On Sunday, January 15, 2017–the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr–Ajanet Rountree and I filed into the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL, a day before the nation officially recognized Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The historic location held a special church service commemorating King and his contemporaries, reinforcing the role Birmingham played in the Civil Rights Movement, and honoring the career service of former Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
Arriving a full hour before the service was slated to begin I was met with hundreds of congregants on the church’s steps. There was an air of energized reverence, among the mostly black audience, gathering to hear one of their own speak of her successes. I overheard bellowing laughs, old friends recognizing and greeting each other in the open air of Birmingham, parents importing their children “BE QUIET DURING THE SERVICE”, and the slow but steady knocking of feet slowly climbing the front steps of the church. An unapologetic rainbow of cloth, sequins, and even feathers peacocked in front of me. Here, I recognized, is an old and dignified community in their church best. With red dresses, gold sashes, purple bowties, green bowler hats, pink lapels, Birmingham decided to greet Loretta Lynch et al. with the glorious visage only a Southern, black church can offer. A greeter handed me a church pamphlet as I entered. He seemed annoyed with security constraints but overall pleased with the turn out. Up a tight winding stairwell we climbed, halfway up I had a fleeting thought, “Is this the stairwell where the bomb was detonated?” With our seats aggressively claimed, we settled in for a two-hour event.
Loretta Lynch was born on May 21, 1959 when much of the Southern United States lacked equal rights and protections for persons of color. At that time, black female lawyers were simply nonexistent. In her first appointment, she served under President Clinton as US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, which led to her first leadership role under President Obama, as US Attorney for the Eastern District for New York. In between her presidential appointments, she was special counsel for the prosecutor for the UN International Criminal Tribunal. Her work as a prosecutor with specialties in witness tampering and public official corruption, garnered her successful influence on the national and international level. Working on the case of Rwandan genocide, with her assistance, this was the first case the UNICT successfully tried and delivered a verdict to individuals culpable in genocide.
As Attorney General, Lynch continued her impressive established human rights record. Before her appointment to Attorney General, one of Lynch’s most famous cases involved the prosecution of NYC police officers on behalf of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima. Louima was violently sodomized by the officers while in custody, and her involvement in this case began a focus of hers on the unfair imprisonment and maltreatment of men of color on behalf of police officers. Another case involved an undercover sting operation neutralizing a terrorist act by a Bangladeshi radical jihadist. The planned act would have detonated a 1000-pound bomb outside of the Federal Reserve Bank in New York City. She combated racism during her career while defending American freedom and security. During King’s time, these two ideals would have seem incompatible.
The service was–in the spirit of many evangelical black churches–participatory. “Amen!”, “praise the Lord”, “that’s right!”, and sometimes the affirmative “mhmm” punctured the speaker at hand. The church choir belted. The congregation did our best to keep up. Everyone completely focused on what was happening ‘onstage’. Actors from UAB’s theatre department performed a piece on the struggle for civil rights– weaving testimony, narrative, song, and history–during the service. Ministers preached and politicians charmed as we patiently waited for Loretta to take the stage… our leading lady I’m sure, waited patiently too.
I hope she enjoyed the pomp and circumstance in honor of her, in honor of a black woman leading the Justice Department, and in honor of the resilient and honorable fight for equality for which Birmingham has long contributed. The red carpet was a visceral color in this holy sanctuary; red is the color passion, power, blood, and love. If the room and all its inhabitants on that warm January afternoon had an aura, it was surely red.
Her father was a Baptist minister and, it was apparent to me at least, she has maintained a sacrosanct comfort inside a church’s walls. Early in her remarks, she quoted Exodus: ‘Surely the Lord is in this place’, followed by “generations of men and women have found the Lord in 16th Street Baptist Church”. She continued by paying homage to King and his contemporaries. Both King and Lynch, certainly, were and are advocates for human rights.
Justice and human rights are intrinsically linked; one cannot protect rights without the legal mechanisms in place to defend them.
Both the power of the people (Dr. King’s specialty) and the power of the law (Lynch’s) must create a unity. Lynch’s speech reflected this unity. As Lynch’s remarks moved from King and Birmingham, and their involvement in the history of American Civil Rights, her discourse changed. This event was billed as a special service commemorating King while honoring Lynch. The past, and all its demons, was locked away in memory. Today, the congregation found out, the first black, female Attorney General was able to reconcile some of the atrocities that may have sat unchallenged in King’s time.
Lynch, in her final speech as Attorney General, swiveled her address from the past to the present. It was at this moment, the crowd hushed. “I know that we are in difficult days now. Many fear that King’s dream – and all that has flowed from it – is at risk like never before.” Her demeanor changed. Speaking of King, a human and civil rights luminary, provided a strength to her words. Indeed, this was prototypical King: a black, Baptist, southern church. How many of his addresses were delivered in such similar circumstances? Lynch seemed to sense the connection. As she spoke of the present, the congregation could sense how concerned she was for the present state of affairs in America. Attention was now assuredly and willfully fixed on Lynch and her words. Her voice, before this point reflecting a pastor’s cadence of lulls and jubilation, now quietened and hardened. She was no longer a guest minister who worked for the federal government. She was now a soon-to-be private citizen giving her critique and naming her personal fears.
As a prosecutor, what would she have feared? Injustice, I would argue. Her reputation as fierce suggests she had few fears in office and in practice. She understands justice and its many forms. She was unrelenting towards oppressors, terrorists, and corruption. However, Lynch was also just, often calling for lenience in cases of nonviolent crimes, especially drug related crimes, opting to provide second chances at a free life rather than jail indeterminately. She spoke for the victims too, with a special interest in police brutality and discrimination cases. The first black woman to serve as Attorney General, and one raised in the American South at that, Lynch understood racial animus. She knows too well how hard one must knock on a cracked glass ceiling before it comes crashing down.
Turning her speech from the past to the present, Lynch acknowledged the present political climate, which terrifies many minority groups in the United States. Her assumed replacement, Jeff Sessions, is from Alabama- another southerner taking over the Justice Department. Sessions has been criticized of blatant racism, as has his boss, now President Donald Trump. The juxtaposition weighed heavily in 16th Street Baptist Church. The first black female Attorney General will likely be succeeded by an accused-racist; the first black President replaced by an accused racist. However, Lynch litigated, the lesson to be gleaned from Dr. King is, and always should be, the persistent utility of hope.
Hope and hard work, she argued, will influence lawmakers and laymen alike.
Again, “amens!” and “yes ma’am!” rang LOUDLY in the congregation. There was fear, yes. However, Lynch bore witness to the fear and offered her testimony to rise from it. The congregation, taking their cue from her, found their voice once more and responded to her lines of power. Her best crafted line, in my opinion, acknowledged darkness and offered an existential purpose for it:
“And if it does come to pass that we do enter a period of darkness, let us remember – that is when dreams are best made.”
King’s Dream– she reminded us–arose like a phoenix from the ashes, galvanizing the struggle for civil rights in America. It is generational dream; a living one. “And when our time comes, we shall pass the dream on to those who are already raising their hand and those to come. So that the arc of the moral universe continues straight and true – continues towards justice.”
Her remarks ending, she thanked us. She returned to her seat and the entire church sang the anthem, “We Shall Overcome”. Like President Obama, her final speech was a plea for hard, hard work. She channeled both King and Obama at times; mixing King’s optimism with Obama’s realism. This balance of past and present, of hope and pragmatism, characterized her speech. Her illustrious public career, now ended, could be characterized in similar terms. She understands the power of mercy and granted hope to defendants who she deemed reparable. Lynch also recognized and publicly testified the threats to justice: discrimination, harassment, and corruption.
Now that her tenure has ended, I imagine Lynch feels comfort in being a public citizen who enjoys a church service, like the ones her father ministered while she was growing up. In 1963, at 16th Street Baptist Church, four girls–Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair– were murdered by white supremacists. Fifty-four years later, the first black, female US Attorney General gave her farewell address in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the enduring legacy of the Civil Rights Movement. History was reconciled but never forgotten at 16th Street Baptist Church.