carolina by an old friend, the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, who later co-founded the Poor People’s Campaign with the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, a Presbyterian pastor. “It was a decision that as a person of faith, I wanted to be engaged in challenging the powers to be more just,” Hawkins said of his work with Moral Mondays. Early on, police arrested 19 protesters, including Hawkins. “It was a manifestation of what I believed as a person of faith,” Hawkins said. “It’s not just a vertical relationship with God, but a horizontal relationship with people.” He called that understanding “one of the gifts of the Black church: It’s never satisfied talking about the institution of the church, but how we have a responsibility to witness to our faith in the public arena,” part of the work that’s done in the Washington office, he said.

When a viewer praised Hawkins’ treatment of the Harlem Renaissance and hip-hop music in “Unbroken and Unbowed,” Hawkins noted that the man who led the former, Alain Locke, “pushed artists to talk about their pride.”

The Rev. Jimmie Hawkins

“People will listen to a poem or a song that is infiltrated with protest, even though they’re opposed to it — and they’ll clap when it’s over,” he said. King himself was quick to credit contemporary artists including Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier and Sammy Davis Jr.

“I hope the book inspires every community to tell their story,” Hawkins said. “Oftentimes protest is laid out in a Black/white binary, but we know that’s far from the truth.” In California, “Black protest is minimal compared to Asian American and Hispanic American protest.”

The host for Wednesday’s online gathering, Theo Brown, closed the event by reading a few sentences near the end of Hawkins’ book: “So what is Black protest? It is truth telling. It understands that America has always been a nation of contradictions, hypocrisy, and illusion. America has never lived up to its proclamations of liberty and justice for all, but African Americans have found American democratic ideas to be worth fighting for. The focus of protest has never been to change the nation’s creed but to compel the country to live up to its own values and professed beliefs.

“Black protest is inclusion. The goal has never been, for the majority of Black people, to separate from the other races but to ensure that a diversity of people are afforded opportunity and access to life’s benefits and blessings.”

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