USA Today gets one right: Story on African-Americans found in unmarked graves notes religion

Reader Chris Blevins urged us to check out a USA Today story on the discovery of unmarked graves in Texas.

Blevins praised the piece as a rare case of a news outlet “allowing the religious angles to speak for themselves.”

“I know you guys at Get Religion emphasize praise for reporters when they get it right as well as justifiable criticism when they get it wrong,” Blevins noted.

He is right on both counts.

In a tweet, USA Today editor in chief Nicole Carroll linked to the “powerful story” by national reporter Monica Rhor, which opens with this compelling scene:

SUGAR LAND, Texas — Reginald Moore sank deep into silent prayer, an electric candle casting a glow on the countenance of Martin Luther King Jr. embossed on his black T-shirt.

Beside him, on the steps of Sugar Land City Hall, 50 others paused in quiet reflection. Eyes closed. Heads bent. Flames flickering in their hands.

Moore shifted from side to side, as if communicating with a spirit. He silently mouthed an invocation. He lifted his hands to heaven.

His mind returned to the moment, a few months back, when he first saw the skeletal remains of 95 African-Americans discovered at a school construction site in Fort Bend County, about 20 miles southwest of Houston.

He thought of those souls in the unmarked graves, laying forgotten for decades in the soil where a convict lease camp once stood. He thought of the free men, women and children ensnared by a system often called “slavery by another name.” How they toiled and sweated and bore the brunt of the lash, until they dropped in their tracks and were buried where they fell.

That is brilliant writing. And it certainly displays the journalist’s willingness to reflect the strong religion angle.

My only suggestion: I’m not sure the “as if communicating with a spirit” note is helpful or necessary in the third paragraph. I’m confident most readers would get the point if that phrase were chopped. “Moore shifted from side to side” makes perfect sense and paints a relevant picture with no editorial comment on the newspaper’s part.

As the story continues, Rhor offers more insightful religious details:

He envisioned the thread extending from slavery to prison labor to mass incarceration, of the history never covered in textbooks or taught in school. He remembered the parable of the Valley of the Dry Bones, from the Book of Ezekiel. 

In the story, the prophet sees a vision of dry bones that are transformed into human figures — covered by flesh and sinew and skin, resuscitated with the breath of life, and raised out of captivity.

Moore moved to the front of the steps and faced the crowd gathered for an evening vigil in honor of the “Sugar Land 95.” Each of the candles they held, now glimmering in the settling darkness, represented one of the people found at the burial site.

They were there, a previous speaker had said, to be the “voices of those ancestors who had been unearthed.” 

That call — to give voice to those who have long gone unheard — is being echoed not just in Sugar Land, but around the country where long-hidden grave sites of slaves, former slaves and free blacks have been uncovered in recent years — in a small park in New York City, on a plantation in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, on the campus of the University of Georgia, under a playground in Philadelphia.

I’ll refrain from copying and pasting the entire piece and simply note that the USA Today writer does a marvelous job of reporting and writing. This narrative has it all, colorful anecdotes, historical context and contemporary legal drama.

As I read the entire thing, I wondered if the reporter would offer any specific details on Moore’s faith.

She does offer a few:

Moore, a devout Christian who attended seminary school, had long heard their voices calling. He thought of Luke 4:18, his favorite Bible verse, as his mission statement.

“The spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Moore recited. “He has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor, heal the broken-hearted, restore sight to the blind and set the captives free.”

Until the “Sugar Land 95” are given a proper memorial and burial, he said recently, “those people are still in bondage.”

If i can nitpick this phenomenal story a little, what is a “devout” Christian? Regular readers know that’s a common question here at GetReligion. Are there any details about Moore’s religious background or experience or practice that USA Today could provide to “show” rather than “tell” he is devout?

Yes, the kind of details included in the story speak to that to some extent, but I’d still love more specific information. For example, what “seminary school” did he attend? That detail by itself would provide a few clues.

But overall, USA Today’s story is a must-read piece of journalism that mostly gets religion.

Thank you again, Chris Blevins, for sharing the link with us!

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