Who Shall Overcome?

Fire-Bell in the Night

by Oscar Handlin
Little, Brown, 110 pp., $3.50

The stairway smelled of piss.

The smells inside the tenement—number 18,342 East 100th Street, Manhattan—were somewhat more ambiguous. They were a suffocating mixture of rotting food, rancid mattresses, dead rodents, dirt, and the stale odors of human life.

This was to be home. It had been home before: for a family of eight—five kids, three adults…The place altogether was about 25 X 12 feet wide, with a wall separating the kitchen section from the rest. In the kitchen was a bathtub, a tiny, rusty sink, a refrigerator that didn’t work, and an ancient gas range. In one corner was a toilet with a bowl without a seat…

This was to be my home.

William Stringfellow, a young Episcopal layman, fresh out of the Harvard Law School, came to this “home,” and lived here seven years. He was not there in any official capacity, and he was not trying to “go Negro.” He was, rather, trying to be himself: “There was no reason in Harlem to repudiate anything in my own history or heritage as a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, nor to seek to identify myself with the people of Harlem. What was necessary was just to be myself.” My People Is the Enemy is a powerful record, written with verve and literary skill, of those seven years.

Mr. Stringfellow was in Harlem in a dual capacity—as a lawyer and as a Christian. He believed—as a result of indoctrination at law school, he says—that the health of a legal system depends on whether or not the poor and discriminated against are represented before the law. So he was practicing law in Harlem, to do what he could and to learn what he could. The report on what he learned is not comforting. It is not only that the poor man—say, the citizen of Harlem—does not often get good and honest counsel. He does not get the kind of counsel that understands the terrible vulnerability of the poor and can really grasp what is at stake. But of equal importance, Stringfellow would say, is the need to implicate the law in the realities of daily existence, to free it “from pretentious moralism and from superstition and obsolescence as well.” For instance, he would cite the way the rent control law actually works as contrasted with any high-minded intention there may have been or any deluded notion the high-minded liberal may cherish.

As for his role as a Christian, Stringfellow holds that the presence of the Christian among the outcasts of society is the way he represents concretely “the ubiquity and universality of the intercession of Christ.” He is passionately concerned with a drastic overhauling of society, but he does not confuse either social service or social revolution with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This confusion has led to the notion that problems of education, housing, jobs, garbage collection, discrimination, and a thousand other things, including narcotic addiction, must be solved before the …

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