I was standing in the pulpit of the Pleasant Hill Baptist Church. I was both pained and pleased. I was pained because it was a memorial service for a woman who died so very young. I was pleased to be there for her family and others on the 45th anniversary of her death. As I stood, I decided to talk to the person being memorialized. I was moving by the spirit.
Margaret Ann Knott is her name. She died at the tender age of 19. On 9/11 in the year 1971, she and others were protesting the discriminatory firing of Black teachers in Choctaw County, Alabama. A White man angrily drove his car into the group of youth, snuffing out the life of Margaret Ann Knott. That’s what brought us to this memorial moment on September 11, 2016. Here is some of what I said or intended to say or tried to say.
“Margaret Ann, I am releasing my spirit so that it connects with your spirit. Your spirit is always reaching out because you are with God and God’s spirit is ever-reaching. I feel you, Margaret Ann. I hear you, Margaret Ann. I know you hear me, Margaret Ann, for we are connected.
“Margaret Ann, I want to say something you already know. But I am saying it for all those under the sound of my weak voice. Your death was not in vain! Our very presence here 45 years later speaks to the significance of your short life and the power of your martyred death. You died so all of us can live better lives. We are thankful.
“Margaret Ann, from your perch on high, you see how our history is so critical. Our history not only tells us where we were but where we are. Most importantly, it tells us where we can go. Let me illustrate this central point. If all of us in this church were blindfolded, placed on a bus, driven the 15 miles to Meridian, Mississippi, let out any place but the malls and/or downtown, had the blindfolds removed and asked where we were, we would not know. When we don’t know how we got to where we are, we don’t really know where we are and who we are.
“On the other hand, if we were placed on that very same bus, carried to Meridian, Mississippi without blindfolds and taken off the bus at any place in Meridian, we would know where we are and who we are because we would know how we got to where we are.
“Finally, Margaret Ann, our history tells us where we can go. When we know how we made it from Yantley, here in Choctaw County, Alabama to Meridian, Mississippi, we can envision how we can make it on to Jackson, Mississippi, Memphis, Tennessee, New Orleans, Louisiana, Los Angeles, California and so forth. Our history tells us where we were, where we are, where we can go and who we are.
“Margaret Ann, we have to really understand that God is still at work. God was at work in 1965 when we were fighting for African Americans to have the right to vote. One side had everything – all the guns and gunmen; all the laws and lawmen; all the banks and money; all the businesses and jobs; all the offices and office holders; all the newspapers and other media; everything. Our side had virtually nothing. The odds were truly stacked against us. However, God was still at work and we were empowered. We took singing songs, praying prayers and marching feet and forged a great victory. When we know our history, we know how to meet and overcome the odds stacked against us in our daily lives.
“Margaret Ann, God was at work in the Civil War when southern states were fighting to keep Black people enslaved (They called it, “Our way of life”). The North was fighting to save the Union. President Abraham Lincoln said, ‘If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would do that.’ Lincoln was not committed to the freedom of Black people, but God was at work.
“President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation did not free any enslaved persons. It proclaimed free those in areas the Union did not control and continued slavery in areas it did control. Enslaved people stayed up until midnight on January 1, 1863. They were watching, hoping and praying that southern states would not come back to the Union on Lincoln’s promise to maintain slavery. That was our Watch Night! The enslaved people responded to the Emancipation Proclamation by freeing themselves. They ran, walked and stole away. Two hundred thousand Black men fought in the Civil War. Forty thousand died.
“Margaret Ann, there is so much we are still struggling with. The right to vote is still under attack fifty-one years after enactment of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. It is all grounded in the long lasting legacy of slavery. In the Dred Scott Decision, The U. S. Supreme Court said that Black people, whether slave or free, were considered ‘sub-human’ and have no rights that a White man is bound to respect. That’s why we had 4,000 documented lynchings in the United States of America with nothing being done. It was state-sanctioned terrorism. That’s also why absolutely nothing was done about the man who snuffed out your young life. Margaret Ann, I know it seems bleak, but there is still hope. There is still the promise. God is still at work.”
EPILOGUE – At the same memorial program, the Choctaw County Commission announced that County Road 32, which is near the church where I was speaking, will be dedicated as the Choctaw County Civil Rights Road. Also a bridge on the road will be named the Margaret Ann Knott Memorial Bridge. They acknowledged the power of history and sacrifice of Margaret Ann Knott.