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.
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.