Earlier this month, Ordain Women announced its latest campaign in the struggle for gender equality within the LDS Church – the Ready to Witness campaign. In doing so, my sisters are saying to our beloved Church leaders, “We are ready to take our rightful places as witnesses of the Savior.” And I can’t think of a more fitting time to embark upon this campaign than the month of February – Black History Month. Because as we move forward in faith in this endeavor, we can draw so much strength and courage from African-Americans who have been powerful witnesses for equality, such as Sister Pollard.
As is all too common with great women of our past, not much is known of this woman. We don’t know the date of her birth, the details of her upbringing, occupation, marital status, or even her full name. She is simply known as Sister (or Mother) Pollard. About all that we do know is that she was a beloved community elder in Montgomery, Alabama at the time of the historic bus boycott, and that she made a lasting impact on America through her witness.
Dr. King told her story in a sermon at Chicago’s New Covenant Baptist Church in April 1967:
When we were in the midst of the bus boycott, we had a marvelous old lady that we affectionately called Sister Pollard… And one week I can remember that I had gone through a very difficult week. Threatening calls had come in all day and all night the night before, and I was beginning to falter and to get weak within and to lose my courage. And I never will forget that I went to the mass meeting that Monday night very discouraged and a little afraid, and wondering whether we were going to win the struggle. And I got up to make my talk that night, but it didn’t come out with strength and power. Sister Pollard came up to me after the meeting and said, “Son, what’s wrong with you?” Said, “You didn’t talk strong enough tonight.”
And I said, “Nothing is wrong, Sister Pollard, I’m all right.”
She said, “You can’t fool me.” Said, “Something wrong with you.” And then she went on to say these words, “Is the white folks doing something to you that you don’t like?”
I said, “Everything is going to be all right, Sister Pollard.”
And then she finally said, “Now come close to me and let me tell you something one more time, and I want you to hear it this time.” She said, “Now I done told you we is with you.” She said, “Now, even if we ain’t with you, the Lord is with you.” And she concluded by saying, “The Lord’s going to take care of you.”
And I’ve seen many things since that day. I’ve gone through many experiences since that night in Montgomery, Alabama. Since that time Sister Pollard has died. Since that time I’ve been in more than eighteen jail cells. Since that time I’ve come perilously close to death at the hands of a demented Negro woman. Since that time I’ve seen my home bombed three times. Since that time I’ve had to live every day under the threat of death. Since that time I’ve had many frustrating and bewildering nights. But over and over again I can still hear Sister Pollard’s words: “God’s going to take care of you.” So today I can face any man and any woman with my feet solidly placed on the ground and my head in the air because I know that when you are right, God will fight your battle.
As someone who currently lives in the reality of Dr. King’s famous dream, I am so grateful that he had a Sister Pollard to witness to him. And I truly believe that our daughters and granddaughters will one day be grateful for the Sister Pollards within this movement who continue to witness to our Church leaders about the need for gender equality within our community of believers. And OW’s Ready to Witness campaign affords us on opportunity to be just like Sister Pollard; provided we learn the lessons her story has to teach us.
First, you will notice that Sister Pollard didn’t wait for an invitation to provide helpful correction to her beloved church leader. And we should be clear that she acted out of a profound love for Dr. King. She simply loved him and the community too much to allow them to be less than God meant for them to be. So she spoke up, just as we will speak up when we send in our postcards and letters proclaiming that we are ready to witness. And like Sister Pollard, we do so because we love our leaders and fellow Mormons too much to keep half of our community from partaking of all of the fruits of the Gospel.
Second, Sister Pollard was not easily dissuaded from giving her witness. Dr. King’s original response could be summed up as “I’ve got this, woman!” In much the same way, Church leaders have responded to our previous demands for the priesthood with a similar refrain, “This is the Lord’s church and it is being conducted just as it should be by those whom Heavenly Father has called to lead.” In other words, they have said, “We’ve got this, women!”
Yet, Sister Pollard pushed beyond Dr. King’s initial dismissals and literally got in his face (“Now come close to me and let me tell you something one more time …”). We are demonstrating similar persistence through this campaign. Despite prior rebuffs (and even reprisals from local leaders), we are going to tell our leaders “something one more time” — women are ready to witness and be ordained to the priesthood.
Third, Sister Pollard was not intimidated by her lack of position or learning. While we know little about Sister Pollard, it’s probably safe to conclude from her plainspoken language that she was not a biblical scholar. Yet, she had no problem with challenging the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a recent Ph.D. from a prestigious northern university, resting solely upon her authority as a witness of God’s power and mercy.
And this witness is what sustained Dr. King through the challenges ahead. Even amidst the turmoil of jailings, stabbings, bombings and death threats, he was able to rely on the Sister Pollard’s witness from the Holy Spirit – “The Lord’s going to take care of you.”
Likewise, none of us should be intimidated by our lack of status within the Church hierarchy or the fact that we don’t have a college degree or a Master’s in Religious Studies. For those of us who have received a witness from the Holy Spirit that God wants all children of heavenly parents to toil together side-by-side in the building of Zion, we have every right to proclaim that witness, regardless of our eloquence, “faithfulness” or current status within the Church. In fact, we are duty-bound to do so by our baptismal covenant, in which we agreed to “stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things.”
And finally, we can be like Sister Pollard by keeping another of our baptismal covenants – “to mourn with those that mourn and comfort those that stand in need of comfort.” Dr. King must have taken great comfort from not only the promise of divine assistance, but the temporal assurance of “We is with you.” After all, in the end, it wasn’t just the goodness of God, but also the unity of the local black church community that ultimately led to greater equality for all citizens of Montgomery, Alabama.
Likewise, we will only see gender equality in this Church if we maintain an equal measure of unity within our OW community. We must continue to mourn with those who suffer church discipline as a price for their witness. We must continue to comfort those who are criticized and ostracized by friends and even family for this cause of righteousness. We must continue to demonstrate that Christ-like love that is at the heart of our witness and is the reason for our hope of building Zion.
And guided by the example of Sister Pollard, we will do just that as we continue to bear witness that “Ye are all one in Christ Jesus” and that women should be ordained to the priesthood as full participants in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.