Pastor Bryant Robinson, Jr. never knew his Uncle Esau.
Esau Robinson was lynched in Mobile, Alabama, in 1930, after an incident, described at the time as a riot, that began with a dispute in a general store over a battery. The incident resulted in gunfire and the shooting of his great uncle, John, and the jailing of his grandfather, Tom Robinson, who was initially sentenced to die in the electric chair, but was later released after nine years.
"The white community rallied together and the word went out that they were going to kill the seed of the Robinsons," said Robinson, minister of the Macedonian Church of God & Christ in Springfield. "Now, if you understand that language, it means I'm not supposed to be standing here, communicating with you, because my dad, who was 16 at the time, would have been destroyed, executed, lynched, shot."
His Uncle Esau was lynched, his body riddled with bullets and left to hang in the town square for several days. "That was a message to the black community," Robinson said while telling this story at Holyoke Community College during the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative Breakfast on Friday, Jan. 13, sponsored by the Council for Human Understanding.The breakfast, a 20-year HCC tradition, also featured a performance from the Holyoke High School Madrigal Singers, who sang several songs, including Amazing Grace, John Lennon's Imagine and concluded the ceremony by leading everyone in a We Shall Overcome.
Robinson's tale of his family's history set the tone for the morning talk, which he called "a journey," recounting incidents of racism and racial violence from 1930 to 2012.
He continued by recalling remarks Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made in his 1963 eulogy for four young black girls who died in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. "We must be concerned not merely with who murdered them but with the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced these murderers," said Robinson, quoting King. "Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream."
Robinson's journey stopped again on Nov. 4, 2008, the night Barack Obama was elected president. "We now had the first person of color to become the leader of the most powerful nation in the world," Robinson recalled. "Celebration was in the air."
That good feeling was marred, however, when he got a phone call early the next morning from his brother, telling him Macedonian's new church building on Springfield's Tynkham Road, construction on which was nearly complete, was on fire. "They are burning our church to the ground," his brother told him. Three men were ultimately arrested for arson, and it was determined that they burned the church because Obama had been elected and chose it because it was a black church.
"Our book of faith tells us we can be angry but we should not sin," Robinson said. "We don't behave in a way that exacerbates hate. Rather, we chose to allow the criminal justice system to determine the consequences of such behavior that was perpetrated by whomever. At that time, we didn't know who it was. We put our confidence in the criminal justice system, and they did a superb job of solving that crime."
The Macedonian church was rebuilt and dedicated in 2011. "My friends, it was a gorgeous, rich, spiritual time in the presence of God, and we had brothers and sisters from across the religious and civic spectrum, who came to celebrate with us. I see folk now from time to time who came and they're still tingling."
Robinson's last touchstone year was 2012. As the nation prepares for another presidential election, he noted that there is a movement afoot to protect us against voter fraud, which he called a Republican effort, a "straw man," to keep minority voters who helped elect Barack Obama in 2008 away from the polls this year.
The suggestion that photo IDs be required to cast ballots, he said, "harkens back to the days in the south where you went to the polling place as a black man and you had to tell them how many beans were in a jar. Of course, they didn't know either, so whatever number you gave was wrong. There's no real evidence to suggest there is massive and rampant voter fraud occurring in our national elections. So I come today to just say to you that that move is insidious and more dangerous than seems evident. They give you some logic, but it's flawed logic. It's to deny, to disenfranchise people from participating in the democratic process."
Robinson ended his talk by acknowledging that, while progress has been made, there is still a long way to go and challenged young people to pick up the mantle of Dr. King's message. "We have to be concerned, all of us, not merely with those who perpetrate such vicious and violent acts as has been identified across this journey, but about the system or systems, about the way of life, about the philosophy, about the sociologies, about the economics, about the educational system that mis-educates so many of our children, about the political environment that fosters a culture that gives birth to such heinous acts and behavior, man's inhumanity to man."
"It's work that is yet in progress," Robinson said, "as he was snatched from us too early, but the work yet remains--it's for you and it's for me to carry on."
Click here to read the full text of Dr. Robinson's talk.
Photos: (Left) Dr. Bryant Robinson Jr., minister of the Macedonian Church of God & Christ, gives a talk at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Breakfast at HCC, Jan. 13, 2012. (Right) The Holyoke High School Madrigal Singers perform during the MLK breakfast ceremony at HCC.