Posts Tagged ‘ Alabama ’
By Alicia Skeeter
There have been two actions that I have been examining over the freedom ride: to hope and to forgive. Hope and forgiveness have been exposed to me in real and piercing ways over the freedom ride, the past two days especially. I want to understand these two things and gain a greater perspective on them. This experience is providing me the space to do that.
The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama embodies what it means to hope. When we visited there, this is all I could think: How could the people of the church and community continue to move forward after being bombed and after four of the congregation’s children were murdered? I couldn’t and still don’t understand that strength, that courage to hope. To hope is to say that things are going to get better. I know if I were a part of that church, it would have been very difficult to have those same emotions and same actions.
During our visit we met some church members and listened to the Carlton Reese Memorial Unity Choir share testimonies and songs of hope and of freedom. In their church, one of their stained glass windows is called the Wales Window. This window is a very powerful piece of art that is a visual expression of what hoping and forgiving really looks like. The Wales Window is a picture of a man with his arms spread wide, one hand pushing away and one hand open, in a receiving position. The hand pushing away is supposed to represent the fight to overcome oppression. The receiving hand is open to welcome forgiveness and love. The 16th Street Baptist Church is hope; the 16th Street Baptist Church is forgiveness.
Another way these actions of hope and forgiveness have been presented in a very real way during this ride was through Jim Zwerg’s talk on nonviolence. He was an original Freedom Rider who was hospitalized because he was beaten so severely, and never returned to the Rides because of his injuries. He has such a gentle spirit. I especially recognized this spirit in the way that he talks – his speech is a reflection on how peaceful he is because he is forgiving. Jim Zwerg is forgiveness. He told us that while people were beating him, he was praying for them and forgiving them. Who does that? How? These are the questions I will continue to ask. I will look to the 16th Street Baptist Church when I need a reminder of what it means to hope. I will look to Jim Zwerg’s story when I forget what it means to truly be forgiving.
By Erica Shekell
The 1961 Freedom Rides serve as a model and inspiration for other social justice movements. The LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights movement is one of these.
It was a few years ago when I first heard the phrase “gay is the new black.” It expresses the idea that both blacks and LGBT individuals have been discriminated against legally and socially and that some have been beaten or even killed because of their identity. It also expresses the idea that black people have more legal rights and greater social acceptance than LGBT people do at this time – that most of the goals of the civil rights movement have been achieved – and that LGBT rights are the “next frontier.” It implies that the LGBT community is the next marginalized social group that has yet to receive rights that other citizens enjoy, and whose civil rights will likely be addressed next.
While there are many parallels between both communities, I take the middle route. The statement “gay is the new black” is compelling, but I feel that it is neither accurate nor constructive.
Some individuals are offended by the phrase and object to this comparison; they argue that LGBT people have not had to endure deeply systemic discrimination. While there were “colored” and “white” drinking fountains, there have never been “gay” or “straight” drinking fountains. Segregation such as this was deeply ingrained into many aspects of law and everyday life – and most laws do not regulate the everyday lives of LGBT people in the same ways they regulated the lives of black individuals in the Jim Crow South.
Some individuals may argue that discrimination and violence against LGBT individuals is inconsequential compared to the incredible amount of violence endured by slaves and blacks living under Jim Crow. Some may counter that LGBT people would endure the same extreme violence if LGBT was a physical characteristic like skin color, and the absence of this is why they have not endured such violence en masse and only in isolated incidents. Other individuals may argue that while the black community faced violence, they at least had support and comfort from their families – something that many LGBT people lack.
As is apparent, the danger with the phrase “gay is the new black” is that it sets the two communities up for competition, each competing to be the “most” marginalized and therefore most legitimate. I believe that both are legitimate and that it is not necessary for them to compete.
Both groups strive for equality and the right to live freely. There are many other parallels between the Freedom Rides and the LGBT rights movement – many of the Freedom Riders did not tell their parents about their participation, and of those who did, many did not receive blessings from their parents and were even discouraged from participating. Fathers were angry. Mothers cried. This is often the reaction that parents have when their children come out as LGBT. Both groups are familiar with rejection and disappointment from parents.
Another parallel is that “allies,” as supporters of the LGBT community are called, are incredibly important to furthering social acceptance and legal rights of the community – just as white Freedom Riders were integral to the success of the movement. White riders such as Joan Mulholland and Jim Zwerg were respected and celebrated because they cared deeply enough about their country to do something about it and showed that civil rights weren’t just a “black” issue. They gave a face to the thousands of whites who supported the movement. Similarly, members of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) receive enthusiastic applause and cheers at LGBT events and marches. It is sometimes difficult for LGBT people to receive strong support, particularly from family members, so those parents, family and friends who are supportive are all the more appreciated.
The success of both movements hinges on the idea that equality and fairness are not values just for “them,” but for all of us – with that idea being represented by the faces of all people.
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.
By Stephanie Burton
On May 6, I began a journey of self exploration. In ten short days (that’s the power of this trip), I learned to soak up information, to dissect it in agonizing detail and to formulate new ideas, new questions. I’ve asked “how” and “why” several times along the way, becoming so thirsty for knowledge that I HAD to grab a notepad to keep it all together. Back, forth, up, down; the pen would not stop moving! One notepad led to two notepads, and so on and so on.
Now that the trip is over, I’m left with four notepads and a powerful assignment: to find the answers to my scribbling.
Each question stemmed from a conversation that I had with the people who were taking the journey with me—39 other students, members of the press, and the original Freedom Riders. I’m truly thankful for such an eye-opening experience. Thank you to everyone who uttered a word my way; you have left an imprint in my mental psyche forever.
Listed below are my top 11 questions:
1. Why do we give others the privilege of interpreting the bible for us? If we took each phrase in the bible literally, would we all be dead? Are there people out there who live out the principles of the bible word for word?
2. Bless the child that has its own. Why don’t I have an entrepreneurial spirit?
3. Why is yesterday the 1st time that I’ve had a deep, spiritual connection with a person outside of my race?
4. Someone said that the “Save the Children” commercials exploit kids because they find the most poverty-stricken kid to talk on camera, which causes the viewer to make generalizations about the entire impoverished group. But if even ONE kid is living so poorly, isn’t it still important?
5. Does PR have a place in advocacy work? If so, what is the limit?
6. Do introverted people ever make a notable contribution to society… famous introverts?
7. Why does it feel so good to tell your story? And if it’s simply about telling your story, why do we get mad when the paper doesn’t print all of our quotes or everything we said?
8. Am I supporting segregation by going to an HBCU (Historically Black College)? But what is the alternative? What college has diversity all across the board—gender, race, sexual orientation, political affiliation, etc?
9. Why didn’t the International Civil Rights Museum have an exhibit on American Indians’ struggle in the U.S.?
10. Do I have conflicting narratives?
11. When is it okay to label an event a “celebration?” Can we truly “celebrate” a painful event, even if it is 50 years later (the bombing of the bus in Anniston, Alabama)?
By LeRoy Ford
Today we visited the city of Selma, Alabama. For me, the drive into Selma was a little depressing because everything looked so run-down and tattered. As we were driving in, I wondered why this area was so neglected. These thoughts continued to bring me down because I felt like something needed to be done. Then I began to think about the history of the city and all of the fighting that took place there to win us the rights we have today. Thinking about this put things into perspective as to why it looked the way it did. Selma may be a poor city, but it is rich with history to be shared.
When we first arrived in Selma, we drove over the Edmund Pettus Bridge to enter into the city. Driving over this historical bridge gave me a feeling that is almost impossible to explain. I couldn’t help but think back to the brutality that happened on that bridge in 1965. However, the bridge wasn’t our first stop. We went to the historic Brown Chapel A.M.E Church. Sitting in the pews, I tried to envision myself sitting in those same pews fifty years ago, participating in the march for voting rights. Being in the building in which so much history took place made me feel blessed and very thankful for those who fought so hard for me to have the freedoms I have today.
After our visit to the church, we returned to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, but this time we walked over it, just as they did in the 1965 march for voting rights. We exited the bus and walked over, two-by-two and silently. Silence has never had so much power as it did in that moment. As we walked, I thought back to the courageous people walking in 1965. I thought about the fear that I’m sure they had inside of them, knowing what was waiting on the other side. I began to smile to myself, knowing that because of those brave souls, I could now walk this bridge and be assured that brutality wouldn’t be waiting for me on the other side. As we reached the other end of the bridge where they were met with brutality in 1965, I felt like I could rejoice. I realized that I just took the most meaningful walk in my life and that I will never forget. I took a walk through history.
By Zilong Wang
Fifty years ago, injustices were very visible in this country. We saw our neighbors and friends suffering from discrimination; we could identify the Ku Klux Klan by their funny costumes. The racial discrimination was so violent and outrageous that people had no choice but to stand up for their dignity. Fifty years later, injustice has evolved: it has become nearly invisible and harder to fight than ever before.
Injustice has become invisible because our society is getting more complex. Today’s “bad guys” can achieve their self-interests without stepping outside of their offices, and without spilling one drop of blood. They can be as friendly as you could imagine, but they steal your money, abuse your tax money, cause worldwide economic damage, control your food supply, pollute your environment, and make you believe that you can’t live without them. This is more than “white-collar crime,” this is the global injustice in its 21st century incarnation.
Fifty years ago, Americans could go on the street and protest; they could clearly identify the evil and propose solution: desegregate schools, buses and lunch counters, for example. Today, it becomes very hard to even identify the evil, let alone fight it. For example, the 2008 financial crisis has caused trillions of dollars of damage, and has destroyed the livelihood of millions of families around the world. But even today, not many people fully understand the cause of the crisis, and we couldn’t effectively identify the criminals or provide solutions. The BP oil spill is another example. How can we protest BP’s crime against nature? Should we go demonstrate in the middle of the gulf, or in Washington, or on Wall Street, or in front of the multiple international headquarters of BP?
Due to the complexity of our system and the invisibility of the criminals, it has become harder and harder to identify the problems, locate the bad guys, and improve the situation. The only way to understand the system is to study it, and usually it would require a college degree to be even literate in the political and financial circle. Sometimes, it takes more than one PhD to fully understand why the system is broken.
However, by the time our young students get their multiple degrees, they are usually hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. In order to pay off the student loans, they can’t afford to fight the system. They have to join the system and take the highest paying job from Wall Street or from multinational corporations. It seems like our education system is designed to make sure that by the time a student understands the system, she/he can no longer afford to challenge the system. The commercialization of education system has surrendered a generation of youth into the hands of the powerful money. By the time students have gained the knowledge, they have lost the freedom.
Today’s social inequality is more severe than ever before, but it might take an economic and political double PhD to understand the system and to provide useful advice. Injustice is hiding in fancy offices and underneath expensive suits and ties. Street protests are no longer effective enough to bring positive change. Is the fight against injustice getting harder? Should today’s youth be depressed because we are facing formidable enemies?
No, not at all. As injustice has evolved over the past fifty years, so has the fight against injustice. Today’s youth is standing on the shoulders of previous generations. We have more powerful tools like the Internet. We face less physical hardship and violence. We are indeed facing unheard-of challenges and evil, but each generation faces a similar situation. Each generation of youth has to solve new problems and come up with new ideas. We are no more or less empowered than anyone else. We will use our wisdom and will to identify the problems and provide solutions. Aim high!
By Ryan Price
So we continue to travel through many small towns and big cities, practically to the fanfare of trumpets. The cameras come out, filming. The citizens show up, smiling. The mayors are present, handshaking. The museums and universities are great places for us students to learn and grow, while these receptions are often great times for communities to heal.
Here’s the tension I feel though: the original Freedom Riders wouldn’t have behaved as perfectly as we do. As they traveled through these cities, they would have asked things to the tune of: “We’re really happy that our brothers and sisters, black and white, can ride buses together now. But how do you treat migrant workers? Do the children in your high school still viciously bully their gay peers? Do the members of your community paint all peaceful Muslims with the wide, inaccurate and phobic brush of terrorist?”
There’s nothing revolutionary in 2011, thank God, about different races riding buses together. Just fifty years ago, it was revolutionary. Today though the notion of segregation seems laughable. The lesson we learn from the Freedom Rides isn’t that we reached racial justice in the 1960s. No, the lesson we learn as students is that for us to make positive social change, we shouldn’t constantly behave so prudishly, properly and politely (which our generation tends to do).
It would have been rude for me to ask a leader in Tennessee, “Well I’m glad you’ve generously made room for black citizens in the front of buses. But what are you doing about the outlandishly high suicide rate among your LGBT youth? And while you answer that, how does your state do on housing discrimination?” Yet those questions need asking. Speaking truth to power – that’s the best way we could renew the spirit of the Freedom Riders.
What boggles my mind the most in the realm of social justice is this: our complete inability to unite against oppression. One famous civil rights icon told us several days ago that, “Illegal immigration is the worst thing to happen to the black community.” As she continued, the explanation sounded too much like “Hispanics are bad for blacks” for me to be remotely comfortable with it.
Nor can I begin to fathom explanations for the rampant homophobia present among some racial minorities. We have learned of the response to integration fifty years ago where segregationists said, “If God wanted races to mix, he would’ve made them mixed.” Yet, certain minority men and women barely notice the irony when they label homosexuals “unnatural.”
Our sisters couldn’t even cast a vote in the United States until relatively recently, yet they had no problem shouting, “kill them niggers” in Montgomery fifty years ago. Some women have no problem calling gays a threat to the family, when arguments leveled against women’s suffrage just ninety years ago centered on the demise of the family that suffrage would inevitably bring.
How did we become so confused as a society? If I were to write a personal social justice manifesto, it would be this: All of our varied and beautiful adjectives (black, white; skinny, fat; straight, gay; man, woman; poor, wealthy, and on) are nothing compared to our shared noun: human. To fully realize the American Dream, and live up to America’s promises, we must focus on the noun we share while showing greater respect for the adjectives that we don’t.