Minister: Protest Part of ‘a Larger Conversation about Racial Inequity’

January 24, 2023
Rev. John Gibbons of Bedford was among the protesters occupying the office of Boston Mayor Michelle Wu on Jan. 12. They were there to advocate for changing the name of Faneuil Hall, which is named after a slave trader. Courtesy photo

The man who donated Faneuil Hall to the City of Boston in 1742 had “one and only claim to fame. He made a lot of money – and much of that money was made in the slave trade,” the Rev. John Gibbons of Bedford asserted.

That’s why Gibbons, minister emeritus of the First Parish Church on the Common, was part of a group occupying the office of Boston Mayor Michelle Wu on Jan. 12, demanding an audience to present the case for changing the name.

“We would not erase the memory of Peter Faneuil: we would tell the plain and ugly truth about his morally bankrupt legacy, for the truth shall make us free,” Gibbons told about 35 protesters. “Only when the truth is embraced may we progress toward repair and reconciliation.”  

Gibbons and three others were arrested after they refused to leave when directed by building security. The charge of trespassing was dropped a few hours later.

“This was not a whim,” Gibbons stressed in an interview. “We have been trying to call attention to this issue for five years. The name issue is just the opening for a much larger conversation about racial inequity and how Boston can best address its legacy of white supremacy and structural racism.”

Gibbons retired in July 2021 after 31 years as senior minister of First Parish. “It was like a vacation at first, but after a while I got disoriented and felt a lack of purpose and meaning.”

“A colleague at the Arlington Street Church, opposite the Boston Public Garden, offered me the position of community minister for good trouble! (The exclamation mark is part of the title.) It’s largely honorific, but she offered to give me a place to preach a couple of times a year and get involved in community issues.” The expression “good trouble” was popularized by the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis.

“I often describe this phase of my life by saying: Many retired ministers have the good manners to die or move far away. Having done neither and wanting to stay out of the way of Bedford’s First Parish, I needed a way to reinvent myself and be useful.”

In his new role, Gibbons said, “I have been meeting with Black clergy and other denominations and activists – people of faith, people of conscience – looking at issues of reparations and how we can address them.”

“This has been an opportunity for me to learn a lot. In multiracial endeavors, I’ve had to step back to listen and to learn. It has given me an opportunity to use some of my people skills and feel like I’m serving some larger purpose.”

Gibbons said Wu did not acknowledge the protesters’ letters over the past several months. When she was a candidate for Boston City Council, she seemed amenable to a discussion, he noted.  “Her perspective may have changed now that she is mayor.”

The demonstration took place in the anteroom of the mayor’s office, and a staff member said “we could even spend the night,” Gibbons recounted. “We did some singing and we did some witnessing and there were white people and Black people and Christians and Jews and everyone had a chance to speak.”

Around 9 p.m., he related, security personnel showed up and said, “‘You have been the most courteous group of protesters we ever have had here. But we are going to clear the room, and if you stay you will be arrested.’ Frankly, we had anticipated that.” Gibbons, 70, was the youngest of four who planned to be arrested. He said they had been trained in “non-violent direct action in civil disobedience.”

A half-hour later, authorities took Gibbons, retired nursery school teacher Craig Simpson, Sister Linda Bessom of the Sisters of Notre Dame, and the Rev. Elizabeth Perry-Wood of the Unitarian Church in Brookline to a police station near Government Center. They were charged with trespassing.  

They were released on bail around 3:30 a.m., he continued, and in a courtroom five hours later the district attorney’s office recommended that the charges be dropped. “We were prepared to see it through, but we were allowed to leave,” he said.

Gibbons has been arrested before: at the governor’s office as part of a sit-in organized by the National Poor People’s Campaign, and with other Bedford residents in a “climate justice action” at the site of a proposed pipeline in West Roxbury.

“Choosing to purposefully break the law is not taken lightly,” Gibbons reflected. “It represents our having tried to make change through other means and now needing to increase the awareness. We hold in balance the principles of non-violence and respect for the integrity of other people, but at the same time recognizing that change requires tension.”

Gibbons said it’s about more than changing a name; “you need to look at the totality of somebody’s reputation.” “Boston’s first auction block was on the site of Faneuil Hall. Some of the history is just horrific. When Faneuil died in 1743, he had slaves in his will. He was a monarchist; he had no participation in the revolution or event leading up to it. He probably would have been nauseated by the term ‘Cradle of Liberty.’”

He described “an integrated approach to these issues. There has been a mock slave auction, a mock trial of Peter Faneuil, a sit-in at the rotunda of Quincy Market, and more recently, we had an event at Faneuil Hall where three of us chained ourselves and stayed for about eight hours.”

There is evidence that government is “looking squarely at Boston’s racist legacy,” Gibbons said. “A few months ago, the City Council unanimously passed an apology for slavery and a call for the city to look at instances of racism in public monuments, hiring practices, housing, all the other ways. About three weeks ago the council passed a resolution to establish a task force on reparations.”

Ironically, he noted, “Faneuil Hall has been a rallying point for many progressive purposes. But in our view, the name of Faneuil really chains us to the ugly past. The economies, the mores established around the institution of slavery – we would look to embrace a future that is more worthy.” 

Gibbons said a recent poll shows that more than half of Boston’s residents – and 81 percent of Black residents – favor a name change. “I do think the momentum is on the side of moving forward.”

During the sit-in outside the mayor’s office, he declared “This movement to change the name of Slavetrader Hall is still gaining momentum, but we would be here no matter what.  None of us can acclimate and accustom to injustice: the name of Faneuil is bad for Boston, bad for our children, bad for business, bad for our conscience, bad for all of us.”  

Later, Gibbons pointed out that Faneuil Hall and the adjacent marketplace are “one of the most visited tourist attractions in the United States.” He said of the 143 vendor stalls, none of them is Black-owned. We think that this is wrong. It’s not the kind of Boston that is going to lead us into the future.”

“It really has been a blessing in my life to be able to protest in this way,” he testified. “I feel fortunate to be on what really is a journey.”

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