By Davy Knittle
On Friday, Odessa Woolfolk, co-founder and president emerita of the Board of Directors of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute spoke with us about the participation of women in the civil rights movement and about the Children’s March that took place in Birmingham in 1963. Afterwards she took questions and while I usually hold back, I asked Ms. Woolfolk the question that’s been guiding my engagement with the stories of the civil rights movement, and my thoughts about the community-based work of each of the students on the ride over the past several days. I asked her, effectively: “The civil rights movement was guided by a faith-based energy that structured much of the discourse of the movement, even though the movement spanned many different religious and non-religious groups. The centrality of that religious discourse, of the crucial role of religious leaders in the movement and, in particular, the music of those religious communities provided a framework for the movement that helped those engaging in non-violent practices to understand and affirm the basic humanness of both the members of the movement and those who were in opposition. With this in mind, is a religiously-grounded discourse that which is most likely to bring people together now in a way that strengthens their collective engagement with America’s future? Is there another discourse that’s likely to be as effective in terms of unifying individual actors in a way that makes the humanness of all people both the goal and the impetus of collective action?”
Ms. Woolfolk stopped before she answered the question. She looked at me, said something to the effect of the question’s magnitude and the whole room laughed before Ms. Woolfolk said to us what I’ve been wondering about throughout the ride. She spoke to the centrality of religion before saying that the goals of her generation were collectively understood and enormously clear and that our work is necessarily more complicated and more difficult.
It’s been a challenge for myself and, it seems, for many of the other student riders, to take the lessons of the Freedom Rides, and of the civil rights movement more broadly, and to apply them to our current work, however that work constitutes itself. In my own reading of that history, the energy of that movement is still infectious, even if our goals and our approaches are less clearly collectively understood. That question itself: “where does the energy for collective action come from?” grounds itself beautifully in the methods of the Civil Rights Movement. If the work of our lives is to figure out how and where to apply that question, then if being on the ride has clarified that question, if for me, I understand collective work as an spiritually-guided, if not structurally religious process, then, in my understanding, the ride is doing its job.