Prayer Service Seeks Truth on Race


The Interfaith Prayer Service for Truth at Christopher Columbus Park. - TOBY SELLS
  • Toby Sells
  • The Interfaith Prayer Service for Truth at Christopher Columbus Park.

Memphians took a hard look at the past Thursday in hopes of making a more just future.

Nearly 200 gathered at Christopher Columbus Park (at the corner of Adams and B.B. King) Thursday for the Interfaith Prayer Service for Truth.

The hour-long service featured representatives from more than 20 local congregations and organizations in Memphis in order to begin what organizers called a “ a more honest and progressive public dialog around race relations in Shelby County.”

The location was picked as it is the site of a Tennessee Historical Commission marker erected at “(Nathan Bedford) Forrest’s Early Home.” That marker notes that Forest moved to Memphis after he married in 1845 and it was here that his “business enterprises made him very wealthy.” Some of those business ventures, of course, included buying and selling slaves.

A research team has developed new language for the sign that reads:

“General Nathan Bedford Forrest (1821-1977) lived in a house on this site in the 1850’s. Forrest was a partner in Forrest and Maples, Slave Dealers whose offices were nearby at 87 Adams Street. By the time Forrest enlisted in the Army of the Confederacy, he was one of the richest men in the South. On April 12, 1864, he led Confederate calvary troops that captured Fort Pillow and massacred over 300 African American Union Soldiers.”

The service featured prayers, confessions, hymns, and readings from religious texts.

Names of lynching victims in Shelby County were read, followed by long moments of silence. Eighteen victims were commemorated in the service, though the names of two of the victims were not known. More lynchings occurred in Shelby County than any other country in the state, according to service leaders.

“Prayers of Lamentation and Anger” followed the reading of the names. Attendees were asked to “shout your prayers in response to the atrocities of lynchings and falsehoods of our history.”

One man said he was angered by the notion that the city of Memphis has never been held accountable for its part in the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. A woman said she was angry because the Forrest marker has stood in Downtown Memphis for 30 years. Another woman said she was angry that “our children” are getting shot down in the streets.

In a section called “Prayers of Confession,” Reverend Laura Gettys said “We have treated the wounds of our country lightly.”

A passage was written in the service program for white Memphians to read aloud together. Here’s what it said and many at the service read aloud together:

“Our ancestors acted shamefully. They committed abomination, yet they were not at all ashamed, neither could they blush. When slavery itself ended new forms of racism took form. We made second class citizens of our black neighbors. Our ancestors engaged in lynchings, brutal murders of people with no just cause and without due process of law. For too long, we have hidden the truth that heals under the comforts of our privilege.”

The next section was written to be read aloud by black Memphians:

“For too long, we have kept silent about all we know from being black in America, and we have not spoken enough of the truth that heals.”

The next section was written to be read aloud by all other Memphians:

"We acknowledge the ways in which our actions and choices make us complicit in hurting others, particularly our black brothers and sisters. Atrocities of inequality and oppression continue to this day, and we name our parts, known and unknown, which have perpetuated unfair prejudice and inequality."

Then everyone was prompted to read aloud together:

“We have wandered far from the truth that heals and brings justice.”

Toward the end of the service, all were invited to lay their hands on the Forrest marker or lay their hands on someone in front of them. Reverend Billy Vaughn led a prayer of all assembled, in which he asked for truth.

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