Been down into the South

May 27, 2015 by

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In 1961, when the Congress for Racial Equality planned a “freedom ride” through the South to test the integration of interstate transit, they were experimenting in nonviolent direct action — a radical commitment to do what is right whether others deem it convenient, timely or even legal.

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Mother’s Day 1961 was interrupted by images of a bus burning in Anniston, Ala., when Freedom Riders were attacked by the Ku Klux Klan with the permission of local authorities.

As Black Lives Matter campaigns have arisen in the wake of Mike Brown, Eric Garner and Freddie Gray’s deaths, many who are unsettled by their militancy have pointed to the nonviolence of the Freedom Riders and others in America’s Civil Rights Movement. “Nonviolence” sounds like a favorable alternative when Baltimore is burning.

But nonviolent direct action is never convenient; Mother’s Day 1961 was interrupted by images of a bus burning in Anniston, Ala., when Freedom Riders were attacked by the Ku Klux Klan with the permission (if not collusion) of local authorities. For all of their commitment to nonviolence, the Freedom Rider’s direct action still unleashed a storm of fire.

When we pay attention, there’s a fire at the heart of our shared life in America. The question Baltimore is forcing us to consider is whether we will be consumed by these flames or saved from them?

Last week, I traveled with a group of 21st-Century Freedom Riders down into the South, revisiting sites of the 1960s Freedom Movement to pay attention to what they offer us today. Bob Zellner, a veteran of the struggle 50 years ago who is still fighting for justice today, taught us a freedom song as we rode:

Well, I haven’t been to heaven but I think I’m right —
Been down into the South —
There’s folks up there both black and white —
Been down into the South.

At our first stop in Birmingham, Ala., we met with Jim Douglass, who told us the story of Martin Luther King Jr.’s turning to face the unspeakable in America’s public life. For Dr. King, nonviolence was the flip side of the violent contradiction at the heart of America. Birmingham (and Dr. King’s famous letter from its jail) was a station on the way toward realizing just how cruel America can be. While he prayed that going to jail on Easter weekend might be enough to grab the nation’s attention, the response was criticism from local ministers for stirring up trouble and trying to change things too quickly.

The “Christian” response to nonviolent direct action in 1963 sounded similar to many critiques of Baltimore’s uprising today: yes, injustice is wrong. But we must be patient. Don’t stir up trouble. Hold on just a little while longer.

The breakthrough in Birmingham in 1963 came neither from the preachers who strategized the campaign nor the majority who opposed it, but from the children who were inspired to march. Images of police dogs attacking boys and girls went around the world, compelling the federal government to pass a Civil Rights Act the following year.

When you come to a dead end, nonviolence teaches you to look for a resurrection.

Birmingham was a great victory in the struggle, won through an unexpected gift. But it was not the end. Like the movement before us, we traveled on to Selma, where King joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1965 to highlight the need for voting rights. Without the ballot, the basic dignity of black people could never be protected in the South. (Herein are the origins of “black power.”) The Dallas County Voter’s League had known this since the 1930s, and SNCC had come to Selma to support their work after learning the importance of local, grassroots organizing. On his journey toward facing the unspeakable, Dr. King came to Selma. Without a doubt, as the new movie makes clear, the Voting Rights Act was won through the nonviolent struggle in Selma.

But the struggle didn’t start when King came to Selma. And it didn’t end here in 1965. Standing at the end of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, we remembered the blood that was spilled on this holy ground. I closed my eyes and thought of the four martyrs memorialized on the wall of Brown Chapel — Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb, Viola Liuzzo and Jonathan Daniel. Each of them, as it happened, was standing up for someone else when they were killed. Three of the four were white.

Nothing unleashes the fire of America’s unspeakable violence like solidarity across dividing lines — a direct action against the lie of division.

Well, I haven’t been to heaven but I think I’m right —
Been down into the South —
There’s folks up there both black and white —
Been down into the South.

We drove on to Montgomery, “the cradle of the Confederacy.” It was also the cradle of nonviolent direct action in America — the place where, in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a city bus and a nonviolent movement was born in America. But my, what a violent city. Stolen from the Native Americans, this river port became a hub for the 19th-century slave trade. Jefferson Davis stood on the balcony of the Exchange Hotel downtown to be announced as president of the Confederate States of America. Immediately following Reconstruction, white supremacy was written into the state constitution, giving legal backing to a reign of terror in which black people were lynched, raped and leased as convicts in a peonage system that re-enslaved them. The “quiet seamstress” who became the symbol of Montgomery’s boycott had begun fighting when she and her husband stood up for the Scottsboro Boys in 1931. For the next two decades, Rosa Parks had been a rebel without a pause, investigating abuses of African-Americans, organizing the NAACP, and building a Youth Council to carry the struggle forward.

Nonviolence didn’t come to America and grab King as its spokesperson because quiet, longsuffering people had the patience to wait for the system to do its job. After decades of struggle, nonviolence emerged as a more powerful weapon in the struggle to overthrow a death-dealing system that cripples us all. Nonviolence was born among people who knew how to fight.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove directs the School for Conversion in Durham, N.C., and is the author of several books. Learn more at jonathanwilsonhartgrove.com. See part two of this Freedom Ride update here.


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