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New season for the Rev. Florence Clarke

I wish you could hear the Rev. Florence Clarke preach. She intones. I wish you could see her, tall and imposing in her clerical robes, but not prideful. Humble. She doesn't waste your time or attention; she composes her sermons with a journalist's economy of words and a dramatist's flair for the surprise turn of a thought. "Why say 'elephant' when you can say 'ant'?" is a maxim with her.

Florence Clarke turns 80 today. It is a joyous day for a woman who grew up in Klan territory in South Carolina and joined the Jim Crow protests of the Civil Rights Movement. She has lived long enough and made enough of an impact to see the change and be the change. She is still preaching because she has a lot left to say. She did not always say it aloud.

In Ta-Nehisi Coates' searing book, "Between the World and Me," he recalls a question he asked himself as a high school student. His class was watching films of Civil Rights marchers who resisted the fire hoses, the dogs and the indignities with a refusal to overtly react. "Why were our only heroes nonviolent?"

The young Florence Gilliard could have told him. Zealous to defeat racial injustice, she joined a march in Orangeburg, S.C., that likely would, and did, end with her arrest. Before she and others were rounded up, they marched through a downtown business district. A white woman stepped out of a store and said loudly, "Where are all these (n-word) coming from?" Florence started to go over to confront the woman. A hand grabbed her back and a voice said, "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen."

That day she realized that what they were trying to do was greater than anything she might do on her own. Today, she says, is yet again a new season with the promise of new fruit. She is using the time to preach and teach a different set of listeners.

Before she was the Reverend Clarke, Florence Gilliard was "the little Black girl running barefoot" on the 15 Alexander Street block in Charleston, and then the only kid there who went to college. Twice in her career as a teacher she ran into white school superintendents who gave her more of the demeaning blather of racism.

The first was in her rookie teaching job. The superintendent addressed a roomful of Black teachers by telling them straight out he was talking at them, not to them. The second was in a town in eastern Connecticut, where the telephone interview went well but, in person, the man made it clear he wasn't expecting a Black applicant. She left the first job and never got the second. Instead, she rose through the ranks in a 25-year career at Electric Boat, retiring as a senior analyst. She was ordained and served three decades in ministry to Black churches, principally Walls Clarke Temple A.M.E. Zion and others in the New London area, officially retiring in 2017.

Several years ago, Clarke became a charter member of the Encountering Differences project of the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut. The curriculum introduces students in mostly white high schools to people of color who share their personal histories and host the teenagers in their homes.

It makes Clarke happy to mentor the young and "particularly white kids, with no history or understanding of what happened, particularly to someone like me born and raised in the South." When they visited in her home, they saw her walls of books, the office filled with plaques honoring her achievements. They had heard about the little girl and the Freedom Marcher. Now they could see the scholar, the spiritual leader, the submarine builder, the activist.

In her new season, Clarke increasingly preaches to white congregations who ask her to help them grasp the struggles of the past year. Black churches and white churches share a religion but less so a culture, so she has had to attune her preaching style to the congregation. She does not preach to theologians, as she says; she preaches to regular folks.

I wish you could hear her preach.

Lisa McGinley is a member of The Day Editorial Board.

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