Voices of Family Promise: Family Promise CEO Writes Essay on Racial Injustice

July 7, 2020


As part of our ongoing conversation on homelessness, we asked members of the Family Promise network and individuals working to serve families experiencing homelessness to share their personal thoughts and reflections on Family Promise and the issue of family homelessness. These writers are true thought leaders, using their skills and expertise to develop and implement creative solutions that are changing the lives of parents and children in their communities. This post is by Claas Ehlers, the CEO of Family Promise.

This post was originally published on Medium. View the original here.

View Claas’s statement on racial injustice on behalf of Family Promise here

At protests of racial injustice there is a moment when we are asked to “say their names,” the names of African Americans recently murdered by those in power.

This echoes the martyrs of the civil rights movement. We say their names: Dr. King, Medgar Evers, James Cheney.

These names however are just bright stars that mark constellations. There are thousands of other people, thousands of other stars. We must not define the sky by just those known stars. We must see the vastness of the universe, the countless points of light.

One of those points is Frank Morris.

In the spring of 2005, Family Promise came to Natchez, MS. Natchez, in the early nineteenth century, was one of the largest cities in the south, profiting off of the cotton industry, which was built on the backs of enslaved people. In the current day, its population numbers around 15,000 people.

The call came from a predominantly black Missionary Baptist Church and it was the driving force to organize the development of an Affiliate. A community meeting was planned. I arrived a couple of days before to get to know the people spearheading the effort and to try to expand the network. I engaged many local groups and it looked promising to get a large number of white and black community leaders to the meeting.

I had a room at a low-rate motel — a Ramada or Howard Johnson — that was atop the bluffs that bordered the Mississippi River, right off the interstate. On my final day in Natchez, I went for a run, crossing the bridge to the Louisiana side, going down by the river, and circling back. Except, the bridge was not intended for foot traffic and the only shoulder was the one I had jogged on to go west, facing oncoming traffic. As I discovered the lack of a running lane on the opposite side, I considered the risks of returning on the narrow strip with tractor-trailers going 75mph to my back.

Fortunately, a white woman in a pickup stopped and without hesitation offered to drive me across and back to my motel. As she pulled in, she noticed the sign that welcomed a meeting of the local NAACP and offered her dismissive opinion of the organization. I stayed silent and when I stepped out, I offered nothing more than a thanks for the ride.
Everybody knows not to confront someone who showed you kindness.

We had the community meeting — which was well-attended, but primarily by members of the host church, members of other black churches, and a handful of white congregants of the local mainline churches. A few people, both white and black, noted that this one-sided attendance was to be expected.

When the meeting was done, I had downtime as my flight out of New Orleans, a couple of hours south, was in the evening. An elderly couple, leaders at the church who were probably in their 80s, invited me to their home to visit.

We chatted, on comfortable living room chairs (late spring was too hot and humid to sit outside). After a bit, they had determined that I was the kind of white person they could be more open with, and they shared with me a story of an incident that happened seven months before I was born. It was in Ferriday, LA, about 15 minutes west of the bridge where trucks had blown past me that morning.

Ferriday, with fewer than 4,000 residents, happens to be the home town of Jerry Lee Lewis, Mickey Gilley, and Jimmy Swaggart. In 1964, it was also the home of Frank Morris, who had moved there and set up a successful shoe repair store. Mr. Morris was African American and he served clients of all races. At the same time.

He was warned not to do that anymore but did not stop.

The couple relayed the story to me, and it was stomach-churning. But the most chilling detail was prosaic: The night the Klan firebombed the store, the car dealer next to the shop moved all his cars from the lot.

For good reason. The store became an inferno with Frank Morris in it. He staggered out, lived for several days, and then died.

Their point about the car dealer was that everybody knew. White people knew. Black people knew. Some knew exactly what was planned, but all knew that something like this could be done, probably would be done, and done with impunity.

I think of the couple, the experience of hearing the story, and hospitality in a sultry Southern town often. But twice it has come to me like a jolt.

The first was at 9:00 PM on November 4th, 2008, when Barack Obama was officially declared the winner of the presidential election. I hoped as fervently as I ever had for anything that this couple was alive to see it. This did not end racism nor undo the trauma in their lives, but in some small way, this was a victory over the hate, the profoundly American hate, that lynched Frank Morris.

The second was when Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty shared his sentiments that he never knew of mistreatments of blacks, that blacks were happier (and godlier) before civil rights legislation was enacted. That his being a poor white made him no different than poor blacks.

Robertson grew up in Monroe, LA. It’s a little more than an hour from Ferriday. He might not have known specifically of the murder of Frank Morris. But he certainly knew that blacks were prohibited, under threat of violence, from many activities and places. He knew they were killed for violating those rules, ones he never had to give a second thought to, holes in his shoes or not.

He was in his late teens during Freedom Summer. He was an adult when the Orangeburg Massacre happened, as he was when black students were murdered at Jackson State University less than two hours from his home. He like every American knew the death of the icons.

Everybody knew.

And Robertson did what so many whites do — denied that what black people could clearly see mattered. Or even existed. He said the sky was blank and starless.

Since then I have heard about the story of Frank Morris on NPR, as one of the many lost stories of the Civil Rights movement. I’m sure others who listened, hearing the story for first time, felt the same horror and revulsion (though the brief NPR reporting elided the moving of the cars). Yet they also felt they knew the story, even though it was new to them.

Why? Because everybody knows.

That is why I am committing Family Promise to increasing visibility on the connection between racism and homelessness. Earlier this month, Nicholas Kristof published this piece on the difference between George Floyd’s filmed murder and the majority of killings of blacks by police, which tend to be bland reports of death in custody. He connects this to the lack of visibility of the official data around life expectancy, wealth, education, healthcare, and, yes, housing that demonstrate clearly the outcome of structural racism.

Housing itself has a rich history as a tool of structural racism, including restrictive covenants, redlining, the placement of transportation hubs, environmental hazards, and more. It also is the underpinning for wealth for most Americans and the determinant of the quality of education their children receive.

On the one hand, most people don’t know all these statistics per se and will find them enlightening, and one hopes, distressing. Kristof cites, ”a black boy born today in Washington, D.C., Missouri, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi or a number of other states has a shorter life expectancy than a boy born in Bangladesh or India.”

But, statistics aside, does that really surprise us? No, everybody knows.

Just as everybody knows blacks are killed with regularity by police, even when we don’t know the names.
Speaking of Mississippi, you can look at the Family Promise map and see there is no Affiliate in Natchez. Despite multiple efforts, we could not get any white churches to commit, not even the ones from denominations that historically have embraced interfaith efforts and advocated for racial reconciliation. Hurricane Katrina came soon after and the Missionary Baptist Church converted its large campus to take in victims of the devastation and efforts to bring Family Promise to the community petered out.

Of course, those homeless flood victims were overwhelmingly poor and black.

Everybody knows that.

About Claas Ehlers

Claas Ehlers is the Chief Executive Officer of Family Promise, the national nonprofit leader on the issue of family homelessness. His primary goals are to implement new strategies to empower families, deepen and broaden existing services, and increase the participation of volunteers outside the faith community. Claas frequently presents on the issues of family homelessness and volunteer engagement.

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