A UMNS Commentary
By the Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell*
“The Presidential Citizens Medal was established by Executive Order 11494 of November 13, 1969, for the purpose of recognizing citizens of the United States of America who have performed exemplary deeds of service for their country and for their fellow citizens.”
These are the words that were in the program booklet for the Feb. 15, 2013, ceremony at the White House as President Barack Obama presented medals to 18 citizens.
Among those honored that day was Jeanne Manford, the founder of Parents, Family, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays/PFLAG, who died last month at the age of 92, and the six adults who died with 20 children Dec. 14, 2012, in the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
President Obama noted Manford’s contribution with these words:
“When Jeanne Manford learned that her son, Morty, had been beaten up at a gay rights demonstration, nobody would have faulted her for bringing him home, holding him close, just focusing on her child. This was back in 1972. There was a lot of hate, a lot of vitriol toward gays and lesbians and anyone who supported them. But, instead , she wrote a letter to a local newspaper and took to the streets with a simple message: No matter who her son was — no matter who he loved — she loved him and wouldn’t put up with this kind of nonsense. And in that simple act, she inspired a movement and gave rise to a national organization that has given so much support to parents and families and friends, and helped to change this country.”
For those who died at Sandy Hook, the citation read: “The United States honors (them) for their extraordinary commitment to the students at Sandy Hook Elementary School.”
Remembering our ancestors
My wife, Grace, and I were at the White House for the ceremony. We are African Americans in our late 70s. We both were born in Greensboro, N.C. She “grew up” there, and I “grew up” in Texas where my father had been pastor of Methodist churches in Dallas and Galveston and chaplain at Samuel Huston College (now Huston-Tillotson University).
We could not forget our history and the history of our ancestors as we sat in the East Room of the White House as our nation’s first Black president, Barack Obama, presided at the ceremony.
Ralph Ellison, the African American novelist most remembered for his book, “Invisible Man,” said about the history of slavery in the United States: “I am not ashamed of my grandparents for having been slaves. I am only ashamed of myself for having at one time been ashamed.”
My wife and I are great-grandchildren of slaves, and the fact of that history was ever-present with us as we visited the White House. We were aware that free slave labor had a role in the building of the building in which we sat. In this time of economic struggle and recovery, we have seen how easily we forget that the economic system that is responsible for the United States being the most affluent nation in the world cannot separate itself from the history of slavery that contributed to the economic growth of the nation.
Andrew Young, who was one of Martin Luther King’s most trusted advisers and later became a member of Congress, mayor of Atlanta, and ambassador to the United Nations, said about African Americans and slavery: “We are not here to do you any harm. We merely want to have a word of prayer at the place where our ancestors were bought and sold as slaves, to ask God to help us end slavery in all of its forms.”
‘With liberty and justice for all’
When I was a student in the all-Black, racially segregated public schools of Winston-Salem, N.C., and Dallas, Galveston and Austin, Texas, all of us ended our recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance with the words “With liberty and justice for all.”
Even in those days when I was young, I knew there was something empty and incomplete about those words because they did not accurately describe the experience of those of us of African descent. We know that the strength of our nation today, real and potential, is in our efforts to “actualize” those six words so that all of us will experience in our lives, the true meaning of “liberty and justice for all.”
The late William Sloane “Bill” Coffin, once chaplain at Yale University and senior pastor of Riverside Church in New York City, said: “It is just as patriotic to keep your country from dying as it is to die for your country.”
Eighteen Americans were honored Feb. 15 in the East Room of the White House because they had “performed exemplary deeds of service for their country or their fellow citizens.”
Those 18 engaged in actions that keep alive the vision and ideals that make “America the Beautiful” not just in song but in life as well. All of us each day must do the same.
*Caldwell is a retired elder and member of the Rocky Mountain Annual (regional) Conference. He is member of the boards of the African-American Methodist Heritage Center and of PFLAG and a co-partner in Truth in Progress.
News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn. (615)-742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Parents, Family, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays/PFLAG is not a United Methodist-affiliated organization. However, individual United Methodist churches have formed chapters of PFLAG and individual United Methodists have been active in the organization. The late Elinor Grace Kirby Lewallen, a long-time member of Park Hill United Methodist Church in Denver, was the second national president of PFLAG. The Rev. Paul Beeman, a retired pastor and district superintendent in the United Methodist Pacific-Northwest Annual (regional) Conference, served as national president in 1998. Jean Hodges, a member of First United Methodist Church in Boulder Colo., is now the national vice president and chair of the Regional Directors Council. Hodges, two other board members and staff members of PFLAG attended the Feb. 15 event at the White House. Jeanne Manford’s daughter, Suzanne Swan, accepted the medal on behalf of her mother.