Archbishop Sterling Lands II is the senior pastor of Greater Calvary Bible Church, formerly Greater Calvary Missionary Baptist Church. He is the founder and Presiding Bishop of Family Life International Fellowship, a well-known civil rights and community activist, a youth advocate and author of 18 books.
The Bishop's Work in Civil Rights
I was born and raised in a little town called Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I went to grade school and high school there. In those days we were completely segregated, separate and unequal. My high school diploma says: graduated from the colored school. I cherish that because it allows me to never forget where I came from.
My civil rights work all began when I was in the 11th grade. I was standing on the balcony of our school — this would have been about 1961—and I saw a group of kids marching on the highway, carrying signs and singing the song “We Shall Overcome.” I recognized some of the marchers from my high school. So, I joined my first march.
We went downtown to the State Capitol building, then on to the Governor’s Mansion. We marched down between state troopers who had large guns and big German Shepherds, and some had batons. We kneeled in front of the Mansion and prayed for equal access to educational resources. At the end of the prayer, we marched back and then dispersed.
The next year, 1962, the entire Civil Rights Movement shifted into a higher gear. This was the time of my first sit-in downtown at a coffee and donut shop. Late one night, we were playing our music at a recording studio, and we were thirsty. We went next door to get some coffee and toast. The guy looked at us and said, “We don’t serve Negroes here.” But we were thirsty, so our leader said, “If you can just give us a Coke, man, or a cup of coffee.” And the guy said, “If you all don’t get out of here, I’m going to shoot you.”
Our leader asked the man to put the gun down and a scuffle ensued. We had to scatter to avoid the police.
The reason I’m sharing that is because that incident was out of step with the other nonviolent marches happening across the country. Those were peaceful walk-in or sit-ins. The white people who were offended spit on them, said all manner of mean things, they kicked and beat those nonviolent protesters and the protestors just sat and took it. That’s wasn’t quite our group's view on how to gain rights: we felt we had to be ready to physically protect ourselves.
We were ready to demand our rights. Our student group staged a number of protest activities. Then in 1964, Stokely Carmichael recruited H. Rap Brown and a couple of us began The Black Power movement. That’s when Carmichael first raised his fist as a symbol of the movement.
We all lined up behind that. Now keep in mind that there was another movement going on, led by Dr. King and Reverend Abernathy and others. They were continuing to peacefully protest. I was not on that team.
Black Power was about the cold realization that white people were not going to easily relinquish their power, that they would concede nothing without force and we had to forcefully demand what was rightfully ours. For instance, the first successful Alabama "sit-in" was a result of the protesters training with our people in Baton Rouge.
We felt like it was time to do more than sing songs, so we started writing plans and putting together a protest concept. We needed funds from the University for our work and we had to get the attention of the people who wrote the checks. We decided we were just going to lay our bodies down across the highway. We laid there for several hours. The sheriffs in that area came out and finally got us up, of course. But we’d made a statement. And, lo and behold, there was some small changes. Nothing major happened, but that was a learning experience.
Fighting for Equal Access to Minimum Wages and Good Jobs
If I fast forward a couple of years, I graduated from the School of Engineering. By 1967, things were really taking a turn—industry was trying to meet the equal rights demands of union leaders. Reverend Jesse Jackson was moving to get different companies to make agreements and create opportunity for Black people. At this same time, Dr. King was preparing for the Poor People’s March and his focus was beginning to change. Dr. King turned his attention to raising Black people out of poverty through fair access to employment and minimum wage guarantees. We also protested against “Redlining,” so that Black people could live where they wished.
After turning down several engineering job offers, I decided to just play music and travel for a while with a band. But we ran into some financial difficulties and I took a job in St. Louis.
At that time, Missouri was an extremely difficult state for Black people. The next year, Dr. King was killed and the streets were hot across the entire nation, including St. Louis. At this time, we tried to meet with city officials to discuss civil rights. I’d become more sophisticated in my approach to creating social change. We no longer just laid down on the street in front of vehicles. We decided that if they’re going to arrest one of us, then we all go to jail.
Access to a Good Education
Because of my youth, I never worked closely with Dr. King. But after his death, I met with Mrs. King and Reverend Bevel, who was one of his lieutenants. Dr. Bernard LaFayette was also leader of our close cadre of activists. Together, we strategized on how to proceed with our plans for civil rights. For instance, schools lowered the academic standards for Black youth so that more Black athletes could play ball. Our group protested and went into some serious negotiations with the schools. Finally, we realized that the district president, vice-president and superintendent were not going to help us. We demanded their resignation. After a year of demanding change, the president, vice-president and superintendent resigned.
We were left with rebuilding the school administration and policies. We organized to help the school board choose the new superintendent and some more board member. In the process, we ensured that academic standards were enforced for all students, regardless of color.
In the midst of all of that, my family and I moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In 1974, I received a job offer that I couldn’t refuse. That company was unusual: their leadership team celebrated the fact that they had the only Black man who was completely in charge of a nationwide corporate engineering department.
Achievements with NAACP
But the same problems remained for the average Black worker: they were routinely making below minimum wage and our young men and women faced harsh, institutional racism on many fronts, as they still do to this day. So I joined the NAACP there and started working with them to rectify the wage structure and work with the city to try and improve the relationship between the police and the community. We tried to find politicians who were honest with us and willing to help. We did some great things. We elected the first black Secretary of State there. I am proud of the NAACP and our work in Milwaukee.
I then moved to Austin, Texas in 1984. It was not my intent to be active in Texas. When I got here, the city seemed so inviting. It took a while to realize that the white “haves” worked overtime to keep the black and brown “have-nots” from equity and inclusion. I developed a new strategy and I’ve been here ever since, working on various civil rights project. The most important project I have undertaken is starting a school for Black children, preschool through high school graduation, to ensure they received a top education. Many of our graduates go on to earn advanced degrees and scholarships. Every child completes high school.
My Answer to White Systemic Racism
Yes. That was our answer, actually. That was my new strategy. I was no longer going to get out and box with the law or with anyone. We’re just going to raise up educated Black generations.
We started a program that we call the Rites of Passage, teaching kids how to be character-centered, how to be family-focused. Our objective: teach students how to make better choices and how better choices will result in better outcomes.
It’s been working. We have graduates in Dubai, Chicago, New York, all over the world. My wife and my sons, all certified teachers and ministers, are the students’ educators. Our entire family is devoted to this civil rights strategy.
I have the experience to understand that we are not going to be able to change the system by working in the system, under the current rules of the system. Now that initially sounds as if we want to overthrow something, but that’s really not true. What we need to do is to get the churches to start to preach and teach individuals church members to raise their families to be focused on pursuing the right ideals, the right way, for the right reason, expecting the right results.
If we can get the churches to do that, ultimately, the government and the city will be made up of the people who represent these ministries. And they will recognize the imperative to change the system.
All people must recognize that systemic racism, structural racism is real. White privilege, white superiority is deep-rooted and a flawed mindset. For instance, in the recent murders of Black men and women, the police departments are just extensions of the old slave patrols. And despite promises from government for change, nothing is really going to change until white people recognize that white privilege is something that has been taken for granted.
White people don’t realize that they benefit in every part of their lives from this notion of white superiority. They just take for granted that their standard is the only correct standard. Right is always white and white is always right.
For the adults who are trying to live the kind of lives that will begin to turn this big ship around, they must recognize that all Black people, everyday, live with systemic racism, structural racism. Once white people can look at that and own it, they can effect change. They are then positioned to help their children and their children’s children come to a point where they say, “We are all created equal, and with that equality should also be equity.”
Furthermore, initially we are going to have to say, “Equality is great, but we’re going to have to reach down and pull people up from where we pushed them—in order to attain an equitable lifestyle.”
If you look at the words ‘right’ and ‘righteous,’ you find out that it’s the flip side of the coin that’s called justice. If I want to do right, I must first seek justice. And if I seek justice, then righteousness will automatically follow. .
"Pastors Across Texas" Can Bring Hope and Change
There is some light. We’re starting a new peer collaboration in Texas called Pastors Across Texas. It’s a coalition of pastors—black, brown and white. We are focused on dismantling systemic racism and this whole concept of white privilege, as painful as it might be to some of my white brothers.
And I do have hope. Yes, absolutely. I believe that each generation becomes more enlightened. We have to have a long view. Maybe two, three generations from now, people will reach the point where they don’t need to consider white privilege or systemic racism because it no longer exists. Black people will not have to fight constantly for their life just because their skin happens to be a different color. That’s my hope.