LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Alberta Jones is the civil rights pioneer almost no one knows. She was Louisville’s first black prosecutor and negotiated the first fight contract for Muhammad Ali, her neighbor. She registered thousands of African-American voters in the 1960s and paved the way for a ban on racial discrimination by local theaters and lunch counters.
One person who was astonished she had never heard of Ms. Jones was a professor named Lee Remington, who began research for a biography four years ago. The more Professor Remington learned, the more she became desperate to discover what no one has ever learned: who was responsible for Ms. Jones’s death in 1965, when, at 34, she was brutally beaten and thrown into the Ohio River to drown.
Poring over 1,600 pages of police files, Professor Remington, a lawyer and political scientist, shifted from mere history to what she calls “a quest for justice.’’ She laid out what she believed were overlooked clues to the murder in a long letter last year to the Louisville police, who agreed to reopen the case. The Justice Department’s civil rights division also stepped in.
But even with renewed interest in the case, it is unclear whether there is any real chance — 52 years after Ms. Jones died, when witnesses are deceased and evidence has vanished — of finding out who killed her and why.
“I believe her death was directly related to the work she was doing,” said Professor Remington, who teaches at Bellarmine University in Louisville. “If there was a list of people she would have stood up to and made mad, it would be five pages long.”
The Louisville Metro Police Department said this week that there have been few breakthroughs. “We still haven’t established enough probable cause to say one person or another did it,” Sgt. Nicholas Owen, the lead investigator, said.
Ms. Jones, who never married, is survived by a sister, Flora Shanklin, now 81. She believes earlier investigators ignored clues and buried evidence because of indifference to the murder of a prominent African-American, or because the killers were protected by authorities.
Ms. Shanklin recalled her sister saying she was regularly hassled by a white court officer at work. One day Ms. Jones got frustrated, Ms. Shanklin said, and “hit him with her briefcase.”
Ms. Jones’s name is absent from the annals of civil rights martyrs of the 1960s, perhaps because there is no clear evidence that her death was racially or politically motivated. Louisville, on the dividing line between North and South, largely avoided the harshest violence of the era, like church bombings and the murder of civil rights workers by white supremacists, and today does not have the immediate resonance of, say, Birmingham, Ala.
Still, the city Ms. Jones returned to in 1959 after graduating from Howard University School of Law was deeply segregated. Blacks could not enter movie theaters or restaurants in the city’s commercial heart, Fourth Street, or try on clothes at department stores.
Ms. Jones helped establish the Independent Voters Association, which registered 6,000 African-Americans. Voting as a bloc, blacks replaced the mayor of Louisville and many of the city’s aldermen in 1961. Two years later these officials outlawed racial discrimination in businesses, the first public accommodation ordinance of its kind in the South.
“We taught the Negros how to use that voting machine,” Ms. Jones told The Courier-Journal in March 1965. It was shortly after she became a city prosecutor, the first African-American and first woman of any race in that job in Louisville. “When I got back home a lot of people said, ‘You’ve got two strikes against you: You’re a woman and you’re a Negro,’” she told the newspaper. “Yeah, but I’ve still got one strike left, and I’ve seen people get home runs when all they’ve got left is one strike.’’
Ms. Jones lived in Louisville’s majority-black West End with her mother and sister, just a couple of blocks from the young Cassius Clay. In 1960, the future Muhammad Ali hired her to represent him when he turned professional. She negotiated a contract with 11 white millionaires, the famous Louisville Sponsoring Group. Protective of her client, she insisted that 15 percent of his winnings be held in trust until he turned 35, with Ms. Jones serving as a co-trustee. Today the contract hangs on the wall of the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville.
Ms. Shanklin said her sister took the boxer to buy a pink Cadillac at a downtown landmark, Brown Brothers Cadillac. “He used to come by the house and take my son and daughter to school” in the car, she recalled.
On the night Ms. Jones was murdered, Aug. 5, 1965, witnesses saw two black males drag a screaming woman into the back seat of a car like the Ford Fairlane Ms. Jones was driving, according to police records. Her body, with trauma to the head and face, was retrieved from the river near an amusement park in the West End. A large quantity of blood stained the back seat of the Fairlane, discovered nearby, which she had rented while her own car was in the shop.
Ms. Shanklin believes that whoever murdered her sister was paid by others. “I don’t know who, but she stepped on some toes,” she said.
In all the years the police have investigated Ms. Jones’s murder, reopening the case twice, they have never developed a dominant theory about suspects or a motive, according to records and Sergeant Owen, the current investigator.
One theory pursued in the 1960s was that she was killed by the Nation of Islam because its leader, Elijah Muhammad, coveted the 15 percent of Muhammad Ali’s earnings that Ms. Jones managed. A black detective working the case at the time, who was interviewed by the police in the 1980s, said that when he was pursuing this angle, his wife received a death threat.
Sergeant Owen said the Nation of Islam theory has never been substantiated. “I haven’t seen any evidence to indicate that aside from hearsay,” he said.
Almost all physical evidence from 1965 has been lost. In 2008, police got what looked to be a major break: a match on a fingerprint found on the Fairlane Ms. Jones was driving.
The print, matched by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, belonged to a Louisville man who was 17 at the time of Ms. Jones’s death. He admitted in 2008 to detectives that he used to hang out in a park with friends one block from where witnesses saw the woman dragged into the back of a car.
But with no more evidence, the prosecutor at the time, R. David Stengel, declined to bring charges and declared the case closed “for the foreseeable future.”
In an interview last week, the man linked to the car, now 70, said that he knew nothing of Ms. Jones’s murder. “I didn’t touch that lady,” he said. “I don’t know who did. That’s all I can say.” His explanation for the fingerprint was that he used to hitchhike as a teenager and must have been picked up by someone who had rented the Fairlane before Ms. Jones. The Times is withholding the man’s name because police do not consider him a suspect.
Sergeant Owen said he was at a loss for new leads. He had hoped, as he interviewed old suspects as well as people who had been overlooked in the 1960s, that time would have loosened their tongues.
“I really don’t have a theory,” he said. “It could be anybody. I was hoping for guilt to weigh on somebody and have them confess. That hasn’t happened yet.”
A spokeswoman for the Justice Department, Lauren Ehrsam, confirmed that its civil rights office was reviewing the issues raised by Professor Remington about the case. Sergeant Owen said he had heard nothing from Washington.
Next month a Louisville civic group plans to hang a giant banner with Ms. Jones’s portrait on a bank building on Muhammad Ali Boulevard. It will join other portraits downtown honoring prominent people with Louisville roots, including Diane Sawyer and Colonel Harland Sanders of fast-food fame.
Professor Remington hopes the banner will prick someone’s memory — or conscience — about what happened to Ms. Jones 52 years ago. “She spent her whole life fighting for others,’’ she said. “It’s time somebody started fighting for her.
Life. Witnessing the wanton destruction of life has deeply impacted me these last few years. Every life I’ve witnessed killed on a video…every life I’ve heard was destroyed… everyone who has their right to life taken from them by someone who believed their right to kill trumped another’s right to live…all of those lives have changed me.
People are people. No howevers, buts, if onlys can change that.
Popular culture would have us believe animals are people. Some people are animals. Dogs and lions have a right to life. Some people forfeit their right to life the moment they’re born. That’s popular culture.
Popular culture is wrong.
People are people. No matter how a person is described in media, they have a humanity that cannot be denied or explained away. It is unfortunate that we have to announce, chant, insist, scream and demonstrate that Black Lives Matter with the full knowledge that doing so lengthens the noose around our necks and enlarges the target on our backs.
Encountering the hidden biases and deep-seated hatred of people I know personally has changed me. I haven’t succumbed to internalizing their venom but I have come to understand how so many others have. I don’t want to understand hatred in any form. Yet here I am, understanding with a great deal of disgust, the fuel that runs this world.
I choose to focus on life. What about a black life has impacted me most? Life. Shared humanity. The sure knowledge that murderers are killing and eliminating themselves even as they think they are “cleansing and purifying and keeping others safe.”
The world will not remain in darkness forever. It’s impossible to do so. The capability of the public to share murder and information in real time is already changing how injustices are perceived, received and handled. Life will win. Simply because sooner rather than later, everyone will recognize themselves in the abused, downtrodden, uncounted and eliminated.
Looking backward over a space of fifty years or more, I have in remembrance two travelers whose lives were ·real in their activity; two lives that have indelibly impressed themselves upon my memory; two lives whose energy and best ability was exerted to make my life what it should be, and who gave me a home where wisdom and industry went hand in hand; where instruction was given that a cultivated brain and an industrious hand were the twin conditions that lead to a well balanced and useful life. These two lives were embodied in the personalities of Frederick Douglass and Anna Murray his wife.
They met at the base of a mountain of wrong and oppression, victims of the slave power as it existed over sixty years ago, one smarting under the manifold hardships as a slave, the other in many ways suffering from the effects of such a system.
The story of Frederick Douglass’ hopes and aspirations and longing desire for freedom has been told-you all know it. It was a story made possible by the unswerving loyalty of Anna Murray, to whose memory this paper is written.
Anna Murray was born in Denton, Caroline County, Maryland, an adjoining county to that in which my father was born. The exact date of her birth is not known. Her parents, Bambarra Murray and Mary, his· wife, were slaves, their family consisting of twelve children, seven of whom were born in slavery and five born in freedom. My mother, the eighth child, escaped by the short period of one month, the fate of her older brothers and sisters, and was the first free child.
Remaining with her parents until she was seventeen, she felt it time that she should be entirely self-supporting and with that idea she left her country home and went to Baltimore, sought employment in a French family by the name of Montell whom she served two years. Doubtless it was while with them she gained her first idea as to household management which served her so well in after years and which gained for her the reputation of a thorough and competent housekeeper.
On laving the Montells’, she served in a family by the name of Wells living on S. Caroline Street. Wells was Post-master at the time of my father’s escape from slavery. It interested me very much in one of my recent visits to Baltimore, to go to that house accompanied by an old friend of my parents of those early days, who as a free woman was enabled with others to make my father’s life easier while he was a slave in that city. This house is owned now by a colored man. In going through the house I endeavored to remember its appointments, so frequently spoken of by my mother, for she had lived with this family seven years and an attachment sprang up between her and the members of that household, the memory of which gave her pleasure to recall.
The free people of Baltimore had their own circles from which the slaves were excluded. The ruling of them out of their society resulted more from the desire of the slaveholder than from any great wish of the free people themselves. If a slave would dare to hazard all danger and enter among the free people he would be received. To such a little circle of free people–a circle a little more exclusive than others, Frederick Baily was welcomed. Anna Murray, to whom he had given his heart, sympathized with him and she devoted all her energies to assist him. The three weeks prior to the escape were busy and anxious weeks for Anna Murray. She had lived with the Wells family so long and having been able to save the greater part of her earnings was willing to share with the man she loved that he might gain the freedom he yearned to possess. Her courage, her sympathy at the start was the main spring that supported the career of Frederick Douglass. As is the condition of most wives her identity became so merged with that of her husband, that few of their earlier friends in the North really knew and appreciated the full value of the woman who presided over the Douglass home for forty-four years. When the escaped slave and future husband of Anna Murray had reached New York in safety, his first act was to write her of his arrival and as they had previously arranged she was to come on immediately. Reaching New York a week later, they were married and immediately took their wedding trip to New Bedford. In ”My Bondage of Freedom,” by Frederick Douglass, a graphic account of that trip is given.
The little that they possessed was the outcome of the industrial and economical habits that were characteristic of my mother. She had brought with her sufficient goods and chattel to fit up comfortably two rooms in her New Bedford home-a feather bed with pillows, bed linen, dishes, knives, forks, and spoons, besides a well filled trunk of wearing apparel for herself. A new plum colored silk dress was her wedding gown. To my child eyes that dress was very fine. She had previously sold one of her feather beds to assist in defraying the expenses of the flight from bondage.
The early days in New Bedford were spent in daily toil, the wife at the wash board, the husband with saw, buck and axe. I have frequently listened to the rehearsal of those early days of endeavor, looking around me at the well appointed home built up from the labor of the father and mother under so much difficulty, and found it hard to realize that it was a fact. After the day of toil they would seek their little home of two rooms and the meal of the day that was most enjoyable was the supper nicely prepared by mother. Father frequently spoke of the neatly set table with its snowy white cloth- coarse tho’ it was.
In 1890 I was taken by my father to these rooms on Elm Street, New Bedford, Mass., overlooking Buzzards Bay. This was my birth place. Every detail as to the early housekeeping was gone over, it was splendidly impressed upon my mind, even to the hanging of a towel on a particular nail. Many of the dishes used by my mother at that time were in our Rochester home and kept as souvenirs of those first days of housekeeping. The fire that destroyed that home in 1872, also destroyed them.
Three of the family had their birthplace in New Bedford. When after having written his first narrative, father built himself a nice little cottage in Lynn, Mass., and moved his family there, previously to making his first trip to Europe. He was absent during the years ’45 and ’46. It was then that mother with four children, the eldest in her sixth year, struggled to maintain the family amid much that would dampen the courage of many a young woman of to-day. I had previously been taken to Albany by my father as a means of lightening the burden for mother. Abigail and Lydia Mott, cousins of Lucretia Mott, desired to have the care of me.
During the absence of my father, mother sustained her little family by binding shoes. Mother had many friends in the anti slavery circle of Lynn and Boston who recognized her sterling qualities, and who encouraged her during the long absence of her husband. Those were days of anxious worry. The narrative of Frederick Douglass with its bold utterances of truth, with the names of the parties with whom he had been associated in slave life, so incensed the slaveholders that it was doubtful if ever he would re turn to this country and also there was danger for mother and those who had aided in his escape, being pursued. It was with hesitancy father consented to leave the country, and not until he was assured by the many friends that mother and the children would be care fully guarded, would he go.
There were among the Anti-Slavery people of Massachusetts a fratern l spirit born of the noble purpose near their heart that served as an uplift and encouraged the best energies in each indi vidual, and mother from the contact with the great and noble workers grew and improved even more than ever before. She was a recognized co-worker in the A. S. Societies of Lynn and Boston, and no circle was felt to be complete without her presence. There was a weekly gathering of the women to prepare articles for the Annual A. S. Fair held in Faneuil Hall, Boston. At that time mother would spend the week in attendance having charge, in com pany of a committee of ladies of which she was one, over the re freshments. The New England women were all workers and there was no shirking of responsibility-all worked. It became the custom of the ladies of the Lynn society for each to take their turn in assisting mother in her household duties on the morning of the day that the sewing circle met so as to he sure of her meeting with them. It was mother’s custom to put aside the earnings from a certain number of shoes she had bound ,as her donation to the A. S. cause. Being frugal and economic she was able to put by a portion of her earnings for a rainy day.
I have often heard my father speak in admiration of mother’s executive ·ability. During his absence abroad, he sent, as he could, support .fur his family, and on his coming home he supposed there would be some bills to settle. One day while talking over their affairs, mother arose and quietly going to the bureau drawer produced a Bank book with the sums deposited just in the proportion father had sent, the book also containing deposits of her own earnings-and not a debt had been contracted during his absence.
The greatest trial, perhaps, that mother was called upon to endure, after parting from her Baltimore friends several years before, was the leaving her Massachusetts home for the Rochester home where father established the “North Star.” She never forgot her old friends and delighted to speak of them up to her last illness.
Wendell Phillips, Wm. Lloyd Garrison, Sydney Howard Gay and many more with their wives were particularly kind to her. At one of the Anti-Slavery conventions held in Syracuse, father and mother were the guests of Rev. Samuel J. May, a Unitarian minister and an ardent Anti-Slavery friend. The spacious parlors of the May mansion were thrown open for a reception to their honor and where she could meet her old Boston friends. The refreshments were served on trays, one of which placed upon an improvised table made by the sitting close together of Wendell Phillips, Wm. Lloyd Garrison and Sydney Howard Gay, mother was invited to sit, the four making an interesting tableaux.
Mother occasionally traveled with father on his short trips, but not as often as he would have liked as she was a housekeeper who felt that her presence was necessary in the home, as she was wont to say ”to keep things straight.” Her life in Rochester was not less active in the cause of the slave, if anything she was more self sacrificing, and it was a long time after her residence there that she was understood.
The atmosphere in which she was placed lacked the genial cordiality that greeted her in her Massachusetts home. There were only the few that learned to know her, for, she drew around herself a certain reserve, after meeting her new acquaintances that forbade any very near approach to her. Prejudice in the early 40’s in Rochester ran rampant and mother be came more distrustful.
There were a few loyal co-workers and she set herself assiduously to work. In the home, with the aid of a laundress only, she managed her household. She watched with a great deal of interest and no little pride the growth in public life of my father, and in every possible way that she was capable aided him by relieving him of all the management of the home as it increased in size and in its appointments. It was her pleasure to know that when he stood up before an audience that his linen was immaculate and that she had made it so, for, no matter how well the laundry was done for the family, she must with her own hands smooth the tucks in father’s linen and when he was on a long journey she would forward at a given point a fresh supply.
Being herself one of the first agents of the Underground Rail road she was an untiring worker along that line. To be able to accommodate in a comfortable manner the fugitives that passed our way, father enlarged his home where a suite of rooms could be made ready for those fleeing to Canada. It was no unusual occurrence for mother to be called up at all hours of the night, cold or hot as the case may be, to prepare supper for a hungry lot of fleeing humanity.
She was greatly interested in the publication of the “North Star” or Frederick Douglass’ paper as it was called later on, and publication day was always a day for extra rejoicing as each weekly paper was felt to be another arrow sent on its way to do the work of puncturing the veil that shrouded a whole race in gloom. Mother felt it her duty to have her table well supplied with extra provisions that day, a custom that we, childlike, fully’ appreciated. Our home was two miles from the center of the city, where our office was situated, and many times did we trudge through snow knee deep, as street cars were unknown.
During one of the summer vacations the question arose in father’s mind as to how his sons should be employed, for them to run wild through the streets was out of the question. There was much hostile feeling against the colored boys and as he would be from home most of the time, he felt anxious about them. Mother came to the rescue with the suggestion that they be taken into the office and taught the case. They were little fellows and the thought had not occurred to father. He acted upon the suggestion and at the ages of eleven and nine they were perched upon blocks and given their first lesson in printer’s ink, besides being employed to carry papers and mailing them.
Father was mother’s honored guest. He was from home so often that his home comings were events that she thought worthy of extra notice, and caused renewed activity. Every thing was done that could be to add to his comfort. She also found time to care for four other boys at different times. As they became mem bers of our home circle, the care of their clothing was as carefully seen to as her own children’s and they delighted in calling her Mother.
In her early life she was a member of the Methodist Church, as was father, but in our home there was no family alter. Our custom was to read a chapter in the Bible around the table, each reading a verse in turn until the chapter was completed. She was a person who strived to live a Christian life instead of talking it.
She was a woman strong in her likes and dislikes, and had a large discernment as to the character of those who came around her. Her gift in that direction being very fortunate in the protection of father’s interest especially in the early days of his public life, when there was great apprehension for his safety. She was a woman firm in her opposition to alcoholic drinks, a strict disci plinarian-her no meant no and yes, yes, but more frequently the no’s had it, especially when I was the petitioner. So far as I was concerned, I found my father more yielding than my mother, altho’ both were rigid as to the matter of obedience.
There was a certain amount of grim humor about mother and perhaps such exhibitions as they occurred were a little startling to those who were unacquainted with her. The reserve in which she held herself made whatever she might attempt of a jocose na ture somewhat acrid. She could not be known all at once, she had to be studied. She abhorred shames. In the early 70’s she came to Washington and found a large number of people from whom the shackles had recently fallen. She fully realized their condi tion and considered the gaieties that were then indulged in as frivolous in the extreme.
On one occasion several young women called upon her and commenting on her spacious parlors and the approaching holiday season, thought it a favorable opportunity to suggest the keeping of an open house. Mother replied : ”I have been keeping open house for several weeks. I have it closed now and I expect to keep it closed.” The young women thinking mother’s understanding was at fault, endeavored to explain. They were assured, how ever, that they were fully understood. Father, who was present, laughingly pointed to the New Bay Window, which had been com pleted only a few days previous to their call.
Perhaps no other home received under its roof a more varied class of people than did our home. From the highest dignitaries to the lowliest person, bond or free, white or black, were welcomed, and mother was equally gracious to all. There were a few who presumed on the hospitality of the home and officiously insinuated themselves and their advice in a manner that was particularly disagreeable to her. This unwelcome attention on the part of the visitor would be grievously repelled, in a manner more forceful than the said party would deem her capable of, and from such a person an erroneous impression of her temper and qualifications would be given, and criticisms sharp and unjust would be made; so that altho she had her triumphs, they were trials, and only those who knew her intimately could fully understand and appreciate the enduring patience of the wife and mother.
During her wedded life of forty-four years, whether in adversity or prosperity, she was the same faithful ally, guarding as best she could every interest connected with my father, his life work and the home. Unfortunately an opportunity for a knowledge of books had been denied her, the lack of which she greatly deplored. Her increasing family and household duties prevented any great advancement, altho’ she was able to read a little. By contact with people of culture and education, and they were her real friends, her improvement was marked. She took a lively interest in every phase of the Anti-Slavery movement, an interest that father took full pains to foster and to keep her intelligently informed. I was instructed to read to her. She was a good listener, making comments on passing events, which were well worth consideration, altho’ the manner of the presentation of them might provoke a smile. Her value was fully appreciated by my father, and in one of his letters to Thomas Auld, (his former master,) he says, “Instead of finding my companion a burden she is truly a helpmeet.”
In 1882, this remarkable woman, for in many ways she was re markable, was stricken with paralysis and for four weeks was a great sufferer. Altho’ perfectly helpless, she insisted from her sick bed to direct her home affairs. The orders were given with precision and they were obeyed with alacrity. Her fortitude and patience up to within ten days of her death were very great. She helped us to bear her burden. Many letters of condolence from those who had met her and upon whom pleasant impressions had been made, were received. Hon. J. M. Dalzell of Ohio, wrote thus:
“You know I never met your good wife but once and then her
welcome was so warm and sincere and unaffected, her manner al together so motherly, and her goodby so full of genuine kindness and hospitality, as to impress me tenderly and fill my eyes with tears as I now recall it.”
Prof. Peter H. Clark of Cincinnati, Ohio, wrote: “The kind treatment given to us and our little one so many years ago won for her a place in our hearts from which no lapse of time could move her. To us she was ever kind and good and our mourning because of her death, is heartfelt.”
There is much room for reflection in the review in the life of such a woman as Anna Murray Douglass. Unlettered tho’ she was, there was a strength of character and of purpose that won for her the respect of the noblest and best. She was a woman who strove to inculcate in the minds of her children the highest principles of morality and virtue both by precept and example. She was not well versed in the polite etiquette of the drawing room, the rules for the same being found in the many treatises devoted to that branch of literature. She was possessed of a much broader culture, and with discernment born of intelligent observation, and wise discrimination she welcomed all with the hearty manner of a noble soul.
I have thus striven to give you a glimpse of my mother. In so doing I am conscious of having made frequent mention of my father. It is difficult to say any thing of mother without the men tion of father, her life was so enveloped in his. Together they rest side by side, and most befittingly, within sight of the dear old home of hallowed memories and from which the panting fugitive, the weary traveler, the lonely emigrant of every clime, received food and shelter.
~ Rosetta Douglass Spague, from Journal of Negro History
“I believe the opposite of poverty is justice.”
In an engaging and personal talk — with cameo appearances from his grandmother and Rosa Parks — human rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson shares some hard truths about America’s justice system, starting with a massive imbalance along racial lines: a third of the country’s black male population has been incarcerated at some point in their lives. These issues, which are wrapped up in America’s unexamined history, are rarely talked about with this level of candor, insight and persuasiveness.
Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. Finally, I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor; the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.
We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others. The closer we get to mass incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more I believe it’s necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and – perhaps – we all need some measure of unmerited grace.
Some years ago, I heard a pastor teach about the importance of correctly identifying God’s words in the Bible which are distinctly different from other speaker’s words in the Bible. He was teaching out of Job and I recall that he pointed out people’s fondness for saying “the Lord gives and the Lord takes away”. Then he railed at the congregation: “Stop attributing bad things to God!”
Job spoke those words in prayer as an expression of his understanding of the happenings in his life at that point. However, the reader knows that Satan had asked for and received permission to take everything Job had in an attempt to prove to God that Job’s praises would turn to curses when his blessings were removed from him (Job 1).
That was a deep lesson for me. My mind wanders back to it every now and then. Today is one of those times.
I am single and I have never been in a relationship. I mean never. This year I turn thirty-nine. Over the past decade my thoughts on sexual purity have evolved. When I began studying the Bible seven or so years ago, presenting my body as a holy sacrifice was not a difficult concept for me – most especially because I didn’t think I would be single much longer. However, since the years have dragged on through my mid-, and now, late-thirties, I can honestly say that there is little joy to be found in my singleness.
I have seen friends marry, fight, divorce, fight and marry again. I find I am far less interested in attending the second weddings as I was their firsts because, for the most part, these friends view themselves as independent of their marriages. And they aggressively defend their desire to maintain and pursue their individualism at the expense of their union (though they may not see it that way).
As an honorary presence, I have watched children be born and grow up, yet I have never had any real right to guide their lives. I have seen my access to these children decrease as my relationship with their parents changed or deteriorated over the years. That has led to a lot of grieving and more hardening than I’ve ever thought possible for me. Observing families as a guest is no substitute for having one of your own.
I have seen female relatives struggle with aging and ill-health alone. They may have married in their youth and collected a roster of men over time and raised children they thought would be a blessing in their old age, but in the end bitterness is all that remained.
Singleness is a blessing for a time, but not for all time nor for every time. For the past decade I have said, and I maintain, that I am happy I did not marry before the age of thirty. This is not a post about wishing I had married young. Thirty is the age that my life turned completely in the direction of God. I am joyful that He brought me to Himself as an individual, not as part of a couple or a family unit. I am fortunate in being able to walk out my belief and understanding in my own time and space. This has led to the development of a very strong faith and voice. I thank God for His meticulous care of me. The last eight years of my life have been a continual pursuit of truth and life. The most prominent truth I have held onto is: “It is not good for man to be alone (Genesis 2:18).”
These words are attributed to God during His process of creating humanity. I understand this statement to mean that it is not good for woman to be alone either.
Now for those who are not married and for the widows I say this: It is good for them to stay unmarried as I am.But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry. It is better to marry than to burn with sexual desire.
Paul said explicitly,‘it is good for them to stay unmarried as I am.” I believed that to a certain degree, but I didn’t truly get it until I saw an online conversation thread where a woman cited Paul’s words in verses 28c-29:
But those who marry will have trouble in this life, and I want you to be free from trouble.Brothers and sisters, this is what I mean: We do not have much time left. So starting now, those who have wives should live as if they had no wives.
To the woman’s credit in the conversation I read, she was pointing out that she and her husband had individual callings from the Lord. I appreciate that, but an individual calling does not mean it cannot or should not be a shared pursuit by both husband and wife. It certainly doesn’t mean that one partner should follow their calling to the exclusion of their spouse.
Further down in this passage Paul laments that spouses are distractions from God’s work.
I will argue here that a spouse is intended to be a blessing of completion and unity. Don’t misunderstand me. Yes, we are complete as individuals. Yes, we are complete in our relationship with God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. But, there is also another dimension in which God has allowed for completion – a marital relationship in which He has joined two people. This joining and unity is echoed throughout His Book of Instruction.
What I noticed when reading this passage after reading the conversation thread, is that Paul again explicitly states in verse 25: I have no command from the Lord about this; I give my opinion.
We are not called to be like Paul. We were not given Paul’s breath, spirit or life. Paul’s preferences are not the foundation of our faith. Yet First Corinthians, Chapter 7 is laced with Paul saying “I wish you could be like me… I command… and in my opinion (verses 7, 8, 10, 12, 17, 25, 26, 28, 29, 32, 35, 40).” Paul’s opinion, even though it’s in the Bible, does not equal or trump God’s word. The only thing God said was not good about His creation was that man/woman/humans should be alone. That is significant. For Paul to call singleness good, in his opinion, is in direct opposition to what God called it. For Paul to extort married people to act as if they are single is not the call of service God requires of us. A great part of our service to God is serving the people He has put in our care. We are to be helpers and ministers to our spouse. We are to be teachers and guides to our children. We are to be truthful and honest leaders in our community. More importantly, we are to decrease as individuals so that Jesus can increase in us. Our call is to become more Christ-like, to grow more fully and purely into the original image we were created in. The spouse God has blessed you with is not a distraction; and your work together – in one another, in your family and in your community, through the Holy Spirit – is kingdom preparation and building.
I have seen many debates over the years revolving around people trying to make Paul’s words fit their present day circumstances. Paul provided great teachings, but he is very clear about when the Holy Spirit is urging him to speak and when he is speaking on his own. I think we need to be careful to distinguish between the two voices. When we do that, it’s not so difficult to apply Spirit-led words to our life.
That takes me to the seemingly waning blessing of singleness. The truth: What I have learned in my singleness is to look after myself, to think of myself and focus on myself. No matter how I may try to focus on other people, every day is filled with only my life issues. No one else is a primary focus in my life for any extended period of time and I admit, I am truly sick of myself. I would prefer to think of someone else, look after someone else and focus on another. Not in the way of around the clock caretaker, but as a partner and stakeholder in the life details of another person. Singleness doesn’t provide that opportunity. As a single person, every relationship in your life feels transient (if you’re paying attention to how people come and go, that is). Singleness leads to an independent individuality that takes us away from the deep benefits of unity and community. Single people are not included in social groups the same way that married couples or families are. We are limited to a certain type of social interaction. Usually a very shallow social interaction – comic relief, entertainment, etc. Single people aren’t necessarily trusted for their dependability and commitment. Meaning, on many levels, they will be included with the expectation that they will exercise their freedom to get up and go whenever the mood strikes.
I have exercised that right many times. I have stopped committing myself to friendships that change drastically shortly after vows are spoken. I have stopped inserting myself into family settings that usually see me as a refreshing change to the redundancy of stability. I have been known to leave employment that drains me spiritually and mentally. I am also known for stepping out in faith in legendary ways.
More truth: During my singleness, I have been able to tune my life, my heart and my ears to God’s voice – His whisper, His urging, His guidance – with a sensitivity that I may not have been able to develop had I not been alone for a time. My faith has grown and deepened because I had no one else to depend on or look to other than God. My internal seeking and questioning has become layered because my communication with God is mostly silent – my thoughts, my musings, my writing. My Lord Father has been my one and only constant and our relationship is not part of what I termed a “waning blessing”. My relationship with my Lord Father is an eternal blessing that I would never wish to live without. What is waning, or has waned, is my need for solitude and any belief that singleness is a step above or equal to being joined as one with another.
There is richness in merging your life with another’s. This indefinable wealth is evident in any couple that has acknowledged the goodness of their union. There’s a wisdom, understanding, acceptance, appreciation, patience, in-it-togetherness, that most singles don’t really get. And at any sign of marital trouble, we singles ask questions like: Why are you putting up with that? What’s in it for you? Why won’t you leave? Why not just do what makes you happy? Why aren’t you taking care of yourself? Do you really have to put up with this?
Every single person who has asked any variation of these questions to a married friend or relative has undoubtedly heard in response: He’s my husband. She’s my wife. We have a family. It’s not that simple.
And that’s what we don’t get, because we don’t have it. For us, it usually is that simple, because we have only ourselves to think about. That’s why single people change so much when they get married. We are meant to change. We are meant to grow. We are meant to evolve from singleness to unity. Singleness is not the prize. Oneness in marriage is.
Solitude is good for a time, but not for all time. Don’t forget to come back and embrace a community. Build one, if you must. Don’t neglect the sharing of yourself. Even those parts that are not so clean have value. In fact, the best lessons you have to offer in life come from your struggles in the darkness and grit of life.