My dear and much beloved preacher teacher friend Dr. Samuel DeWitt Proctor was a great historically Black college president, Peace Corps leader in Africa, and pastor of the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, New York. He was also a very dear friend and spiritual mentor. He preached a great sermon at the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) Haley Farm’s opening as a center for servant leadership development and advocacy for children and others left behind which I share portions of every holy season. “We do not all start at the same scratch line,” he reminded us, “although there’s one original position hypothetically for everybody.”
He continued: “You were born here owning nothing, having earned nothing, just born! There you are, helpless! You are indebted to everybody—but some of us opened our eyes and saw nothing but blessings just dumping on us. I opened my eyes and there was Herbert and Velma and my grandma Hattie—a slave in Chesterfield County [who graduated from Hampton Institute in] 1882—smiling on me. How in the world could I lose? Taught me how to read and sing four-part harmony before I ever got to school; taught me how to play the clarinet and the piano and made me go to Sunday school. Daddy didn’t send us, Daddy took us to Sunday school. If there was nobody in the Sunday school but one person, that would’ve been my daddy with his six little children there in the Sunday school at the Bank Street Baptist Church. That’s what I inherited! I didn’t earn it. You can’t get that with a Visa card. It was given to me.
“Now, all through my neighborhood, there were other young fellas. I could remember all of them. Daddies were drunk half the time, they didn’t read in their homes, nobody went to Sunday school, none of that. They started life below the scratch line. I started life way above the scratch line. Everywhere I went, someone said, ‘Aren’t you Ms. Hattie’s grandson?’ ‘Are you Herbert’s boy?’ Skipped three grades. I never was in the 3rd grade to 5th grade or 7th grade. Everything smiling on me. Finished high school at 15, went on to college on a scholarship. None of that did I deserve; I hadn’t earned any of it. I started out with a head of steam…they had trained my mother and father, they had learned poetry—Paul Laurence Dunbar, Alfred, Lord Tennyson—and they gave all of that to us in great abundance, and my buddies up the street had none of that.
“Now, if we want these bones to live again, those of us who have inherited benefits that we did not earn or deserve need to turn around and help those who inherited deficits that they did not earn or deserve and help them to rise up to the scratch line where we are so that they may earn and enjoy all of the benefits that we so take for granted. Can these bones live again, O Lord? These bones can live!”
Throughout his life my great friend and mentor Sam Proctor thanked his parents (as I do mine everyday) Herbert and Velma Proctor and his grandparents—especially his paternal grandmother, Hattie Ann Proctor—for all they had done to ensure he started life so far above the scratch line. He understood how many millions of children do not get the same good start. How many of us were blessed with similar inheritances from parents and grandparents that made all the difference in our lives? Every year during this holy season, I hope many adults will take time not only searching for the perfect material presents for children but sharing with them the more important non-material gifts of their history and the need to ensure a just nation and world for every child. I also hope that we will follow our Christmas celebrations of a poor baby boy born in a manger in our year-round daily lives to ensure no child is left behind in our nation and world.
What will it take to lift all of our children above the scratch line? It will require every one of us to stand up and provide the powerful persistent citizen voice, faith voice, energy, and advocacy to make our nation ensure equal opportunity for every child in our midst. To push our new administration and Congress, state legislatures, and state, county and city political leaders, ask first what they can do for all the children of our nation, faiths, and communities who are struggling to survive below the scratch line. Let’s act together to ensure that no child is left behind in our powerful and wealthy nation.