on a mission to embody grace and compassion in all relationships

Offering a Seat

This post is the eleventh in a series, “Lessons from my Father, Lewis Marler,” who lived from 1921-1998.

I grew up in the heart of Dixie during the most tumultuous times of the Civil Rights Movement.  I was born in Selma, grew up in Montgomery, and went to high school in a Birmingham suburb called Gardendale, AL from 1955-1973.

My father became the pastor of a church in Montgomery, AL when I was five years old in 1960 and we were there until 1970.  It was a racially tense time to say the least.  Blatant discrimination was part of the culture and fabric of society and rarely questioned.  I can remember separate public water fountains for the “white” and “colored.”  School integration was supposed to start in 1963, but I never saw a classmate with a different skin color until 1967.

My father and mother were different than the society in which we lived.  As were a few others.

In our home, my sister and I were taught that all persons, regardless of skin color, were children of God. They were constantly teaching us different ways of thinking and acting than everything we heard outside the home.  When other people in our neighborhood and church used the “N” word to talk about persons who were black, my father always referred to African Americans as “colored.”  This was progressive for a white man to do so in the 60’s in Alabama.

One particular story I remember was when integration in the high schools was finally becoming a reality in 1967-68.  The church where my father was pastor happened to be on the street that was on the geographical dividing line that determined where students would go to high school.  If your house was on the same side of the street as the church, your children went to the traditional white Sidney Lanier High School.  If your house was across the street, your children were zoned to attend the traditional black Carver High School.

I remember seeing almost every house on the opposite of the street go up for sale in the same week when the zoning districts were publicized.  Hundreds of houses had for sale signs in their front yards, as white families protested by selling their homes and moving to the white side of town.

And the church was not exempt from this discrimination. One Sunday I overheard some of the deacons talking to one another as they smoked under the big oak tree, “What are we going to do about that trouble-maker King?”  They said a lot more than that.

Later in the week, during an open church business meeting one of them stood up and said, “Pastor, what we are going to do if some of those Negroes try to come to our church?”

Now first of all, the likelihood of anyone who was black wanting to come into our lily white church was almost zero.  Our worship services were downright boring compared to their own.  But fear ruled the day.  The deacon persisted to put my father on the spot.  “Brother Marler,” he said, “What do you want us to do?”

My father walked up to the podium and leaned into the microphone and called the deacon by his first name and said, “Well, I hope you will help them find a seat,” and he sat back down.  End of discussion.  Silence.  Someone made a motion for the business meeting to end.

I remember to this day how proud I was of my father at that very moment.

And years later when I became the Chaplain in a HIV/AIDS clinic I asked him what he thought about me caring for persons who at that time were primarily gay white men.  He said, “Malcolm, its not any different than those days in the 60’s.  Everybody needs someone to love them and care for them.”

And he was right. Black or white, gay or straight, we all need someone to love us.  Whatever the cultural issue of the day is, anytime we exclude rather than include members of the human family, we are missing the mark.

How do you draw your circle in the human family?  Who is in?  Who is out?

Lewis Marler taught me to always love people first.

My father taught me so.


Are there people in your life who have taught you important lessons that were different than the way other people believed?  How did they do so?  How have you applied that to your life now?  Would you share in the comments below?

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  1. Ann Getwan

    Malcom, our dads were so much alike. Such men of God and integrity ruled every decision. Dad tells of standing with his dad (the area’s veterinarian)at a black man’s house against the KKK in the late 40’s. He said he was never more proud of his dad. He taught us the same way and I am so thankful that I don’t have to deal with racial prejudice in my life. It is so “freeing” to see everyone as a Child of God and not as a color. I filled out our census and just listed us all as American.

    Thanks for your posts. I’ve loved traveling back with you.

  2. Sandra Langston

    Malcolm –
    This writing about your father recalls many bitter memories for me, as in 1974 I was a member of a large Montgomery Baptist church whose congregation voted NOT to seat visitors of another race. That was what really alienated me from organized religion. I withdrew my membership and have never joined another. Of course, a lot of other things in my life changed, too. I am SO pleased to know about your dad whose church was right in the middle of the turmoil. What a time it was and we still have so far to go!

  3. Malcolm

    Ann, thank you for sharing about your father. What courage it took for him to stand up against the KKK in the late 40’s. I also appreciate your encouragement about writing down some of these stories. Peace.

  4. Malcolm


    I am sorry to hear about your church and its history. It was the norm of our day, wasn’t it? I can understand how their rejection of others could turn you against organized religion at the time. The two just didn’t go together.

    Unfortunately, in the church, it seems like we often look for those to be against, rather than to radically welcome others into the family.

    Peace to you,

  5. Laura Siriani


    This series has brought back so many memories of my own father. I too grew up in the segregated south. My father taught us to respect everyone. He was successful businessman who work respectfully with those who fought to keep things the same. Yet, over the course of many years he paid the college tuition for black students he knew. We will really never know everything he did. I do know that he believed education was one way of leveling a very uneven playing field.

    Even during the worst of times in the south, he kept doing his “thing”. When he died, one of his friends pulled me aside and said, “You know, your father was a peacemaker” It’s true.

  6. Malcolm

    Dear Laura,

    What a beautiful story about your father. I don’t think you can get much better than being called a peacemaker. And the fact that he put his money where his heart was underlines and bold faces his commitment to equality. God Bless Him.

  7. Edna Shurden Langley

    Malcolm, like you, I am forever grateful to my Mississippi parents for instilling in me that “red & yellow, black & white…all are precious in his sight.”

  8. Nanci Anthony Warner

    Thank you, Malcolm’s dad, for hitting that nail squarely!!

  9. Danny Calloway

    What a great dad you had. I DO remember him.

  10. Malcolm

    Dear Edna, I am glad to know about your Mississippi parents for instilling that color blind trait in you!

  11. Helen Rivas

    Wonderful commentary. I am so grateful for all who have the courage to do what is right when they know that there could be heavy consequences.

    I am distressed by those who would continue to exclude and judge, citing tenets of their ‘faith.’

    I’m not sure about this thought but toss it out anyway: It seems less effective and helpful to call out the bigotry than to try to operate on the premise that understanding will come if only the right words can be found.

  12. Malcolm

    Nanci, I appreciate the fact that you loved what my father taught me. Always good to see you on here. Thanks for reading.

  13. Malcolm

    Danny, you remember those days well in Montgomery. Thanks for coming along this journey.

  14. Jessica Wright

    In June of 2000 I graduated from Sidney Lanier High School the traditionaly white school you spoke of. I would like to thank you, your father, and the others who used their hearts instead of their eyes to judge a person. Without forward thinkers like your father I would never have been able to attend Lanier. I would have been forced to attend Carver or BTW. I thank Dr King the others for all they did but without our white brothers and sisters, the struggle would have been even worse. It took people from all races, and backgrounds to say enough is enough. I thank you all.

  15. Mike

    Hi Malcolm. I meant to call you Thursday. I took Mother to lunch and then to the cemitary. It was storming….raining lightening so we stayed in the car and looked down the hill at Daddy, Meme, Uncle Bobby, Debbie, and Bill Roper who was the minister of music for 30 years.It has been 28 years yet it seems like yesterday.

  16. Malcolm

    Mike, I thought of you as well on May 26th as we share that death anniversary of our fathers, don’t we.

    I did not go to the graveside but I did have a conversation with my father in the car thanking him for all the good he gave me in my life.

    Give my love to your mother, she has been one of those solid rocks in my life.

    Peace to you.

  17. Kathy Lloyd Cooper

    Malcolm, I too grew up right along side you with parents who felt the same way. I loved your dad and your mom. I was so blessed to have him and most of my early teachers continuing the nurturing and lessons my parents were teaching me at home. I grew up drinking out of the”colored” fountains at Loveman’s in Normandale (it was all a 6 year old could do to protest). I was scared to death of policemen. I mean scared. I thought I would be beaten because I did not hate like they did. I truly believe that my early years helped mold me as a social worker and now as minister. So glad Michael Stewart sent me your link. I look forward to reading the rest of your blogs about your dad. He was a remarkable man.

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