Waters of Justice

Remembering Frank McRae

by Scott Morris

Frank McRae at the original Church Health Center on Peabody Avenue.

William Austin was a sharecropper in Tipton County, Tennessee, during the1940s and 1950s. He had 17 children because to be a successful farmer you needed your own workforce.

In the early 1960s, two of his sons left the life of sharecropping for jobs in Memphis. Eventually, they persuaded William to follow them, and he became a sanitation worker for the City of Memphis. As time went on, William’s children gave him grandchildren. On Sunday afternoons, William would gather his grandchildren and talk about life. He focused a lot on how to treat people, emphasizing that people are all the same—even white people. William hadn’t always believed that, but during the famous 1968 strike of the sanitation workers, which led to Martin Luther King’s assassination, he had come to know of one good white man.

The sanitation workers referred to this one good white man as their secret weapon. They knew he was friends with Mayor Loeb, with whom they were negotiating, but they also knew his heart was with their cause. During the strike he carried messages from Dr. King to Mayor Loeb. On April 5, 1968, the day after Dr. King was shot, Frank organized the black and white clergy of Memphis to march behind the cross to the mayor’s office and demand an end to the strike. That was the inception of the ecumenical Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association, an organization still committed to serving the poor.

Years later, one of William’s grandsons, James, came to study and then work in Memphis and encountered Frank McRae. As James learned more about Frank and his passion for justice and equality, and his role as a white Methodist minister in the Civil Rights Movement, it dawned on him that Frank was the one good white man his grandfather had told him about.

Grandfather and grandson met Frank decades apart and both saw in him a life committed to justice and equality. This same passion was what brought Frank into my life.

When I met him, Frank was the senior pastor at St. John’s United Methodist Church in Memphis and had led the church into an era of being a servant church that consistently responded to emerging needs in the community. When I pitched my idea for Church Health to provide health care for the working poor, Frank used his entire pastor’s discretionary fund—$70,000—to buy the house across the street from the church, where we opened our first clinic.

Like Martin Luther King, Jr., Frank McRae’s life was about more than marching. He believed the church exists to make the life of the poor better, including working against the unjust social systems that perpetuate poverty. The Old Testament prophet Amos reminds us of God’s priority: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). Water seeps into every available crevice. That’s how pervasive justice should be.

Frank has since passed away, but he leaves a lasting legacy. I am humbled to stand in the mighty waters of justice rolling in Memphis. Whatever city you live in, you can stand in the same ever-flowing stream. Poor employment prospects. Education inequality. Discrimination. Food insecurity. Unsafe housing. In all of these areas, it is not difficult to draw a line connecting faith to health. Let us be people of action that will last for generations. Let us march in the streets and root ourselves in lasting commitment to improve the health and well-being of the poor, knowing that when we do so we are the hands and feet of Jesus.

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