Every year in observance of Black History Month, I look for a special story that exemplifies the spirit of black history. By spirit I mean its essence and enduring message. After finding this story, which may have been shared with me by family or friends or seen in a film or photograph or heard on the radio, I spend the month cherishing more deeply the spiritual truths shared. Observing Black History Month in this way has blessed me. Again and again it affirms my understanding of the ever-presence of divine Love forever active in our lives.
This month I have been cherishing a story about my wife’s great-grandfather Joe “Man” Suttles, the son of a former slave. The story takes place during a time in US history when the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist organization, began terrorizing blacks as well as those who supported blacks.
Suttles lived in a small rural town of a few hundred people. One Sunday as he and his daughter of 6 or 7 years of age entered church, he was alerted that members of the Klan were there. As the frightened church members wrestled with what to do, Suttles told the ushers to seat the Klan members in the front of the church. So the five or six members of the Klan, wearing their white robes and hats attached to masks, concealing their identity, were seated in the front pews. They sat quietly without incident through the entire service.
At the end of service as they rose to leave the sanctuary, Suttles greeted each Klan member by name. “Nice to have you at church, Mr. Jones,” “Come again, Mr. Stevens,” “Good to see you, Mr. Frye,” and so on. After the Klan members left, the church members asked Suttles how he knew their names. He replied, “I knew them by their shoes.”
In this small rural town everyone worked at the sawmill and everyone knew each other (and probably had only one pair of shoes).
I believe it was Suttles’s spiritual qualities of perception and courage that enabled him to know how to identify the men and to individually address them by name.
The presence of the Klan, outfitted in their full regalia, was meant to intimidate and incite fear among the parishioners. But at church that morning they and the parishioners were covered together under the wings of the Almighty. The Psalmist’s promise rang true that morning: “There shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling. For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways” (Psalms 91:10, 11).
I love this story of Joe “Man” Suttles, because he exemplifies your everyday man. Suttles wasn’t famous, didn’t hold elective office, wasn’t published, but he knew who he was as a child of God. And this understanding enabled him to stand and see the great power of God’s love expressed.
Suttles gloriously expressed fortitude, grace, dignity, perspicacity – spiritual qualities that come from God, divine Love. These qualities are available to each of us and make up our true identity as children of God created in His image and likeness. “Identity,” writes Mary Baker Eddy in her seminal work, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” “is the reflection of Spirit, the reflection in multifarious forms of the living Principle, Love” (p. 477).
The more we recognize our spiritual identity, the more we see it expressed everywhere. It empowers us with truth and surrounds us in the safe embrace of love. Because God is the source of our true identity, we cannot be maligned, enslaved, or have our wings clipped. Instead, we are always beautiful, poised, resilient, vivacious, dignified, lovely, wise, and powerful. This is life, and this is black history – and the history of all God’s sons and daughters.