Posts Tagged ‘ Mississippi ’
By Jason McGaughey
I have long felt trapped within the confines of my own mind, fearing that when I open my mouth and expose who I truly am, I will inevitably be rejected. Such anxiety has not been all bad for me though. I think that there is something about experiencing life as an observer that has helped me remove myself from my own lived experience to attempt to understand life from the vantage point of the theoretical “other.” This has given me the freedom to question the most deeply held of all of our national beliefs: that we live in a free and equal society. I can honestly say that I do not believe we truly do.
Would a truly free society have the world’s highest prison population that is based upon a racist justice system? Would a truly free society call a human being illegal for entering this nation to escape systemic problems created by this nation’s corporate interest? Would a truly free society cut the triumphs of workers’ struggle that our ancestors fought so hard for? Would a truly free society push neoliberal trade policies that exploit working people around the world? Would a truly free society continue to ostracize people simply because of their sexual orientation? Would a truly free society continue to waste the world’s natural resources to perpetuate a lifestyle that is killing the planet? Would a truly free society continue to cut funding for the education of our nation’s youth? Would a truly free society continue to pursue an imperial foreign policy that is killing countless people around the world, and to be so inhumane to not even acknowledge how it is based upon hysteria about other religions and cultures? Would a truly free society be able to continue to perpetuate such inequalities, and have the audacity to not even acknowledge how they are based on racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, classism, and homophobia?
The narrative we tell ourselves is built upon illusions. Meaning that we are all too often taught our history through a lens of historical amnesia. We do not recount the whole story of the horror of our past, nor do we remember the full story of how people have come together to collectively fight against oppressive systems throughout that same history. The truth of our history is a duality. By not knowing our past nor recognizing our present, we perpetuate a system that creates and solidifies structural violence and institutionalized racism.
This trip has re-cemented my commitment to the movement. It is all too easy for me to stay quiet, to not speak truth to power, to not plead with others to come to recognize the way in which oppression is built into the very structural fabric of our society. This journey has been an intellectual, spiritual and relational rebirth for me. To learn about the struggles of the past from civil rights heroes in such an intimate manner has been beyond inspirational. Then to have this intimacy coupled and magnified by sharing it with other young activists brought tears to my eyes on multiple occasions. The conversations that I have had with my peers, where we learn and share so deeply with each other our lived experiences of struggle has been nothing short of the foundations of revolutionary theory. We are creating within one another a revolution of values. We are coming to see our unity and how it is through this weapon of togetherness that we will be able to fight back against such a large and terrifying macro system of exploitation. The system is simply too big and too powerful to take on by ourselves. Though, through the higher power of solidarity we can come together as the masses to be able to truly create a nation for, of, and by the people. Only then is there any real hope that we can create a truly free and equal society not built upon systems of exploitation. We must dream big and not loose hope. Without hope we are lost. This trip has helped me regain my sense of hope, and I am grateful for that. Long live the civil rights revolution and the hope that it teaches us all.
By Sarah Cheshire
We walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge two-by-two, in silence. It is a tranquil Sunday morning—the water rumbles underneath us, the sun has just begun to permeate the thin layer of clouds above, and a gentle breeze ripples the Spanish moss dangling from the trees. In about an hour, the city streets will begin to swell with people, mingling and filing into the churches. But now, the sounds of the city are gentle and muted. It is hard to believe that 46 years ago, at this spot, on a Sunday like today, rows of silent marchers were confronted by uniformed men on horseback, flaunting clubs and bearing teargas.
When the only human sounds I hear are the cars purring past and the thud-thud-thud of our footfalls, hitting the pavement almost in unison, itʼs hard to imagine the cries of the marchers as they retreated into the sanctuary of the church, bruised and battered and bloodied.
Last night, I was talking to an elderly woman while waiting in line for the bathroom at the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, where in May of 1961, a mob of angry klansmen threatened a group of peacefully assembled church goers and Freedom Riders. The womanʼs husband was in the church that night. She was at home down the street with their newborn baby. “I thought I was gonna lose him right then and there,” the woman said of her husband. “Iʼll tell you, I was so scared.”
Being at First Baptist on a blue-skied day, laughing and conversing with friends from every background, nationality, and cultural context, itʼs hard to imagine that kind of fear.
At the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, in a dimly lit room containing the carcass of a greyhound bus and footage of the original Freedom Riders, I see an interview with Jim Zwerg, the Freedom Rider who, in that city in 1961, volunteered to be the first to step off of the bus in and into the hands of an irate mob. In the video, he is lying on a hospital bed, his face gaunt against the white pillow, bearing the marks of a brutal beating. I look behind me and see the real Jim Zwerg, who has joined us for the day.
“Were you afraid?” I ask him. “No,” he says, “no. I knew I was going to die.”
When my own fights have been subtle, and my actions removed from the immediacy of the issues at stake, itʼs hard to imagine this kind of courage.
There is an aura of peace to these places— the churches we visit, the bridges we cross, the back roads we travel down. At the surface, all seems to be at rest. The beatings, the slurs, the fear, the courage, seem unfathomable, like they occurred at a time and a place so detached from the present. But if I listen hard enough, I can hear whispers of the past— faint, like a gust of wind or a muted footfall.
At the 16th Street Baptist Church, where 43 years ago, on a Sunday like today, a klan bomb killed four young girls as they were changing in the bathroom for service, we listen as the Carleton Reese Memorial Unity Choir sings songs about freedom, clapping their hands together and swaying back and forth.
Carved into the base of the offering table, I notice the strong yet subtle words:
This do in remembrance of me.
Historian Ray Arsenault, author of Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, writes from the 2011 Student Freedom Ride.
Day 8–May 15: Montgomery, AL, to Jackson, MS
We left Montgomery early in the morning, bound for Selma on Route 80, just as the Freedom Riders did on May 24, 1961. Fortunately, we didn’t have (or need) the protective ring of National Guardsmen with fixed bayonets, FBI agents, police cars, and military helicopters–”the apparatus of protection,” to use Jim Lawson’s words. We passed by several sites related to the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights march, including the roadside monument dedicated to Viola Liuzzo, the Detroit civil rights activist murdered by Klansmen while driving along Route 80. Our first stop was Brown Chapel, the AME Church that served as the staging ground for the 1965 Bloody Sunday march. Inside this beautiful and historic church, one of the deacons talked with the students about her experiences in Selma–she was 17 in 1965–and about recent and current race relations in Selma and Dallas County. After a brief driving tour of Selma, we got off the bus and walked silently, two by two, across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of the Bloody Sunday police riot. The students spent a few minutes at the memorial park at the eastern end of the bridge before reboarding the freedom bus.
We headed west toward the Mississippi line and on to Meridian, our lunch stop. We paused outside the county courthouse in Meridian, the site of many voting rights struggles during the 1960s. And I told the students about Medgar Evers’s confrontation with white supremacists in Meridian in 1958 when he defied Jim Crow and sat on a front seat of a bus. We spent the night in Jackson, where the students held another teach-in on current social justice issues, and where I and the Freedom Riders attended a screening of the film at the Masonic Temple on Lynch Street, the headquarters for the NAACP, SNCC, and CORE during the Freedom Rides and after. The panel discussion following the screening featured veterans of the Jackson Non-Violent Movement, including Hezekiah Watkins, who was the youngest Freedom Rider at age 13 in 1961, and MacArthur Cotton, a Freedom Rider in McComb, MS. Jesse Harris, the legendary SNCC actvist, was also on hand. It is somewhat strange visiting Jackson as a quasi-tourist, staying in the old King Edward Hotel just across from the Illinois Central railway station where so many Freedom Riders were arrested in 1961. History, memory, and a whirl of conflicting emotions.