Saturday, April 17, 2010

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.

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