PBS’ Independent Lens series of Indy short-films is among the best TV offerings available in terms of great theater and moving social commentary. Making the rounds now is a film called Man on Fire, that captures the life and death of a Methodist minister named Charles Moore who died by fire through sacrificial self-immolation on June 23, 2014, in the little town of Grand Saline, Texas, population 3136.
Moore had been born in Grand Saline, known historically as a stronghold for the Klu Klux Klan. Throughout his 79 years of work as a minister, Moore focused on racism and other examples of inequality. As he neared the end of his life, he felt he had not done enough to eliminate these inequities. According to friends and family, “he felt personally wounded” by the injustices he saw all around him. He decided to that what he could not accomplish in living, perhaps he could accomplish in death. In his final note, he said:
“This decision to sacrifice myself was not impulsive: I have struggled all my life with what it means to take Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s insistence that ‘Christ calls a person to come and die’ seriously.” In 1945, Bonhoeffer was hanged for his part in an assassination attempt on the life of Hitler and in his final writings, he noted the full commitment expected of a Christian, even in death. Neither of these men – Bonhoeffer or Moore – were your typically Sunday-only followers. Their sacrifice runs more deeply than even the most faithful of Christians.
Since I am an agnostic and not a believer, I will leave it to others to debate Moore’s death, but I do want to comment on the film and on Grand Saline, Texas. The film did a credible job in reflecting the complexity of racism in the South – both past and current. There are people in Grand Saline that remember the extreme racism of the past and those who think it never existed; there are people in the city today who think there is no continuing racism and therefore no need to discuss the matter, and there are others who disagree.
I do not live in Grand Saline – but I am a born and bred Texan, and I can assure you there are many small, rural towns in Texas and elsewhere in the South where racism is alive and well. Granted, it is not as rampant as in past decades. The violence and hatred are more subtle now. Improvements have been made but injustice is hardly a thing of the past.
What makes it worse is the attitude that racism is over and done and there is no need to dredge up old news. The problem with that is that there is no effort to repair the new form(s) of bigotry. People of color (particularly blacks) are still seen as second-class citizens by many and shut out of commerce, equal education, leadership roles, proper housing, legal justice and social interactions. Maybe that does not sound like much to the whites of these small towns but it is a savage assault upon the lives of black Americans, generations after generations.
And it is for this reason that the Rev. Charles Moore could no longer tolerate what seemed to him to be endless injustice and hatred.
— Jonnie Martin