Monday, April 26, 2010

the lost boys

the lost boys

I was perusing the 'current events' magazines at Barnes and Noble and came across a wonderful one called NEED. Its mission statement on its cover hooked me - "We are not out to save the world but to tell the stories of those who are." Its stories are indeed moving and its photographs are striking. Sadly, its publisher fell on hard times during the recession and stopped publication. (Why are my favorite t.v. shows and magazines always discontinued - does this happen to you, too?) Thankfully, you can still read its articles on its website - needmagazine.com

One of the articles especially touched me, an article about one of the 'lost boys' of Africa. Do you know their story? They were displaced by the civil war in Sudan and made their way across many, many treacherous miles fleeing the horrors of war, taking care of each other along the way. If you don't know their story then I recommend "God Grew Tired of Us: A Memoir" by John Bul Dau and Michael S. Seednet, "What Is The What" by Dave Eggers, and "Brothers in Hope: The Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan by Mary Williams and Gregory Christie (a picture book that won a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book award). Their story reminds me that God seems to be concerned with the thriving of the weakest instead of the survival of the fittest.

The article is in Issue 6 of the magazine. It is titled "Lost Boys Return" and is about one of the children who became a doctor and who is now serving in the hellish Darfur region of Sudan and two of his comrades who are also doctors who come for 2 weeks to help him. His name is Tut Pur and I want to share a word picture of him with you to help us remember that there is hope around us in the most surprising places and that we can build hope together in our world -

"Tut Pur is accustomed to questions from people who wonder why he - or anyone - would return to such a broken place. 'People didn't expect that a medical doctor would come here because there was a lot of hostility in the area when I came in December 2007. People were asking, Why aren't you in Juma, Malakal, or Bor? But I told them that someone had to come here and help you so that we could make a difference. So it is a commitment from my heart to be with this community, to help them as long as God provides. I have a heart for this place where I was born.' He has been the only full-time doctor at the hospital since the wars started."

Enough said :-)

Saturday, April 24, 2010

favorite farmer


favorite farmer

Grandpa, you are my Pepa. Before me, you were

Robert Elias Cunningham: son, brother, husband and father

God, through my birth, made you Grandpa

I, in my smallness, through toddling talk and wondering words, made you Pepa


Just now, deep in my life, I feel you kneeling in your garden,

Planting your plants,

Your skin the color of newly plowed rows, your smell the humble smell of dirt

Sweat drips off your forehead and mixes with rain and soil

Nourishing plants so they can grow


Your heart, faithful and soft, is a red, big, beautiful

Better Boy Tomato

Swaying softly in whispering winds of

Southern summer skies


Your soul, bright and gentle, is a yellow ear of

Sweet corn

Wrapping itself gently in tender husks,

Protecting itself from searing sun, wooly worms and harsh hours


Your mind, persistent and broad, is an experienced

Briggs and Stratton motor

Running a plow, working through problems, fixing anything

Accepting me, allowing me to grow as the

Land accepts the seed and allows it to grow


Your strength, helping and enduring, is a trusty

Farmall tractor

Helping keep the farmer from struggling behind a mule and a plow,

Enduring almost eighty years,

Puttering, held together with baling wire and Duck tape, down one more row


Pepa, you are our favorite farmer

Just as you sowed your seed and gathered your garden

So you sow

Faith, hope and love into your family's

Hearts, souls, minds and strengths and

Gather us to you


We love you my Grandpa, my Pepa, my friend

Monday, April 19, 2010

women in the civil rights movement




women in the civil rights movement

As I read this book I found myself being full of thanks for the black women whose life stories fill its pages. I was thankful because the lives of these women help me work my way through a conundrum that has risen in my heart and mind over the years that I have lived with black people and poor people in America and in Africa. The conundrum is – I am white and of the middle class. The people around me are black and poor. I plant myself in places where it is possible to live a life of shared faith, hope, and love with them, a life that builds a better, more human world for all people, a life that becomes the “beloved community.” Will the life that I have planted produce fruit? Will possibilities become realities? Of all the words Malcolm X spoke, the ones with which I struggled most mightily were not the ones about white people or Christianity. The words with which I struggled most mightily were the ones about the impossibility of the “beloved community,” the ones that stated the case (and a very good case it was) that white people and black people cannot live a life of shared faith, hope, and love but can only live lives in competition as socio-economic, cultural, and political equals. His words, along with my life experiences in the area of black/white relations, leave me with a feeling of being “stuck,” as if the ideas from the Civil Rights Movement are a morass and my own thoughts, feelings, and actions concerning civil rights are trapped, confused, and impeded. The lives of the women in this book, however, make a way for me out of the morass. These women show me that if I use my life to serve the lives of others, especially the lives of the poor, then I will become a seed in a fallow ground that is bringing life to those who believe that all people, regardless of color, nationality, socio-economic status, sex, ability, or sexual orientation, are human beings and of inestimable worth. Women like Fannie Lou Hamer, who was one of the seeds that grew into the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, Septima Poinsette Clark, who was one of the seeds which created the Citizenship Schools upon which the Civil Rights Movement was built, Modjeska Simkins, who was one of the seeds that grew into the Brown v. Board of Education case before the Supreme Court, Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, who was one of the seeds that grew into the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and Ella Baker, who was one of the seeds that grew into the SNCC, are people who planted themselves in places of white supremacy, despair, and hate and gave their lives in seemingly small ways to bring faith, hope, and love to the poor people around them. To use biblical language, they were like the tiny mustard seed that grows into the trees so tall they have room many birds. Look what they did!
I think we live in a “celebrity culture” today, a culture that looks for a charismatic leader to help us know what to think and know what to do in all of the areas of our lives. I think this is dangerous, so I especially appreciate the thoughts on “group-centered leadership” in the chapter by Carol Mueller titled “Ella Baker and the Origins of ‘Participatory Democracy.’” Baker has become one of my heroes because she worked toward the idea that the Civil Rights Movement was about people struggling together in a democratic society to make American society a more human place for all people (and democratic work is indeed a struggle) rather than about Mosaic type leaders leading an oppressed people to a promised land. I found these words by Baker to be profound –

The inclination toward group-centered leadership, rather than toward a leader centered group pattern of organization, was refreshing indeed to those of the older group who bear the scars of battle, the frustrations and the disillusionment that come when the prophetic leader turns out to have heavy feet of clay.

I have always had a deep respect for the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr., and I know the pain inflicted by the obstinate people on the Greenville County Council who refused to recognize the MLK holiday, but it is precisely because of Baker’s reasoning that I wanted there to be a “Civil Rights Day” to celebrate the Civil Rights Movement instead of a “Martin Luther King Jr. holiday to celebrate the life of one leader in the movement.
This book helped me see again what an important role South Carolina and South Carolinians played in the Civil Rights Movement. I am training to be a teacher and have learned that 3rd graders in South Carolina Public Schools learn about South Carolina history. If I teach 3rd grade then I am planning on helping my students learn about the great South Carolinians Septima Poinsette Clark and Modjeska Simkins. I am from South Carolina and I only learned about them now as a graduate student reading this book. I suppose that some South Carolinians are proud of South Carolina because of its Civil War history but I am proud to share my birth state with Clark, who created the Citizenship Schools that became the base upon which the Civil Rights Movement was built, and Simkins, whose work with the S.C. NAACP helped bring the school desegration cases to the U.S. Supreme Court. I am proud of South Carolina because of its Civil Rights history.
As I read about the Highlander Folk School I was amazed that pro-union, pro-civil rights thinking of this kind was percolating in the Appalacian Mountains of Tennessee in the ‘30’s, ‘40’s, ‘50’s, and ‘60’s. As read the chapter by Donna Langston on “The Women of Highlander” I was reminded again of the precarious time in history in which the Civil Rights Movement occurred. I remembered that America’s struggle with Communism was at its peak during this time period and that anyone or any movement that challenged the socio-economic, cultural, or political powers of that day were likely to be brandished “communist sympathizers.” This remembrance helps me stand in wonder before the work of the Higlander Folk School and think humbly at the important ways that school helped shape the thought and actions of people who went out and stood up against the injustice perpetuated by the powerful of the day.
I found that Bernice Johnson Reagon’s chapter in the book, “Women as Culture Carriers in the Civil Rights Movement: Fannie Lou Hamer, is a good example of what I meant in my reflections on The Autobiography of Malcolm X when I wrote about “people being guided by religion” as opposed to “people guiding religion.” Reagon presents Hamer as a woman whose life was guided by religion, as a person who found a hunger and thirst for justice and the strength to stand up to injustice in her religion. I have been influenced by the life and work of the Latin American liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, and in this chapter I see that Hamer was a living example of that type of understanding of God, a type calls people to preach the good news to the poor, heal the broken-hearted, preach deliverance to the captives, recover sight to the blind, set at liberty those who are bruised, preach the acceptable day of the Lord, and carry the cross.



Class Discussion:

I am the only male student in our class. I reflected on this fact as we discussed this book. This book and our discussion help me realize that that there are two kinds of power. One kind of power is a power that dominates. It is the power that a leader has in Ella Baker’s idea of the “leader centered group.” This power still seems to be the kind of power that is most important in our society. The other kind of power is a power that serves. It is the power that a group has in Baker’s idea of “group centered leadership.” This power still seems to be the kind of power that is growing in small places around our country. The book helps me see that power that serves is the kind of power that can change society. This is the kind of power seen in the words and actions of Fannie Lou Hamer and all of the women in our book. Our discussion helps me know that this kind of power is appreciated and understood by the women around me. I think that Grace’s discussion about Eleanor Roosevelt and Fannie Lou Hamer was poignant. Sometimes I forget that social change can come from people like Eleanor Roosevelt. Grace made the observation that Roosevelt and Hamer were polar opposites on the outside. Roosevelt was elite in her education, socio-economic position, and cultural position. She was white in a society dominated by white people. Hamer was Roosevelt’s polar opposite. She was uneducated and at the bottom of the socio-economic and cultural world. Grace made the observation that Roosevelt and Hamer were of the same spirit on the inside. They both used their words and lives to serve others, especially those who were poor and oppressed. I am hopeful that our reading and our discussion of these issues will encourage all of us to use our education and our lives to help build a more human world around us.


“Standing On My Sisters Shoulders” reflection:

I was deeply touched as I listened to Mae Bertha Carter from Sunflower County, Mississippi talk about her 13 children and hear about her family’s decision to be the first black family in her county to try to integrate the public schools. She and her husband wanted to see that their children did not become sharecroppers. I was impressed that they risked their livelihood, and even their lives, to register their children in the all white elementary school and that they courageously confronted the white power structure in their county to do it. I am the father of two boys and as she talked about waiting for the school bus to bring her children home and standing at the window to count each one to make sure they returned home safely I knew in my heart how she must have felt and wondered if I would have had the courage to do as she did. I was overjoyed to learn that seven of her children graduated from Ole Miss.
I was impressed with Joan Trumpauer Mulholland as she talked about her integration of Tougaloo College. Her action asked the question, “In integration , why do we assume that black people must be brought into white culture instead of white people being brought into black culture? What makes us think white culture is better than black culture?”
I wondered at the heart of Constance Slaughter, how she integrated Ole Miss law school and had to stand on her tiptoes and lean into the picture of her graduating class because her white, male classmates tried to block her from view. She must have been made of stone but I know she had a brilliant mind and a heart of flesh.
One of the first women elected to the House of Representatives in Mississippi was asked, “How can you legislate morality?” She answered, “You can’t legislate morality but you can create an atmosphere where change can come outside of the realm of fear.” What a wise answer.
I was touched by Winifred Green, who said that as a white women her family disowned her when she joined the civil rights movement but that she found family in the civil rights movement.
I was touched by these words of Fannie Lou Hamer when she was asked about bitterness and hatred toward segregationists, “You can’t have that kind of hate inside of you. It will destroy you. They are sick…we have to kind a way to love them and get rid of them through the vote.” Amen.
All of these women, and all people like them, are the foundation on which “the beloved community” can be built.

warriors don't cry

warriors don't cry

As a “warrior” in the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957, Melba Pattillo Beals and eight other black students tried not to cry because of the hatred spewed at them by segregationists, the indifference (except on a few occasions – 101st Airborne, Danny, Mrs. Pickwick, Link) shown to them by the white power structure, and the suspicion and fear of them by many people in the black community. They tried not to cry during that year of struggle and suffering but I found myself crying for them as I lived their year with them through Ms. Pattillo Beals memoir.
I am at Converse College because I am training to be an elementary school teacher. As I read this book I watched with keen interest the actions of the teachers at Central High School that Ms. Pattillo Beals mentions. From my own experiences as a student and as a teacher I know that teachers can change the lives of their students. I remember that Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, decided to become a teacher because she believed that children do not come into the world with hatred in their hearts. No, hatred was something that was taught by families and societies. She believed as a teacher that she could teach children to love. I believe that, too. In Ms. Pattillo Beals’s memoir, though, I saw only one teacher who tried to be fair. That teacher was Mrs. Pickwick, the shorthand instructor. She tried to be fair by using discipline to provide a safe place for learning to take place. I did not see any teacher who tried to teach love into the lives of students whose hearts were filled with learned hatred. Perhaps this was because of the ostracism and danger a white teacher would have faced at that time in that place if they had reached out to the nine black students in their school. But if all of the teachers in the school had been united in reaching out to the black students would the lives of all of people there have been changed? As a teacher am I willing to face ostracism and danger to reach out to all of my students and their families, am I willing to confront hate with love?
As I read the book I remembered again the importance of words and how we can use words to help people or to hurt people. At the most basic level in this story, words like “nigger” were used to hurt Ms. Pattillo Beals and the other eight students at Central High School. They were words of hatred and bigotry. They were words that not only hurt the hearts of the black students but they were words that incited violence against them. They were words that said, “You are less than human so I can treat you any way I want.” They were words that said, “Your life is worth less than the ‘Southern way of life’”. I am also reminded that words like “states rights” were used by the governor of Arkansas and other white people within the white power structure and that their use of words like these incited violence against the nine black students, too. I wonder if they knew that the words they used, that the ideals of which they spoke, were devastating to the lives of black people. Do I use words that hurt and devastate?
Ms. Patillo Beals’ grandmother, however, used words to help. She used the words of the Bible and the words of Ghandi to strengthen her granddaughter’s spirit, a strengthening that helped her granddaughter make it through a living hell. She used her own words to guide and to nurture her granddaughter. Do I use words to help, guide, and nurture?
The book helped me think again about how dehumanizing segregation was to black people. I was touched during the moments when Ms. Pattillo Beal’s thought that if white people would only make the effort to get to know her then they would know that she was a human being. In one of her journal entries she wrote
This is the day I hope to meet Governor Faubus face to face. I can’t decide what to say to him. If only he will listen to me one minute. I know I can make him understand there is nothing so bad about me that he shouldn’t allow white children to go to school with me.
The weatherman says it’s going to be 85 and up this afternoon. I’ll regret wearing my cotton blouse and quilted skirt, but they’re new and pretty. I want to look just right so the governor will know who I really am.

If we will just listen, if we will just spend time with each other, then we will know who we really are. This is my hope.
Toward the end of the book there is a headline from the Arkansas Gazette dated Tuesday, April 1, 1957 that read “NAACP ASKS STERNER ACTION BY CENTRAL HIGH SCHOOL TROOPS.” The headline was followed by these words:

The NAACP renewed today its demand for more militant action by troops at Central High School. Otherwise we are confronted with the incredible spectacle of the government of the United States placing the burden of enforcing the order of its courts upon the slender shoulders and young hearts of eight teenage Negro students.

It is interesting to note that this headline appeared on April Fools Day. Was it not obvious that the burden of enforcing integration was “upon the slender shoulders and young hearts of eight teenage negro students”? This raises important questions that I have been asking myself as I have read the books for this class – Why did the burden of desegregation have to be carried by black children? Why did the burden of integration have to be carried mostly by black people? (I realize that there were “law-abiding whites who risked their lives” to help, as Ms. Patillo Beals wrote) As a white Southern liberal I still believe that integration makes a way for whites to begin to become more understanding of blacks and for blacks to begin to become more understanding of whites. I wonder, though, if it is right to expect black people (or any person of color) to integrate into white culture. Does this expectation say that white culture is somehow superior to black culture?
As I finished the book I was filled with wonder again that experiences like the ones of Ms. Pattillo Beals, Ms. Till Mobley, and Ms. Gibson Robinson did not leave their hearts and their lives filled with cynicism, despair, and hatred. The fact that they were not turned to hating white people is a testament to faith, hope and love.


Class Discussion:

In our class discussion, we reflected on the economic issue involved in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The black boycotters used their economic power to confront the white power structure and make changes to inhumane laws. I also reflected on the legal issue involved in the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The pro-integrationists used the power of the federal courts to confront the white power structure in Southern states and make changes to inhumane laws. As I reflect on this discussion I can hear the voices of the people behind closed doors in the White House, in Congress, in the Supreme Court, in Governor’s mansions, in white owned businesses, and in other places of power say, “We must end segregation or money and jobs will be lost,” or, “We must end segregation because it is the law.” I wonder, though, how many people said, “We must end segregation because it is the right thing to do.” As a parent and as a teacher I try to teach my children to “do the right thing because it is the right thing to do.” I hope all of our decisions regarding the dehumanization of a group of people will be made because it is the right thing to do.

the shadow of the panther

the shadow of the panther

The Shadow of the Panther by Hugh Pearson is one of my favorite books that we read in our civil rights class. It gives a concise overview of the civil rights movement and was a helpful review of the people, places and events that we studied from the beginning of the class. It also gives an in-depth look into the life of the Black Panther Party and helped me work through the enduring questions - “How should we as human beings confront evil?” – “Does the end ever justify the means?” – “Does power corrupt?” I think Pearson tried to give readers an objective look at Huey Newton and the Black Panther Party so we will be able to think clearly as we try to answer these questions.
As we have learned in our study of the civil rights movement, the dehumanization and oppression of black people particularly in the American south but generally in all of America was/is evil. The dehumanization Melba Patillo Beals and the other eight children who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas experienced by the words and actions of rabid, white segregationists; the oppression so many black people experienced from the hearts and hands of white people; and the complicity of local governments, state governments, and the federal government (especially through the FBI) was morally reprehensible. After reading about and discussing this dehumanization and oppression, I understand why Huey Newton desired to build an organization like the Black Panther Party for Self Defense for the purpose of preserving the black race.
I remember when I began serving children and youth in the Clarksdale Housing Project in Louisville, Kentucky in the early 1990’s. I was from the white, middle class of upstate South Carolina and piedmont North Carolina and thought of policemen as helps to my community and even as friends. I was shocked when I learned that many black, poor people thought of policemen as threats to their communities and even as enemies. A mother of one of the teenagers I served in Clarksdale told me one evening, “If you are standing on the corner with a group of your white friends and see police officers approaching then you say hello and take no thought as they pass. But if my son is standing on the corner with a group of his black friends and they see police officers approaching they keep their heads down and hope they don’t hurt them. You see and experience the police in a different way than we see and experience them.” After learning how black people see and experience the police through my time in Louisville and through my reading for our class I understand why Newton wanted to arm the Black Panthers with guns and law books and send them out on the streets to “police” the police.
I was touched by the social services that the Black Panthers provided for poor children in their communities. The breakfast program and the school were noble endeavors that could provide hope to children – a hope that could open windows for them to reach their full potentials. I know there are poor children all over the world who could help the world in many ways if only someone cared for their basic needs. I can understand why there were so many people who were ready to support these social services with finances and with hands–on work. (What an interesting story about the children, hot chocolate, “reds”, and vitamins – sometimes it takes hard work to put our best intentions to work)
I was amazed by the community organizing efforts of the Black Panthers. It would take deep commitment and sacrifice to do all of the things necessary to mobilize people to work for a better life through boycotts and through the political process. The organization seemed to be able to touch that kind of commitment and sacrifice within people.
As I worked through this book I wondered if my fellow students had some of the same thoughts I did about Newton and the Black Panther Party. Newton and the Black Panthers were the antithesis of some of the white supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan that we have encountered in our reading, but I could see some similarities between them. They both used harsh rhetoric and violence to bend people to their wills. They both escaped judgment from the criminal justice system even though they were guilty of the offenses with which they were charged. They both relied on powerful people (politicians, actors, wealthy patrons) for financial support. They both acted as if their respective ends – the preservation of black people and the preservation of the white race should be accomplished by any means necessary. (I see a difference in these two ends – preservation of the black race was an attempt to stop a perceived genocide while the preservation of white society was an attempt to preserve racial purity – to stop genocide is a moral necessity while to preserve racial purity is not.)
I was interested in the story about Elaine Brown. I often wonder if women would be better leaders than men – if their understanding and use of power would be more about service and building up than about being served and tearing down. It appears that Brown eventually used her power as the leader of the Black Panther Party in the “being served”, “tearing down” way – especially in the implication of her involvement in the death of Betty Van Patter – though at times she seemed more conscious of using her power for “serving” and “building up” – especially in her political organizing.
As I learned about Huey Newton himself – his genius (his communication skills, his academic achievement) balanced with stupidity (his destructive lifestyle, both toward himself and others) – I was reminded of something James Meredith said when he was criticized for making a poor grade in one of his classes at Ole Miss – that people should realize that just because he was a black person involved in the civil rights movement did not mean that he was somehow super human. It seems that many white radicals on the left saw Newton as super human – above the foibles and failures of human beings. I think Newton was certainly a product of his times.
I see that the civil rights movement turned from a “turn the other cheek” – touch the humanity of your oppressor – movement toward an “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” – punish the inhumanity of your oppressor – movement and am understanding why this turning took place. People hope for the life found in the platform of the Black Panther Party – a life of land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, and peace. And people realize that they must work to fulfill this hope and realize this life. The civil rights movement teaches us that life was in the hands of one group of people, a group that was unwilling to share life with another group of people. It teaches us the different ways dehumanized, oppressed people struggle for life against their oppressors – through non-violent direct action, through political organization, through violent struggle. After thinking through this hope for life and this struggle for life as we have read and discussed the civil rights movement in America I believe that we can work together – black and white, rich and poor, male and female, heterosexual and homosexual – to build a more human world for all people. The work will be hard. As a teacher and a writer, I will be in a good place to work mind to mind and heart to heart with my students, their families, and our community to build a more human world. As I teach and as I write I will always hope for and always struggle for the beloved community.

the river of no return

the river of no return

In the battle for social justice there are some warriors who cry out, “Fight fire with fire!” As I reflect on the lives of my fellow black human beings Melba Pattillo Beals and the eight other children who integrated Central High School; Emmett Till and his mother Mamie Till Mobley; Ann Moody; and all of the people we have met in the pages of the books we have read so far in our class, I am thinking about the way they were dehumanized and oppressed by white people. I am also thinking about the way they “turned the other cheek” so many times to that dehumanization and oppression, the way they hoped they could touch the humanity in those white people through suffering love. They turned the other cheek over and over again until they were beaten beyond recognition. In most cases the humanity of white people was untouched. The hearts of white people grew harder and harder while the hearts of black people were being crushed in the dust. It is in the context of this dehumanization, oppression, beating, and crushing that I understand the reaction of Cleveland Sellers and SNCC when they cry out, “Enough! It’s time to fight fire with fire! Burn baby burn!” One question that grows out of this understanding, though, is, “If you choose to fight fire with fire, what happens if you have a match and the person you are fighting has an inferno?” This seemed to be the reality for SNCC when it chose to fight fire with fire – SNCC had a match and the white society against which it fought had an inferno.
I understand with my heart why Cleveland Sellars, Stokely Carmichael, and James Forman led SNCC in a militant direction to fight white supremacy with black power. As I think about that militant direction with my mind with the benefit of hindsight I have some thoughts and questions about that decision. One thought is – their plan could have succeeded. What are examples of small groups that fought against large, oppressive powers and won? The only way these groups succeeded, though, was to gain the popular support of the masses and then the military to help overthrow their oppressors. In the case of SNCC, the plan of the militant, black power group could have succeeded only if they had won the support of the masses and the military and this could not happen. Even if the entire black population of America had supported their goals their numbers would have been miniscule compared with the number of non-black people in America. White people dominated the military, as they still do today. How could they not see this? Another thought is – “fighting fire with fire” allowed the militant, black power group to hold their heads high and say, “We might die in a fight against white supremacists but at least we will die with courage in our hands and pride in our hearts.” But can a more human society be built on pride and courage alone? My final thought is – the militants rightly saw the struggle of the black person in America not as a struggle for civil rights but as a struggle for liberation. But when I look at the lives of the militant, black power members of SNCC after Sellers would say, “SNCC is dead” I do not see liberation. The thought of Sellars pan handling for food is far away from my idea of liberation. So, what is the meaning of liberation and how can a people be free? (Wow, I sound like one of the “floaters” in SNCC, huh?)
I think the end of SNCC came at their staff meeting in New York in December, 1966 when the organization decided to fire Bob Zellner. Sellars help us understand the context in which Zellner was fired and so helps us understand the logic behind the firing. I can understand the logic as it relates to black people being in control of black organizations and being responsible for their own liberation. I think, though, their rigid ideology caused them to miss an opportunity that could have opened wider the window of social change that could have led toward the building up of “beloved community.” Zellner’s work as a staff member of SNCC could have helped to build a bridge between poor whites and poor blacks and could have helped these two social groups join together and work toward a more just and human society in America. It was in fields like this that social change could have taken deep root and could have grown to bring about the changes SNCC worked for according to their statement of purpose declared at the Mount Moriah conference – a social order of justice permeated by love; courage instead of fear; love instead of hate; acceptance instead of prejudice; hope instead of despair; peace instead of war; faith instead of doubt; mutual regard instead of enmity; justice instead of injustice; redemptive community instead of gross social immorality. If SNCC had kept Zellner and white people like him on the path with them then I think their stated purposes would have had a greater possibility to be reached than if they turned their backs on him and them. I think they made an unwise choice.
In the end this book helped me think again about the question, “Will societies naturally move toward justice and peace at it’s own slow pace or should people with struggle try to hurry up the beloved community?”


s.c. and civil rights

the orangeburg massacre

As I began reading the book The Orangeburg Massacre by Jack Bass and Jack Nelson, I did so with the understanding that I was born and raised in Greenville County, South Carolina and had never heard of the catastrophe that occurred on the campus of South Carolina State University on February 8, 1968. I knew so little about the civil rights movement in America before I took this class. I knew even less about the civil rights history that we hold here in South Carolina. I am thankful that I am taking this class in my teacher training program because I will have the opportunity to help my students know about the civil rights movement in our country and in our state.
Will D. Campbell is one of my favorite writers. I appreciated his introduction to the book because he wrote the names of Samuel Hammond, Delano Middleton, and Henry Smith over and over again in his litany for their deaths. This writing of their names over and over again was important, I think, because it helped me see that they were human beings whose lives were full of meaning and potential when they died. I also appreciate the authors’ inclusion of a chapter (Chapter 8 – The Victims) that opened a window into who Hammond, Middleton, and Smith were. Sometimes in the discussion of historical events, when we are trying to work through the “who, what, when, where, and why” questions, we forget that real people were involved in those events, people whose lives were important to the world.
This past Sunday, on the 26th of November, several hundred people held a vigil for Sean Bell. Bell was 23-year-old who was shot and killed by NYPD officers on his wedding day. Two other unarmed men were shot, as well. The officers fired an estimated 50 rounds of bullets at them. During the vigil some people shouted “No justice, no peace!” I think the actions of the students in the catastrophe at S.C. State shouted out “No justice, no peace!” In the words of Langston Hughes in his 1951 poem “Harlem”, the dreams of the students had been deferred for too long and they exploded.
I had two opposing feelings as I worked my way through the actions of the students. One was a feeling of sympathy for the students. I was inclined to think and feel like they thought and felt as I tried to understand what dehumanization can do to the hearts, souls, minds, and bodies of people. I could see how something inside of the students could finally break as bowling alley operator Harry Floyd attempted to keep segregation alive in his place of business.
I know that the authorities in South Carolina attempted to blame Cleveland Sellers for inciting the destructive actions of the students. I appreciated the way the authors of the book helped me understand the paternalistic attitude of many white people in South Carolina, a paternalism that was evident in the life of Governor McNair. I think it was the paternal nature of many South Carolina white people who would think and say, “Our negroes would never act that way on their own without outside agitation.” I do not think the actions of the students should be blamed on Sellers. I think they exploded because their dreams had been deferred for too long.

I also know that this catastrophe occurred during the “Black Power” time of the civil rights movement and during the “Burn, baby, burn” time of the 1960’s. I do not think it would have occurred during the early time of the civil rights movement.
The other feeling I had as I worked my way through the actions of the students was a feeling of judgment against the students. As they broke windows, pelted passing cars with bricks and stones, built bonfires out of furniture and road signs, and threw burning posts at highway patrolmen I thought, “How foolish! Don’t the students know they are only hurting themselves? Do they think they can win a violent battle against the white power structure? Their foolish actions will only turn the tide of public opinion against them and their cause and lead to their own demise!” This feeling of judgment disinclined me to think and feel as the students thought and felt. It hardened my heart toward them and their cause.
I also know that this catastrophe occurred during the “Black Power” time of the civil rights movement and during the “Burn, baby, burn” time of the 1960’s. I do not think it would have occurred during the early time of the civil rights movement.
As I read our book I juxtaposed “No justice, no peace!” with “Law and order!” Since I am of a white, middle class background I know the importance of law and order to protect my comfortable way of life. In my own time, where there is a threat to “the American way of life” by terrorists, there is the feeling that law and order is of ultimate importance in our society. Surprisingly, I learned about the “law and order” philosophy of societies as a missionary in Africa. Americans move to Africa and in most cases take their American way of life with them. This way of life is built on material things. In most cases Africans lack the basic goods needed for life – food, shelter, clothing, medicine, and educational opportunities. When their children are dying because they do not have enough money to buy anti-malarial drugs for them and an American is living in their community in a house with a generator and a television, Africans are compelled to ask, “Why?” This question causes fear in the hearts of Americans so they hire security guards to protect their material goods that are not basic and needed for life but that are luxuries in life. This fear and this use of law and order prevent Americans from asking the same question Africans ask about the inequalities of life – “Why?”
I think Governor McNair and most people in authority in America during the time of the Orangeburg catastrophe (including the Kent State catastrophe) were like the American missionaries that I encountered while I lived in Africa (and I was one of them) – their desire to protect “the American way of life” and their fear of anything that threatened that way of life prevented them to ask the question, “Why is life the way that it is – with so much injustice – and what can I do to make the world a more just place that is more human for everyone?” This desire and fear kept them from doing the very hard work of working for a more just and human society for all people.
I thought one of the best points the authors made in the book was when they juxtaposed the case in Orangeburg with the case James Meredith and his registration into the University of Mississippi. They helped me ask the question, “How could a small number of out of state authorities (who were not policemen or state troopers) in Mississippi hold back riotous crowd of thousands without using deadly force when a large number of local law enforcers in South Carolina could not hold back a riotous crowd of hundreds without using deadly force?”
I also think another of the best points the authors made in the book was when they juxtaposed the case at S.C. State with the case at Kent State. Why do we recognize and remember the Kent State shootings and not the S.C. State shootings? Does race play a part in this recognizing and remembering or in this failure of recognizing and remembering?
You might notice that I used the word catastrophe to describe the S.C. State shootings instead of the word massacre. I used this word intentionally. To me, the word massacre implies a willful intent to kill as many people as possible. After reading the authors’ account of that night on February 8, 1968 and after working my way through the statements by the officers who shot into the students I do not think the officers willfully intended to kill as many students as possible. I do wonder why they had shotguns filled with double aught buckshot instead of smaller, less deadly birdshot pellets. And I do wonder if they carried the thought somewhere inside of them that if they “killed a few niggers” then they could “keep the rest of the niggers down.” The word catastrophe implies an end result of a crisis that was mishandled. I think this is the case in the S.C. State shootings. From the head of the S.C. highway patrol coming to Orangeburg during the day of February 8th and leaving before nightfall, to the Governor not coming to Orangeburg at all, to the inadequate training the officers who were there had received in riot control, the crisis turned into a catastrophe because the leaders were unable or unwilling to do the hard work of building a more just, humane society for all.


Class Discussion:

I began my comments in our class discussion by stating that I thought the shooting in Orangeburg was a catastrophe instead of a massacre. I said this because I thought the police officers opened fire on the crowd of students because they feared for their lives. I listened to our black students comment that they thought the shooting was a massacre because the police officers fired on the crowd of students in a way that would kill as many students as possible and raise their stature in their white, racist community (“They shot low knowing that the students were falling on the ground!” – “They were promoted after the shooting!”) I was left pondering the question, “How does the color of our skin affect the way were interpret life?”
Cappucine made a comment at the end of class that left me pondering an enduring question as well. Some of my classmates commented on the act of forgiveness many of the people involved in the Orangeburg shooting gave to the authorities involved in the shooting. We have seen these acts of forgiveness many times in our reading – acts that have come from people who were dehumanized and oppressed in unimaginable ways by horrific means. Cappucine said, “You wouldn’t want black people to be unforgiving and seek revenge – blood would spill everywhere.” I think I understand the position from which she is arguing. There is a part of all of us that cries out –“If you hurt me then I will hurt you!” But I continue to ask, “Is an “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” the best way to confront evil?” Would black people suffer most of all in a violent confrontation between white and black people?
The documentary that we watched in class about the Orangeburg massacre touched me deeply as I saw the humanity of the victims of the shooting. In the book they were mostly a crowd of students venting their anger against authority. In the documentary they were individual human beings with life in their words and in their faces. I was especially moved by Cleveland Sellers.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

the autobiography of malcolm x

the autobiography of malcolm x

I remember well the first time I encountered the life of Malcolm X. I was living at Jeff Street Baptist Center beside the Clarksdale Housing Project in Louisville, Kentucky working as a youth minister to black kids in the neighborhood. My kids especially liked the part of Spike Lee’s movie about Malcolm X when Malcolm leads the Muslim brothers to the police station to demand justice for their beaten brother. On my first Sunday of work I entered a discussion they were having about The Autobiography of Malcom X, a discussion inspired by the movie about Malcolm X by Spike Lee. The first question they asked me was, “What color was Jesus?” It was a great question with which to start because it helped me ask the question, “How will my ‘whiteness’ affect my life and work among black people?” It is a question I ask myself today as I prepare to teach in an inner-city school among mostly black children and families. It is a question our book takes head on.
I was intrigued by the title one of the news shows chose to use to describe the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X – “The hate that hate produced.” As I read chapter 10 in the book I was confronted by the thought that the dehumanization of white people by the words of Elijah Muhammed was similar to the dehumanization of black people by the words of Judge Thomas P. Brady. Both of them believed in stories about the origins of white people and black people respectively that told that those whites and blacks were less than human. The stories that we believe about people who are different from us are important stories and it is vitally important that we seek and find out if those stories are true. How can we know if those stories are true if we do not spend time listening to people who are different from us.
I am thinking through a question that was raised several times in the book, “What can I do as a white person to help black people struggle against dehumanization?” I think Malcolm gave a thoughtful, thought provoking answer to that question. Early in his time as a Muslim in the Nation of Islam he said that white people could do nothing to help in the struggle. Later, though, after his conversion to orthodox Islam, he said that white people who wanted to join the struggle could not join black people but should go to their own racist people and try to change them. His later answer confronts a basic idea that I have, the idea that white people and black people, that all people, regardless of color, can join together and work together for a more human society.
I appreciate the way Malcolm saw the struggle of black people as a struggle for human rights instead of just as a struggle for civil rights. I think he was right when he said that black people could make a case in the United Nations against America because of America’s violation of the human rights of black people. I appreciated the way Spike Lee brought in Nelson Mandela at the end of his movie about Malcolm X to speak about human dignity. I have thought in other reading for our class that the struggle of black people against white supremacy was a human rights/human dignity struggle.
I understand how Malcolm’s trip outside of America helped transform him. I lived for three years in a remote village in southwestern Mali, West Africa. I worked there as a missionary and as a teacher. I was a minority as a white person in the midst of a black majority. I was a minority as a Christian in the midst of a Muslim majority. I was a minority as a “rich American” in the midst of a “poor African” majority. The humility and the hospitality in which and with which my African friends accepted me transformed my life. Today, I hope to accept minorities around me here in America with the same humility and hospitality in which and with which my African friends accepted me.
I was humbled by Malcolm’s words toward the end of the book as he spoke about his own death. Those words helped me hear that Malcolm was a person who “hungered and thirsted for justice” (as the Bible says in the Sermon on the Mount). And as is often true for those who hunger and thirst for justice, for those who speak the truth in the face of lies, for those who have hope in the midst of fear, they are killed by those who are responsible for the injustice, the lies, and the fear. I think one of the remarkable aspects of Malcolm’s life and death is that he spoke the truth to white people concerning their thoughts, feelings, and actions toward black people. Oftentimes, the truth is hard to hear. Those who hear it become defensive and struggle against it for a while. It must be the foundation on which a more human world is built.
This book helps me remember the damage that religion can do when it goes awry. When religion guides people, wonderful things can come from the guidance, like the way the Nation of Islam could help turn around the lives of the most destitute, dissolute of people. When people guide religion, though, terrible things can come from the guidance, like Elijah Muhammed using the stories of David, Solomon, and Noah from the Bible to excuse his moral lapse. I remember that I must allow my religion to guide me, not me guide my religion.
I wonder if Malcolm’s views about women changed as much as his views about white people changed from the beginning of the book to the end of the book. He seemed to be crystal clear in his understanding and denunciation of racism but murky (at best) in his understanding and denunciation of sexism.

I think The Autobiography of Malcolm X is a story about transformation. The story helps me better understand what it means to be a human being. It is a story about “who we are” and “who we are becoming.” Alex Haley helped chronicle the major change in Malcolm X’s nature. He helped us see the transformation in Malcolm’s body, the major change from an outwardly dissolute life to an outwardly moral life. He helped us see the transformation in Malcolm’s mind and heart, the major change from believing that each white person is a devil to believing that white people collectively did evil things. He helped us see the transformation in Malcolm’s soul, the major change from being committed to Elijah Muhammed and the Nation of Islam to being committed to Allah and Islam. This book helps me ask the questions, “Do I judge people by who they are or do I hope for who they are becoming?” It also helps me compare Malcolm’s life to the Civil Rights Movement and to ask the question, “Do I judge the movement by what it was/is or do I hope for what it is becoming?”

Malcolm X’s last words in his autobiography state his belief that after his death the white man would identify him with hate. I am one white man, however, who does not identify him with hate. Because of the transformation in his life I identify him with faith, hope, and love. Oftentimes these three cornerstones of religion seem weak in the presence of certainty, despair, and hate. I see them as a slow flowing stream. The stream also seems weak in the presence of the hard, jagged rocks over which it slowly flows. Over the years, though, the slowly flowing stream transforms the hard, jagged rocks into smooth stones. Over the life of Malcolm X, over the years of the struggle for human rights and civil rights, seemingly weak faith, hope, and love become the strongest elements in the work of transformation.



Class Discussion:

I think this was our deepest class discussion so far. We almost derailed our discussion of the Civil Rights Movement by sharing many emotional responses to Malcolm’s attack on Christianity but moved on to confront some of the most important questions concerning the Civil Rights Movement. One of those questions was raised by Rebeccah, Lucy, and Grace as they reflected on the idea that Malcolm X’s rhetoric was reverse racism. In the beginning of the discussion I tried to clarify the terms “prejudice” and “racism” to help in this kind of discussion. I stated that “prejudice” is disliking/hating people because of the color of their skin and “racism” is that dislike/hate with the power (socio-economic, cultural, political) to hurt people because of the color of their skin. By that definition Malcolm X and his rhetoric cannot be considered racist because he had no power in American society to hurt white people (though I suppose if he helped arm black people with weapons to kill white people in a violent uprising then he would be considered a racist). Someone like Ross Barnett can be considered a racist because he and his rhetoric had power to hurt black people. I thought that Rebeccah was poignant in making the comment that we as a class have been merciless toward the words and actions of white supremacists but were willing to make excuses for the words and actions of the black supremacy of Malcolm X.

Malcolm X certainly fought fire with fire. Two of our students, Josie and _____ helped me see that when a white supremacist called a black person a chimpanzee, Malcolm X called him a white devil. When a white supremacist commented on the immorality of black people, Malcolm X commented on the sexual debasement and perversity of white people. The problem with fighting fire with fire is – what do you do when the fire with which you fight is a match and the fire with which your opponent fights is an inferno?

I was impressed that Grace tried to lead us back from emotional outbursts to a civil discussion. This is wisdom from a young person.Our discussion helped me remember that my main struggle with Malcolm X’s words and life is not with his attack on white people or his attack on Christianity. It is with his belief that white people and black people cannot work together to try to build the beloved community. He confronts me with the question, “Can we overcome together?” Or must we separate in order to overcome?

soon we will not cry

soon we will not cry

I am thankful for the book Soon We Will Not Cry by Cynthia Griggs Flemming. Flemming built the book on the life of Ruby Doris. As I worked through the book I realized the world I am trying to build, a more human world for all people, will have it’s foundation in the lives of people like Ruby Doris. That world will be filled with people who give up their lives to serve other people, especially people who are poor. As they give up their lives to serve others, others will give up their lives to serve them. The world will be filled with people who strive for the common good. Ruby Doris is an example for all of us to follow, an example of someone who gave up her life to serve other people, especially people who were poor. She could have chosen to live a sheltered life under the protection of the black middle class but she chose to live the life of a suffering servant for black people who were being dehumanized and exploited and against white people who believed they were supreme in the world.
I think Flemming helped me better understand the context in which the civil rights movement took place. I was intrigued by her discussion about social Darwinism and the way some “experts” (in the religious and scientific fields) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries proposed theories that made black men and black women less than fully human. Flemming’s writing cuts to what I think to be the heart of the matter by saying these theories enabled white people to keep on dehumanizing, exploiting, and oppressing black people. Ruby Doris’ life cuts to what I think to be the heart of the matter by proving these theories wrong.
One story that opened a window into the life of Ruby Doris and helped me see her as a saint was the story about her early movement days. She was refused admission into a Methodist church. As the ushers blocked her entrance into the church she saw that people in the congregation either ignored her by turning away from her or chastised her with hateful looks. This hurt Ruby Doris’ heart because she believed Christian ethics could soften even the hardest segregationist’s heart. Her heart was hurt but her faith was not shaken. She said, “I pulled up a chair in the lobby and joined in the singing and worship services which I enjoyed immensely.” Wow.
Once again in our reading for this class I noted that South Carolina was an important state in the civil rights movement. In this instance, Rock Hill, South Carolina, was the first place outside of her own communities that Ruby Doris took direct action against the Jim Crow laws and consequently was taken directly to jail. This was a monumental moment in her life – a moment when she chose to stay in jail in a small, Southern town (one of the most, if not the most frightening places for a black person to be) instead of accepting bail and going back to the safety of her own community. Again as a South Carolinian I wonder why I never learned about these significant moments in my state’s history. I am thankful I am learning about South Carolina’s civil rights history now so I can introduce the remarkable people, places, and events to my own children and to the students I will teach.
I discovered in my reading that Flemming called Ruby Doris a “freedom fighter.” I have noticed throughout our reading how groups struggling against each other in the civil rights movement took on names for themselves that identified them with worldwide movements. Southern whites tended to identify with eastern European countries who were struggling against Soviet domination – they thought of themselves as “freedom fighters” struggling against a tyrannical federal government. Southern blacks tended to identify their struggle as similar to the struggle against Nazism – they saw the same white people who thought of themselves as freedom fighters as Nazis. I think Ruby Doris really was a freedom fighter. She believed in the deepest part of her heart that the civil rights movement was a just cause – that it was a struggle of good against evil. She also believed that the ideal society that a democratic United States held out for those willing to struggle for it was a good society that was worth struggling toward. It was this deep belief in the justice of her cause and her willingness to be a suffering servant in the struggle that made her such a remarkable woman.
In my reflections on Cleve Sellers’ book, The River Of No Return, I wrote that the death of SNCC occurred when the organization fired Bob Zellner in December, 1966. I noted that Flemming discussed this event in her book (I learned that the vote to oust white members of SNCC was very close – 19 for, 18 against, 24 abstentions) and helps us understand that Ruby Doris felt sad and empty because of the decision and realized that SNCC was falling apart. I think this is the place to compare and contrast her life and Sellers’ life. I see a similarity in their lives in the way they lived – the lived their lives for the movement, for “the people” for whom the movement began, for the liberation of black people (by building a more human world for them) and for the liberation of white people (by helping them become more human). For them the civil rights movement was more than an issue to be discussed (a theory) but was most importantly a life to be lived for others (praxis). They were committed to the movement with their hearts, souls, minds, and bodies – with all that they did and all that they were. For this they have my deepest admiration. I see a difference in their lives in the way they thought. Oftentimes people take ideas they hold dear and push them to illogical extremes. I think Sellers and the other militants in SNCC pushed the idea of black power to an illogical extreme. They ended up hurting SNCC, the movement, and themselves. It is precisely at this point that I was going to write that Ruby Doris did not take this path to an illogical extreme. Flemming does a good job helping us see that while Ruby Doris was a radical (tending or disposed to make extreme changes in existing views, habits, conditions, or institutions) in the truest sense of the word, she was not militant in the black power movement. I came to an understanding while thinking and writing through this paragraph that Ruby Doris did take an idea she held dear and pushed it to an illogical extreme. Her idea, though, was different from Sellers’ idea. Her idea began and remained as the original guiding principle of SNCC – the idea of struggling for a social order of justice permeated by love; courage instead of fear; love instead of hate; acceptance instead of prejudice; hope instead of despair; peace instead of war; faith instead of doubt; mutual regard instead of enmity; justice instead of injustice; redemptive community instead of gross social immorality. It seems illogical that she was willing to give up her own life for such an idea. Would it not have been logical for her to live her life within society and try to change it from the inside out in a slow, sure way than to struggle to change it from the outside in at an accelerated, principled pace? Was it logical for her to take on the life of the suffering servant? Yet it is in the life of this black woman that I find an open window into how to live my own life. In all of the major civil rights struggles she seemed to be there – seeing clearly, deciding wisely, and acting justly. I want to be like her.


Class Discussion – Rebecca made a point in class that helped me reflect on a question that has risen in my thoughts as we have moved into the more militant time period of the civil rights movement. She was thinking about the tendency in our culture in America today to say, “I want it and I want it now.” I think she used the analogy of a little child crying out for a cheeseburger, having no patience with words, “Have a little patience – I will give it to you at suppertime.” This seems to be a feeling many white people had about the civil rights movement – a feeling that said to black people, “Have a little patience – we will give you your full rights as citizens of the United States and as human beings soon.” The best response I have read to that feeling is found in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s book Why We Can’t Wait. I think the events that we have read about in our last two class times – the militancy of young black people and the violent confrontation between “No justice, no peace!” folks and “Law and order!” folks lived out the logic found in King’s book – if a people are dehumanized for a long period of time then they will explode in inhumane ways and if a group of people dehumanize another group of people for a long time they will implode by their own inhumanity. It was the right time for humanity to be obtained during the 950’s and 1960’s as it is the right time for humanity to be obtained by all people – regardless of color, social status, nationality, gender, sexual preference, and ability today.

murder in mississippi

murder in mississippi

As I read Murder in Mississippi by Howard Ball I thought about the debate across America at this time about terrorists, about how to get information from suspected terrorists after they have been captured. As we study the Civil Rights movement in America I find myself sympathetic toward the “liberal trio” of Supreme Court justices Warren, Douglas, and Brennan, the “activist” judges of that time and place. I am thankful that they viewed the Constitution as an organic document that needs to be interpreted in the light of the hearts, souls, minds and bodies of the people it was written to serve. I believe that the people the Constitution serves, and the service itself, is of greater importance than the thoughts and feelings of the men who wrote it. I am thankful that a unanimous court in the United States v. Price decided to reverse and remand the ruling by William J. Cox concerning sections 241 and 242 of 18 U.S.C. (from the 1866 Civil Rights Act) so the government prosecutors could have a chance to prosecute the 18 Klansmen allegedly involved in the civil rights workers’ deaths. I am thankful that President Lyndon B. Johnson pushed for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 so the laws used to prosecute people like the 18 Klansmen would have “teeth” in them so the punishment for the crimes could be equal to the crimes themselves.

I find myself unsympathetic to President George W. Bush’s arguments about the treatment of terrorists today. I question his views on the Geneva Convention and agree that some of the methods he approves of in getting information from suspected terrorists are “un-American.” I wonder, though, how his argument, and the argument of his conservative government, differs from the liberal government of LBJ. I question the use of “any means necessary” (including torture) to get information from suspected terrorists but I found myself applauding the FBI during the MIBURN investigation as the bureau used “any means necessary” to obtain information about where the bodies of the three civil rights workers were located and about who was involved in their deaths. It is disconcerting to find these kinds of inconsistencies in my thinking and feeling.

Once, I read that your political view is shaped by what you see out your back door. I see that this statement is true as we read about and study the Civil Rights Movement in America. Most white Southerners, especially those who benefited from the “Southern way of life,” the “traditions,” the Jim Crow laws that segregated whites and blacks, viewed themselves as “freedom fighters” against a malevolent state (the federal government) and saw themselves as kin to the eastern European countries who were resisting Soviet domination. Most black southerners, when they felt safe to express their views, viewed their state governments and the Jim Crow laws those governments enforced as kin to the vanquished Nazi regime in Germany and saw themselves as oppressed. Which group was right? I suppose it is difficult to speak in terms of “right” and “wrong” today. The idea that our political view is shaped by what we see out our back door is still true today. A white, middle class male is likely to view ideas and events differently than a black, poor female. In a broader sense, those with power seem to decide what is right and what is wrong. “Might makes right.” I am learning to try to see “right” and “wrong” in a way that is expressed by liberation theology, especially in the work of Gustavo Gutierrez (There is a broad work on his thinking by James Nickoloff titled Gustavo Gutierrez: Essential Writings). A medical doctor and anthropologist named Paul Farmer also seems to be trying to see in this way (There is a good book about him titled Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder). Both of these writers understand that those who are in powerful positions in the world need to make a preferential option for the poor and use their power to make the world a more human place for everyone to live. From that perspective I see that most black folks and the Civil Rights Movement in America were right and that most Southern whites and those opposed to the Civil Rights Movement in America were wrong.

As I read Murder in Mississippi I found myself yearning to know more about Bob Moses and Micky Schwerner. I ordered the book Radical Equations by Bob Moses so I can learn more about his thought and action. I am also looking into his Algebra Project to use in my own teaching. I am humbled by the fact that they, along with Goodman and Chaney, could have lived comfortable lives somewhere in America and made a good living for themselves and for their families but that they chose to work for the good of poor, black people in the midst of violent opposition in Mississippi. They all seemed willing to die for their work, and Scwerner, Goodman and Chaney gave their lives for that work. At one point in the book I wondered if the people involved in COFO’s “Mississippi Freedom Summer” allowed their idealism to cloud their judgment, if they had counted the cost of the actions they were planning to take. As I moved deeper into the story I realized that they did. Would it not have made sense to call off the project when the three civil rights workers went missing? I am certain that all of the students received letters and phone calls from their parents that said, “Stop this nonsense right now…what you are doing is too dangerous…your lives are in jeopardy…come home now!” This helps me remember that “doing the right thing” oftentimes does not make sense.

In a section of the Eyes on the Prize video series, there are interviews with white Mississippians who were on the Citizens Councils during the Mississippi Freedom Summer. It was enlightening to hear in their own words their opposition to the civil rights workers coming to their state. They thought of the “outsiders” as hippies who wanted to replace Mississippi customs with hippie culture. They also thought of the civil rights workers as communists. I compared their thoughts and feelings of the civil rights workers with those of the black families with whom those workers (many of them white students) lived. It was equally enlightening to hear in the black families own words their support of the civil rights workers coming to their state. I was especially moved by the story of one black woman who was amazed that white students would come to her house, take food from a community pot in the evening, and sit down on the floor to eat because there was no dining room furniture. The Citizens Council members spoke of the arrogance of the civil rights workers. The black families spoke of the humility of the civil rights workers. White supremacy seemed to be a core belief in the lives of white Mississippians. When the civil rights workers confronted this core belief and showed that it was wrong, the white Mississippians reacted with burning hatred stoked by the hot coals of fear. There is much talk of “fear” in our world today. I must continually ask myself, “What are my core beliefs? Are they being confronted? Am I reacting to this confrontation with hatred and fear or with love and humility? Am I confronting the core beliefs of other people? Are they responding to this confrontation with hatred and fear? What might happen if I responded to hatred and fear with love and humility?
This book raised the important question, “Is there justice in Mississippi?” Some say peace can never come there until the people involved in civil rights murders are brought to justice. Others say that peace can never come by making the past a part of the present. I wonder why some of the political and intellectual leaders of that time, like Governor Ross Barnette and Judge Thomas P. Brady, were not held accountable for their words in the manner of accountability sought in the Nuremberg Trials at the end of WWII. I wonder if a “Truth and Reconciliation Committee” would help bring healing to Mississippi.


Class Discussion:

During our class discussion Dr. Dunn reminded us that the Supreme Court should make each decision based strictly on the Constitution by the words of the framers of the Constitution. He remarked that each decision must be made outside of the realm of the emotions. He stated that Supreme Court decisions made in the realm of the emotions with the guidance of the morals of a particular people, time, and place are dangerous.
I think I understand the reason behind Dr. Dunn’s argument. There is a temptation to guide the Constitution to say what you want it to say (whether you are a liberal, moderate, or conservative) rather than to be guided by the Constitution. I do wonder, however, how the case of U.S. v. Price would have come out if the court was made up of 9 justices who considered themselves strict Constitutionalists (perhaps if 9 Clarence Thomas’s were on the court at that time). I think it can be equally dangerous to make decisions based on the words of the Constitution rather than based on the spirit behind those words. I know it is difficult (impossible?) to fully understand the spirit behind any law. If we do not try, though, the Constitution can be used to destroy human being instead of building up humanity.
One of the questions that we asked about the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964 was concerning the sexual dynamics between the young people involved in the project. Sex is a powerful force. Used in its proper context, it can be a powerful way for two people to communicate hearts, souls, minds, and bodies with each other. Used outside of its proper context, it be a powerfully destructive force for lives and movements.

Friday, April 16, 2010

death of innocence

death of innocence

As I read Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime that Changed America by Mamie Till-Mobley and Christopher Benson I thought about the importance of understanding Article I of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (which was adopted in 1948 by the United Nations):

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Paradoxically, the dark act of the lynching of Emmett Till on August 27/28, 1955 shined a light on a certain people in a certain place who did not understand this truth. Mrs. Till-Mobley’s memory and recollection of the events in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi during that late summer of 1955 is a reminder to all people in all places that the devaluation of the humanity of one group of people by another group of people is not only wrong but also is deadly.
I would argue that most white people in the South in the United States during “The Civil Rights Era” thought in their minds and believed in their hearts that black people were not born free and equal in dignity and rights. They thought and believed that white people were superior to black people and that black people should know and remain in their inferior place in Southern society. These thoughts and beliefs made them think and feel that the life of a black person was not equal to the life of a white person. In the case of Emmett Till it could be argued that jurors in Tallahatchie County thought and felt that the life of a black person was not equal to the pride of white people.

Whitaker would write that the jurors didn’t doubt that Bryant and Milam had killed Emmett. They didn’t doubt that at all. The jurors heard one thing that was important to them, and that was a white woman’s claim that a black boy had insulted her. That was all they needed to hear. It was all they needed to know. In the end, according to Whitaker, it was all they would consider in making up their minds. (199)

This raises an important question for me as a white person in the South in the United States in the 21st Century. Are there group of people whose humanity I devalue? How about Muslims? How about undocumented workers? Are all Muslims fascists? Are all undocumented workers illegal aliens? Is my life, is my pride, of greater value than their lives?
I think about this question, “Is one life of greater value than another life?”, when I remember and recollect the lives of my friends in Mali, West Africa. I wonder how many Americans see on television the loss of life of an African person or of a person who lives in the Third World and think, “That is terrible, but they are used to poverty, disease, and war so death doesn’t affect them as much as it affects us.” I can argue from experience that my African friends grieved as deeply during the death of a loved one as we here in America grieve. What does this mean for me and how I live my life?
One part of the book that deeply moved me was the way Mrs. Till-Mobley’s memory and recollection of her and Emmett’s lives painted a human picture for the world to see.

And, as I explained it all, I turned from the prosecutor to the jurors. I wanted to talk to them, to reach them directly. I had to. If there was any chance at all that they might even consider a murder conviction, let alone hand one down, then they were going to have to get beyond some things. They had to see past the color of a witness’s skin and feel the anguish of a mother’s loss. (178)

To me, this is why this book and other personal narratives of the Civil Rights Movement are so very important. They help us see beyond events, names, and places into hearts and faces of human beings, human beings who are like me and who I am like in every way, human beings whose hearts and faces have been crushed and marred by hatred and injustice, human beings who have been mended and have mended with forgiveness, faith, hope, and love.
Another part of the book that deeply moved me was the way Mrs. Till-Mobley reflected on the acquittal of Bryant and Milam on the charges of the death of her son.

I wonder how different things might have been if the laws and practices of Tallahatchie County had been different. What if blacks could vote there and had qualified to be on that jury? Would there have been enough black folks with the courage of Papa Mose or Willie Reed to convict two white men of murdering a black boy? Could that have happened? What if the law had allowed women to serve then? What if only one woman had been allowed on that jury? Even a white woman in Sumner, in Mississippi, in 1955 would have had to feel something for another woman who had felt what I did, wouldn’t she? A mother, someone who understood, as only a mother could, what it felt like to become a mother, what it must feel like to lose a child, a part of yourself. I wonder if a woman could have had much influence over the way things turned out. Then again, a woman did have influence over the whole thing, didn’t she? In this case, a woman was at the very heart of it all, the accusation, the abduction, the acquittal. And, of course, the cause for celebration. (189-190)

Her questions are very important for our society and for me as a powerful person in our society. They remind us that we must work with all of our hearts, minds, souls, and bodies for an integrated society, a society where there is equal representation in place of power (political, cultural, and socio-economic). If power is not equally shared then the group who holds power can “spin” any issue in their favor. I think this can be seen in the way the white powerbrokers in Mississippi during the trial of Emmett Till spun the story to imply that Till’s death was somehow justified, was somehow a statement of, “Things are going to stay the same here…white people and black people are going to stay in their places.”

Since I am preparing to be an elementary school teacher, I am honored to be following in the footsteps of Mrs. Till-Mobley. I was deeply touched as I read in our book about her thoughts and feelings toward the four little boys of the men who murdered her son. She desired to take those boys home with her and raise them to love instead of to hate. She makes a profound point when she says, “We don’t come here with hatred in our hearts. We have to be taught to feel that way. We have to want to be that way, to please the people who teach us to want to be like them.” I think she is correct. I understand this point as I try to be a good parent to my two boys and as I am preparing to be a good teacher to my future students. Who can I be and what can I do to help them understand that “all people are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” no matter their race, class, gender, sexual orientation, or abilities? I think that who I am and what I do toward people who are different from me can make the world a better place because of the influence that will have on the ways my children and my students value humanity.

As I finished this book, I was left with an image of Emmett Till’s stutter. Until his lynching, America’s Constitution had a stutter. The words of that Constitution proclaimed that all people are created equal, but the living out of those words was hardly a proclamation. At best it was a stutter. Especially in the American South all people were not equal de jure. It could be argued that in America as a whole all people were not equal de facto. Till’s lynching caused America to state it’s purpose as a nation over and over again and try to memorize it by mind and by heart – all people are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, being life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I think we as a nation are still trying to memorize that truth. Hopefully we will be able to whistle it together as a nation in the near future.



Class Discussion / “The Murder of Emmett Till” Reflection:

Dr. Dunn asked the question, “Why was Emmett Till murdered?” I thought about “dehumanization,” about the fact that within Jim Crow the life of a black person was not as valuable as the life of a white person and that devaluation made it easy and acceptable to kill him. As I pondered this answer one of the young ladies in our class answered that Emmett Till was killed because white people were afraid of the black man’s penis. I remember a black friend of mine in seminary who said this issue of the sexuality of black men was the cause of racial tension between black people and white people. As I watched volume 1 of the “Eyes on the Prize” series I learned that Emmett Till had a picture of a white woman in his wallet, a picture that he showed around the town of Money, Mississippi, a picture that deepened the fear of white people in Money that all black men were just waiting for the chance to have sex with white women, a chance that would surely come with integration. I think that this myth of the black man’s sexuality plays a part in the dehumanization of all black people. I also think the idea of the “pure, Southern white woman that must be protected from the black man at all cost plays a part in this dehumanization, too.
During “The Murder of Emmett Till” documentary from American Experience I wrote down this question, “Was Roy Bryant ‘poor white trash’?” I wondered because he was a store owner and a WW II veteran. The term “poor white trash” bothers me because it is a way to use words to tear down and destroy, to use words to dehumanize human beings. The term also bothers me because it can be used as a way to excuse the political leaders, intelligentsia, and silent white majority of the old South from their complicity in the violence against the Civil Rights Movement. They could say, “The violence was carried out by ‘poor white trash.’
During the documentary I was moved by a phrase from the prosecutor of the Emmett Till murder trial in his opening argument. He stated that Bryant and Milam “killed Emmett Till, a human being.” I wonder how many white people in the courtroom and around Money, Mississippi thought that Emmett Till, or any black person, was indeed a human being.
I was also moved by a phrase from Mose Wright about his testimony against Bryant and Milam (was he the first black man on record to stand and point out guilty white men in a Mississippi courtroom?) He said, “I had to tell it like it was.” I remember that “to tell it like it was” in those Jim Crow days was to say, “I am willing to die for the truth.” Many people did die because they told it like it was, because they said in word and act that the “Southern way of life” was wrong.

As I continue on in this class I am impressed by some of the wise comments from the young women in my class. There are no young men – I am the only male student in the class. Because of my age and my life experience I have had time to think about some of the issues we are struggling through in class. I am still thinking and feeling my way through these issues. I am thankful that some of the students in my class are beginning to think and feel their way through them at young ages. They give me hope.

coming of age in mississippi

coming of age in mississippi

In a guest column in the Greenville News about the controversy of the Clemson University campus surrounding Ann Patchett’s book, “Truth and Beauty: A Friendship,” English professors Michael LeMahieu and Elizabeth J. Rivlin quoted the English writer Ian McEwan –

Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.

I thought about this quote as I finished Anne Moody’s book, “Coming of Age in Mississippi,” and tried to see her, to understand who she was as she wrote her memoir. Though her own life was filled with struggle and suffering, from an early age Moody was able to imagine what it was like to be someone other than herself, especially others who were humiliated and killed in the Jim Crow South that was her home. Because of her imagination, because of her empathy, I see her as a compassionate, moral person. Because of her “praxis” (practical application of her theories about civil rights), her willingness to go to places like Canton, Mississippi, to struggle for the liberation of her oppressed people, I see her as an example of what it means to be human.
As I read this book I asked a question that I have been asking myself as I have read the books for our class and looked through different windows into the people, places, and events of the Civil Rights Movement in America. “What does this mean for me as a teacher who will shape the hearts and minds of children over the next years of my life?” A quote by Moody in the beginning chapters of the book helped me further reflect on my question. She said -

Now all of a sudden they [white playmates] were white, and their whiteness made them better than me. I now realized that not only were they better than me because they were white, but everything they owned and everything connected with them was better than what was available to me.

She came to this understanding of the world when she was a 6-year-old (the same age as my oldest son). Before this realization (and what a terrible realization it was for one so young) she understood the world in a different way, in a way that allowed her to know white children as friends. How can I be a teacher and do teaching that builds a classroom and a world for my students that will help them know each other as friends and destroys the theory that color makes one person better than another?
One question that surfaced inside of me as I read this book was, “How do socio-economic factors affect lives?” I thought several times as I encountered people in Moody’s life through her words, “Are there any good, black men in her life?” It seemed that most of the black men were bad. I came across these words spoken by her step-mother Emma after she was shot in the leg with a shotgun by her brother-in-law -

It ain’t Wilbert’s fault. Him and Janie wouldn’t be fightin’ if Wilbert could get a good job and make enough money to take care of them children. If these damn white folks ain’t shootin’ niggers’ brains out they are starvin’ them to death. A nigger can’t make it no way he try in this fuckin’ place.

I think Emma was correct in her observation. I have a deeply held belief that if people have good jobs that help them meet the needs discussed by Abraham Maslow in his hierarchy of needs then there is greater hope that they will become good spouses, parents, and members of society. I suppose I am asking the question, “Are people the way they are because of nature or nurture?” I lean heavily toward the “nurture” side (though I know there are many exceptions to my leaning). I do think that there would have been more good, black men in Moody’s life if socio-economic factors had been equal and just. As a friend of mine in Louisville, Kentucky, who worked with inner-city kids once told me, “If a person is trying to climb a flight of stairs and gets kicked down every time they get near the top then eventually they will stop trying to climb.”

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore –
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over –
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

(“Harlem” by Langston Hughes – 1951)
In a speech prepared for the 1963 Chicago Conference on Religion and Race, a gathering that brought together the leaders of nearly every religious body in America, Will D. Campbell wrote -

In our generation white children will be marched into gas chambers by dark-skinned masses, clutching their little toys to their breasts in Auschwitz fashion.

Campbell, who wrote about his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement in one of my favorite memoirs of that time and place, “Brother to a Dragonfly,” was astonished as a counselor to the Freedom Riders by the “saintliness” of black people and wanted to convey the idea that white people could not count on this saintliness to endure or always to dominate in the face of humiliation and death.
I thought of Campbell’s quote as I worked my way through the last chapters of Moody’s book and saw her feelings, thoughts, and actions as a surfacing of the undercurrent of truth behind Campbell’s hyperbole. I also thought of the words of the good, black priest Msimangu about Apartheid in South Africa in Alan Paton’s great novel “Cry the Beloved Country” when he said –

I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving, they will find we are turned to hating.

As I try to imagine what it would be like to be Anne Moody I hope that I would be “saintly” and overcome evil with good. I know, however, that I am a human being and that in the face of humiliation and death I could easily dry up, fester, run, stink, crust and sugar over, sag, or explode.


Class Discussion:

In our class discussion we talked about how Anne Moody was a poor black woman from Mississippi. In the other books that we have read the black folks have been from the black middle class. As I read the first 100 pages of Moody’s memoir, I thought that she could just as easily been talking about a poor white family as a poor black family. Was her race or was her class the determining factor in her life? Should she have worked on class issues instead of on race issues? Would her life have been different if she had poured out her mind and heart on class issues? I suppose, though, that the fact that she was poor, black, and a woman made her triply oppressed and were factors that were so intertwined they could never be separated and analyzed on their own. I just wonder, considering from where she came and for what she went through, that she could become such a noble person.