The African-American Community You Never Heard of but Wished You Did (Interview)

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There's something about overcoming enormous odds, starting from the bottom and working your way to the top that leaves a deep and long-lasting impression on people. Eric L. Motley, who as a toddler was essentially abandoned by his parents and raised in a rural community founded by former slaves in Alabama, is one such story. Having nothing materially but having everything in terms of love and community support, Motley worked himself up to earning a Ph.D. and a position in the White House under former President George W. Bush. His life's story is a living testament that the present doesn't need to replicate the past.

Motley, who is now executive vice president of the think tank The Aspen Institute in Washington, D.C., spoke to ChristianWeek about his new book, Madison Park: A Place of Hope (Zondervan, November 2017), and about the "debt of love" he owes to the people of Madison Park, Ala. The book is a tribute to this small black community where residents give their last dollar to help a neighbor in need and do so without expecting any recognition or reward in return. It was in this little known community of love, generosity, and "doing the right thing" that Motley grew up and one where he promised to never forget.

Below is a transcript of the interview with Motley, lightly edited for clarity.

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(Photo: The Aspen Institute)Eric L. Motley, executive vice president of the think tank The Aspen Institute in Washington, D.C., is the author of the new book, Madison Park: A Place of Hope (Zondervan, November 2017).

ChristianWeek: You talk about racism throughout the book, gently interweaving it into your biography and that of Madison Park. I felt the tone about this subject was similar to how you described your father – no resentment, never lost hope in fairness, and without anger. Can you share your thoughts on the current national tone on racism and why your tone seems different?

Motley: I think for me it was less about race and more about grace and reconciliation and forgiveness. I'm not naïve enough to ignore the fact that we have enormous racial tension and stresses that challenge us societally. This is really a story about how a group of people, particularly my grandparents, always had hope. From the beginning of this community that was founded by a group of freed slaves in 1880. I mean their proposition was hope – things can be better and we have to find a better way. And so they wanted to create their own hope and they wanted to create a community where the members of that community could affirm hope and affirm faith and history that things would unfold and be better.

My grandparents were greatly concerned that I not develop resentment or anger because resentment and anger is a dangerous thing when one is trying to grow and experience the fullness of life. So for them it was important that I knew my history, the history of America and have an understanding of the complexity of our narratives, but at the same time that I never lost the sense of hope and the sense of expectation. And for them community is the embodiment of hope and spiritually to have hope in something that was unseen was very much part of their spiritual philosophy.

ChristianWeek: This sense of community – helping each other and those in need – was embedded in everything about Madison Park. How do you keep that heart now that you live far away in Washington, D.C., and have moved up the social and economic ladder?

Motley: The prayers that were taught, the Bible verses you learn, the names of people you grew up with never leave you. They are always with you. At the heart of community are those principles and those values and those relationships that always tie you to place and to the ideas of place even when you move away from place. They are hidden in your heart and mind even though they might not manifest themselves to others. And so I think for me Madison Park isn't as much a place but an idea that has become so ingrained in who I am, it's a part of my DNA, it's a part of my thoughts, my words, my deeds. The idea of interdependency, the idea that we are all tied in this single garment of destiny. Those are ideas of just how I think.

And so wherever I go, Madison Park goes with me. With that comes the full awareness that seasons change and nothing ever remains the same. So I go back there. A mentor once said to me that is the accumulation of R.E.M. – that's not rapid eye movement or the group – it's relationship, experiences and memories.

And so for me I go back to Madison Park two to three times a year. I go back to visit my childhood friends who are there. I go back to the place I grew up even though the house is no longer in my family's trust. I go back to visit my grandparents' graves and lay flowers on their parents' grave. And so the routine of visiting the place in heart and mind but also physically connects me to the place. And then the relationships. I stay in touch with the people there and I support the Sunday school program in my community. I was fortunate enough to get resources from various people in the town to go on some church trips and Christian conferences and so I now have the means to contribute back to that program so that other students can experience what I was allowed to experience when I was growing up there.

ChristianWeek: It seems you had a pretty good experience with interacting with people of different races for most of your life. As a child did you even give it a second thought when your teacher Mrs. Mayes (who was white) drove you around towns to speech competition?

Motley: No, I didn't. That kind of goes back to my grandmother who cleaned houses for white families in the city. Those people were so kind to her and so generous to her and so generous and kind to me. So my grandparents always instilled in me that we are all children of God. And that might be hard for some people to understand and to appreciate but for them it was imperative that I understood that all of us – regardless of race and background – that we were all created in the image of Christ, of God. And so for me and my grandmother also, we all put on our pants one leg at a time and we all are born the same way, and we all die in the same way – we are all buried. And so for me those were some equalizing lessons or attitudes that kind of informed my sense that we are all in this together.

For sure I was aware that this was a white lady driving me in her Mercedes, picking me up in my little small rural town. I was not unaware. But I was even more aware of the things that we had in common.

ChristianWeek: As I was preparing for this interview and reviewing my notes on what you said in Chapter 15 about your father never having a father-son talk about people different than you or splitting the world into white and black, that struck me because I've read and heard firsthand about how many black fathers have a serious conversation with their sons about what to do when they are around police officers. What do you attribute to the fact you never had this racism conversation with your father – his personality, living in Madison Park, or something else?

Motley: That's a very complicated one and I thought a lot about it because I don't think those conversations are unimportant; this is just my story and my experience. So my grandfather was an African-American man who went away to World War II and he was representing his country abroad and yet he returned home and he had to drink out of colored water fountain, he couldn't eat in the same platoon, in the same canteen with his fellow soldiers who were white. And so he was a man who in the '40s was giving himself to a larger cause and yet when he would come back home to Alabama, he was segregated. He was a man who lived through the Civil Rights Movement in Montgomery, Alabama. So my grandfather knew discrimination. But my grandfather, I think, also wanted this little boy whose family had little promise of ever exceling to see what is bright and beautiful. It wasn't that I didn't have any sense of reality. But I think he wanted me to always see the other side of the promise land and for that to be inspiration enough.

I grew up in an all African-American community, and so I knew black history. I knew black lives matter. But I also grew up in a very Christian community where I was taught that all lives matter. I had a sense of the societal tension around race but I think that he had the conversation with me that if you tried your best to invest your energy and stay focused, you can excel. There will be people who will stand in your way and there will be obstacles for a whole number of reasons but you just got to keep going. And so I don't think the conversation was these are white people who will stand in your way or cops will do this but it was an awareness that there will be people who will be obstacles, period. And for a whole number of reasons there will be obstacles and roadblocks in your way. Build up the tough skin to overcome that the best you can.

ChristianWeek: The story of Old Man Alan Salery was one of the most poignant parts of the book. How a man who had so little would siphon gas into your father's car at night and never told anyone and no one knew until he died. This quiet sacrifice and serving is very touching. How do you live your life differently knowing this sacrifice and of many others?

Motley: I speak in the book about a burden of gratitude. You never get all the thank you out. You never feel fully content at having expressed enough gratitude to all those people along the way. There were people like Alan Salary who had very little but when I went away to college they in their little hands folded $5 bills and gave it to me and that was a major investment. And so I think that at the time I was mature enough to appreciate that it was a sacrifice for a number of them but I think in the rearview mirror of life when you look back and you experience more of life that you can make some good observations. I think I am all the more aware that they were making an investment in my future because they realized, to a certain degree, that they could never enjoy in what I had the potential to enjoy, and that was a good education, and that was travel, and that was many experiences of life that I was able to enjoy.

And so when you live cultivating gratitude, you live in the full awareness of the sacrifice of others. You are constantly cultivating gratitude and so there is no way for me to not think that everything I'm doing now (chokes up) is because of Alan Salery, or because of Beulah Byrd. I'm doing it because of Aunt Shine or various people who made some investment or did something for me. So I am doing it for them. I'm living my life in honor of them. And with that comes a deep, enormous sense of responsibility but also an enormous sense of gratitude. And with that comes enough guilt to make you feel that when you are not stepping up you are letting someone down.

ChristianWeek: There was an interesting bit about you meeting Justice Clarence Thomas for the first time in your youth and feeling an affinity for him because of your similar background. Have you kept in touch?

Motley: Not as much as I would like to have. Life goes on and life becomes complicated, and of course now I'm doing different things. I see him from time to time at things. We acknowledge each other. But I will always be grateful for the time he took knowing my story and appreciating that I was also trying to make life work. The similarities were great. He grew up, his grandparents were good Christian folks and they had great expectations for him and felt that one of the only ways that he could really achieve some level of success was to get an education. And so my grandparents were poor, people of faith who had a very strong commitment to me getting an education. And he was a man who had succeeded – not just the Supreme Court but done well professionally. That was an inspiration.

ChristianWeek: Is there anything you want to add?

Motley: At the end of the day we live in a very polarized and increasingly fragmented society. There is no shortage of reminders of the things that separate us, and divide us, and confuse us. And if there is ever a time to remind us of the things that tie us together it's the story of community. It's a story of what happens when people form networks and develop safety nets with one another and invest in the lives of each other. And they step outside of themselves and serve something much larger. And so this is a story about community. It is a story about people working together and realizing their interdependence and with that comes the awareness that through community and the strength of community there is always hope. There is always hope. It is not always founded in elected officials that we have or the public institutions that we've created but individuals making daily commitments to other individuals and surrendering themselves to larger ideas.