Learning to Think Black?

By Marianne Novy

Rev. Al Lingo, a Protestant minister, spoke this February 9 at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary to members of Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN)  Southwest, seminarians, and others about his journey out of oblivious whiteness to a lifelong commitment to racial justice and nonviolence. His work with Martin Luther King as part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Selma and elsewhere in the South  was a particular highlight. He helped form  Concerned White Citizens’ Councils in a number of Southern cities and participated in  demonstrations where he and his companions were arrested, jailed, and/or beaten while police stood by or participated in the beating.

One of the demonstrations was the march for voting rights  across the Edmund Pettis Bridge from Selma to Montgomery in March 1965. At Selma  police violence took place under the instructions of a different Al Lingo, the head of the Highway Patrol. The minister was previously known as Charles Alan Lingo, but his colleagues liked the idea of two Al Lingos confronting each other.

Violence in Selma aroused special attention because a white woman from Detroit, Viola Liuzzo, was shot  by a Ku Klux Klanner while she was trying to drive people back from the demonstration. Churches put demonstrators up for the night. Lingo wanted to stand guard outside a church.  King responded, “What are you going to do if they come? Get out of sight—we don’t need another death.”  King always emphasized the need for non-violence. “They have a lot of guns. We’re doing a nonviolent protest as a faith statement that we love everyone and we want the right to vote.”

On a previous trip South, on June 18,  1964, he helped King integrate a motel pool in St. Augustine, Florida, by checking in and going for a swim with an African American activist, J. T. Johnson, also staying at the hotel, and other demonstrators. The motel owner poured acid into the pool to get them out. On June 19,  the Civil Rights Bill, including an end to segregation in public accommodations as well as employment and schools,  passed the Senate, and the following month President Johnson signed  it. Segregating restaurants, motels, lunch  counters, and the like was now against the law.

Lingo’s  consciousness  had been raised in 1957 when he went to the University of Texas, where he met black students, visited them in their dorm, and discovered that they were upset that a fraternity to which he belonged was putting on  (“for charity”) a minstrel show, with white students in blackface. Only two others of his fraternity brothers voted against this “tradition,” but by 1962 the minstrel show was gone.

He entered  a seminary at Texas Christian University, and went to the African American  church where the only black student in the seminary was preaching. “I felt it was real for me.” He continued his studies at Drew Theological School in Madison, New Jersey,  then joined the Ecumenical Volunteer Service and the Ecumenical Institute, worked in Chicago’s west side ghetto,  traveled and studied in Europe, and there met students from Africa.

Rev. Lingo says he took as a guide Thomas Merton’s words, “What do black people want? White people to learn to think black.”  When the Ecumenical Institute sent him to Kenya, every year when he visited  the United States he got cassette tapes of Merton and King and brought them back to Africa. He tried going back to being Charles for a while, but when he returned to the South in 1986 he became Al again because  people knew him that way. At 82, he still teaches mindfulness, unconditional love, and forgiveness. The day he spoke, he had just finished co-leading a retreat for the PIIN Executive Board, along with his daughter, Kaira Jewel Lingo.

Two lessons he learned from  Dr. King, he says, are “Black and white together” and “It’s dangerous to get yourself over-extended. That happened to Martin in the last year of his life. The field staff couldn’t keep a demonstration in Memphis from getting violent.” However, King did know how to relax. “He was in a pillow-fight on the last day of his life.” When asked if he ever felt afraid, Rev. Lingo said, “Sometimes you can be foolish not to be fearful, but we felt we were on the right side of history.” About improving race relations in Pittsburgh, he said that his motto is “Get in the way. Say ‘You can’t talk that way in front of me. That’s not just.’”

Rev. Lingo is a member of  the Board of Directors of the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute in Selma. PIIN Southwest’s executive director, Jamaal Craig, is also a member of that board.

Marianne Novy is a member of the Editorial Collective.

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