In his memoir, "Plantations, Protests, Pulpits: Lessons from the Phases of My Life," Pastor Harry Blake recalls his childhood on plantations in Arkansas and Louisiana. He reminisces about his time as a young man serving on the Civil Rights battlefield as one of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s lieutenants with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and he reflects upon the 60 years he has spent as a pastor. The book also includes a series of letters to activists, parishioners, pastors, and his family. It concludes with reflections on the sudden passing of his wife, Norma Blake.
Excerpt from The Early Years on the Plantation
Lying on a handmade mattress filled with white stuffing from the cotton patch, Miss Doll willed herself to bring me into the world. Though still a young woman, her conception must’ve seemed as miraculous as God’s blessing of Abraham to Sarah. Married at the fertile age of seventeen, Miss Doll had remained barren for seven years.
And what must my father have been feeling? He’d already lost his first wife and child during a birth and had likely resigned himself to not ever being a father. Whatever he was feeling — excitement or terror or both — no one would’ve known it. My father never showed emotion. I once saw an angry white man threaten to kill him (he could’ve done it too), and Daddy didn't flinch.
My Daddy was born in Mississippi, but he moved to Portland, Arkansas after the death of his first wife. A white man there had leased about 100 acres of land to a black man whose children and children’s children worked on the land. Daddy joined them in toiling those fields then in 1927 joined one of the black overseer’s daughters in marriage. The young couple moved 19 miles away to Lake Village, Arkansas where Daddy worked as a tenant farmer on the Leland Plantation. I was born there in 1934.
Excerpt from A Letter to Parishioners
You Can’t Pick All the Cotton at Once
When I was growing up, our school schedule revolved around when we were needed in the fields. In the spring, once the threat of frost had passed, we’d start working the soil by digging a long narrow trench with a hoe or plow. Afterwards, we’d run water over it to get the soil nice and moist then plant seeds in groups of three a few inches apart. When the seeds were covered and the soil firmed, we’d go back to school and wait. In a good year, the germination process would happen fast.
In a week’s time, we’d start to see sprouts. We wouldn’t have to do much over the summer but water them. In a month’s time, the plants would start branching. Another month would have those branches covered in squares, the flower buds. Seemingly overnight the fields would be covered in white flowers.
Once the wind and bees were done with their business, the flowers would turn pink then just as suddenly, they'd start to darken. Within a week, that flower would've shriveled up and fallen off. At this point, the cotton bolls would start coming in. They grew over the course of a month or more. During this time, all we could really do was pray there was no drought or flood. When the bolls cracked open, the fluffy white fiber would appear, and it would be time to pick the cotton.
Three things I learned from picking cotton: harvesting is the hardest part; a picker can be cut while picking, and one can not pick all the cotton at once.
The same is true of the work the church does. The church has to do the early toiling then be patient. If not, you end up picking the flowers, when the best fruit is yet to come. Some of the work of the church will fall away, but remember, it’s just making room for the big harvest.
Except from A Letter to Pastors
Don't Compete. Collaborate.
As I’ve mentioned E. Edward Jones and Brady Blade have been my best friends in the ministry. We knew each other's secrets and strengths and supported each other, but we were not without our insecurities.
One thing I struggled with was having two friends who were great preachers because I didn’t consider myself even a good one. Nobody shouted when I preached. There was a time when Blade, who’s a few years younger than I am, would need nurses standing by. Paramedics were routinely called due to so many people being overcome with the holy spirit and shouting. Once at a revival in Marshall, Texas, a man was so overcome with the spirit he ran through the wall.
As I found myself struggling with the knowledge that my preaching was inferior to theirs, the Lord asked me these questions:
Do they have good churches?
I replied, “Yes.”
Do you fill churches?
I replied, “Yes.”
Do you get invitations to preach at other churches?
I replied, “Yes.”
Do you get revivals?
I replied, “Yes.”
Does your church give you good anniversaries?
I replied, “Yes.”
This reasoning salved my ego. I recognized that while I couldn’t emotionally move people, I was effective.
One thing I was good at was bringing people together and sharing power. I could be radical in this regard. I once suggested to Jones that instead of building the $700,000 and $300,000 sanctuaries he and I had planned for our respective churches, we should pool our resources and build a million dollar facility. Since his church had founded mine, I told him that it was only fitting that he should be the head pastor, and I would be his assistant. Jokingly, I added that this would allow me to preach the 51 sermons when he would be away. I started talking to my deacons about the idea, and when Jones saw that I was serious, he came to me and said, “Little Nigga, I ain’t gon’ let you take my church!”
He died without having fulfilled his vision, and I have been at Mount Canaan over 50 years and haven’t fulfilled mine. Imagine what we could’ve done together!
Excerpt from A Letter to My Family
Don’t Wait to Show Your Spouse How Much You Love Them
I owe everything to my beloved. Norma, so naturally, the words she spoke on our 50th anniversary convicted me. “I have been a Married Widow for 50 Years,” she said.
Her words broke my heart because I knew they were true; I knew that I had done my wife, my children, and my siblings a grave injustice by neglecting them. I’d justified it in my mind by believing the Civil Right Movement and the needs of the church were greater, but maturity had brought me to realized they were not. Maybe, I was too close to see their suffering and to see their pain. I was so focused on the outside world. If I had it do it over again, I would do it differently.
I began to spend more time with family and friends. Norma and I had just purchased our dream house on the lake, and we were looking forward to spending our days and nights sitting on the patio watching sunrises and sunsets. But Norma didn’t get to move in. My wife and I had a rich, good, and blessed life together. I know Norma knew I loved her. I still wish I’d taken more opportunities to show her just how much.