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Civil Rights Journey
Submitted by Kara Smith on Thu, 02/03/2011 - 8:19am.
"What would you do if someone hit you, kicked you, or spit on you?"
This was one of the questions that trainers asked protesters as they prepared for protests in Selma, Ala., on March 7, 1965 — "Bloody Sunday." They had to ask this because they knew what they would be facing — billy clubs, beatings, and tear gas — as they marched from Selma to Montgomery to demand the right to vote.
As I watched a video of anti-Mubarak protesters in Egypt praying as water cannons and tear gas were shot at them, I could not help but think of the iconic footage of the civil-rights movement — 600 marchers trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, confronted by the brutality of local lawmen.
The practice of nonviolent resistance was not used because it is easy; it was used because it is an effective tactic. The organizers of the civil-rights movement in the United States knew that violence would divert them from their political goal and that their non-retaliatory actions would accrue support from participants and the society at large. The organizers also knew that the effectiveness of their nonviolent actions would incite more violence by those in power as they began to see the inevitability of political change in this country.
Those protesting the current political structure in Egypt are standing at a similar precipice. Mubarak supporters have begun throwing Molotov cocktails and riding through crowds on horse- and camelback armed with whips and sticks. They know that the political tide is turning against them and that the world is standing in solidarity with the peaceful protesters.
So the question again is, "What will you do in the face of violence?" Honestly, I am not sure what I would do. What I do know is that nonviolence is an effective tactic for political change — political change that the people of Egypt deserve.
With funding and support from UUSC, Hands Across the Mideast Support Alliance (HAMSA) translated into Arabic The Montgomery Story [PDF], a 1958 comic book about the U.S. civil-rights movement and nonviolence. Referring to the protests in Egypt, Nasser Weddady of HAMSA recently told UUSC, "This is their Birmingham; this is their own civil-rights movement." As this struggle continues to escalate, we know that it will not be won without sacrifice and loss — but it is a fight that they will win.
To the protestors in Egypt: please do not let those who do seek to oppress you steer you from your path of nonviolent protest.
"Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals." —Martin Luther King Jr.
واللاعنف هي قوى وعادلة دون قطع السلاح الذي جرح رجل كان وجودا حيث. فمن يداوي سيفا. —Martin Luther King Jr.
As you stand strong, we stand in solidarity with you.
Submitted by Guest on Wed, 09/08/2010 - 11:16am.
Two months after the seventh UUSC Freedom Summer: A Civil Rights Journey, 17-year-old participant Maisie Taibbi recounts the life-changing experience in the blog post below. From the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh, she played a key leadership role on the trip with other youth and was the go-to photographer for the group (many of the Civil Rights Journey photos on our Flickr page are courtesy of Taibbi).
Maisie Taibbi (left) and a fellow Civil Rights Journey participant at the Southern Poverty Law Center civil-rights memorial.
There were three overarching questions asked of us during our journey to the South:
- What do you most hope to learn?
- What do you most hope to change about yourself?
- What do you most hope to change about your community?
We were instructed to consider these three thoughts throughout the week and to answer them whenever a meaningful response moved us to elaborate.
I have discovered that the point of these questions was to create a connection between what we would come to discover about the civil-rights movement and social-justice efforts today. These questions were necessary to watch how our responses would grow and change during our time together.
We met first in the Azalea Room at the Days Inn Atlanta. Our first night was perhaps the most thought-provoking. We heard from longtime civil-rights worker Lonnie King and survivor of the Sixteenth St. Baptist Church bombing Barbara Cross. I don't know if we were expecting Barbara's tears or if we were even ready for them, but her depth of passion fueled a desire in all of us to know more. From there, we dove in heart first. I sobbed when she revealed the title of that Sunday service: "A Love That Forgives."
During the course of the week, we heard from other civil-rights pioneers, such as original Tuskegee Airmen Val Archer and Commissioner Eves, as well as civil-rights attorney Gary Atchison. All of these amazing people commonly spoke of one specific necessity for moving forward — education. The education of our youth is imperative to our success as a nation.
We visited countless museums and important civil-rights sites throughout Georgia and Alabama. We even had a chance to touch the waters of the civil-rights memorial and add our names to the Wall of Tolerance inside the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The most remarkable trait of the civil-rights movement was the love-over-violence attitude of its leaders: "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that," said Martin Luther King, Jr.
Going into the trip, I didn't expect anything from my fellow participants — but as each day passed, we began to rely more and more on each other as fellow "appreciators" who know exactly how dumbfounded you are when you begin to understand this country's history a little better.
On this journey, I was struck with the realization that I didn't know how to answer those three questions. The measly three lines of space I left for each would never be enough to recount what I had just absorbed. I had been left speechless and hungry for justice. I strongly believe that all of us were changed by this experience and that it will never fade away. We have all been left with the responsibility to share the wealth and advocate for this rare and enriching journey.
On our final night together, we found ourselves back in the Azalea Room, though we were not the same awkward group who had left that room a week before. When we parted from each other, we had grown and matured. Our closing reflection filled the room with our stories and newfound relationships. I have the deepest respect for every person in that remarkable group, and I hope that our time together will remain imprinted on our hearts forever.
Submitted by Guest on Tue, 08/03/2010 - 9:29am.
During the recent Freedom Summer: A Civil Rights Journey, stories of nonviolence in civil-rights struggles made a big impact on 16-year-old participant Ariana Fiorello. Below, she writes about the thoughts they provoked and the action they've inspired in her.
Over the course of the Civil Rights Journey, I learned a lot. I was pleased that I was given the opportunity to take such an inspiring journey. I went on this trip because I personally wanted to learn more about my African-American heritage and more about the civil-rights movement itself.
When I watched movies and television shows about slavery or the nonviolence movement, I always believed that I would have been able to protest nonviolently and that I would have run for my life if I was a slave. However, when I was confronted by stories of both of these during our trip, I realized that it took guts — true courage — in order to have the willpower to do such things.
Barbara Cross asked me, "Would you be able to not fight back even if dogs were attacking you, policemen were beating you, and fire hoses were practically ripping your face off?" Quietly, I shook my head. I would not have been able to fight nonviolently. At that moment, I knew I was going to be learning about a lot more than just the civil-rights movement, I'd also be learning about how to control myself and how I can use some of the methods when I return home.
Now I am trying to start up an African-American studies program in my school and want to bring in one of the men we talked to. This will hopefully encourage more of the young, black, and other minority students to want to do better in school and go places far beyond imagination. I am glad I went on this trip. I really learned a lot and would definitely return again, bringing with me more friends to learn as well.
—Ariana Fiorello, 16 years old, UU Church of Medford, Mass.
Submitted by Guest on Thu, 07/22/2010 - 2:22pm.
Alice Roup, Civil Rights Journey 2010 participant.
One of the hallmarks of UUSC's Civil Rights Journey is that it can serve as a moving call to action for many participants. Below, two 2010 participants express their excitement to heed this call.
My original motivation to go on this trip was to learn more about something that I thought I knew something about and to break down the stereotypes I know I had about Alabama, a place I had never visited. If I achieved these goals, I thought I would be more than satisfied. To my great surprise and immense satisfaction, I've experienced an even more powerful achievement — I have felt real inspiration and motivation.
People who have told us their personal stories of fear and courage in the civil-rights efforts are truly inspiring, encouraging a greater sense of urgency in me to see the work still — and perhaps always — to be done for future justice and equity among the peoples of the country and the world. In addition to inspiration, I feel a truer sense of motivation to act upon that inspiration. There are projects in my church and in my workplace that await my energy. Even at the level of my family, I am motivated to encourage others to find moments (and perhaps more than moments) in their busy lives to speak up for justice. This trip has moved me from being a "verbalist" to being an activist. I am so grateful for this experience.
—Peggy Ulrich-Nims, Hingham, Mass., member of First Parish Old Ship
Mahatma Gandhi said, "We must be the change we wish to see in the world."
This trip has given me a mission. My mission is to dismantle racism and make our world one that we can all enjoy, regardless of race, sex, religious views, or anything else that makes us who we are. We are all on this world together, and yet we separate ourselves in ways we do not know.
I learned that the new racism is "subliminal," and that means that it will be all the harder to get rid of. With the help of goodness and mercy, the world will be healed. We must be the medium for goodness and mercy to work through. We must never forget the sacrifices people endured and the courage they had to form out of nothing. It is our turn as a united community to continue down the road of fixing the injustices and lending a hand to our fellow human beings.
—Alice Roup, Pacific, Wash., 15-year-old member of University UU Church
Submitted by Guest on Thu, 07/22/2010 - 2:19pm.
Stained-glass window at 16th Street Wales church window.
In the following blog post, Linda McKim-Bell, a UUSC regional coordinator and participant on this year's Civil Rights Journey, considers the importance of spirituality in the civil-rights movement and how that idea inspires her today.
One reason I came on this journey was to find out how African Americans organized the U.S. civil-rights movement. I was looking for tools and ideas to use at home — and I was looking for some hope for our country's future.
The solidarity, determination, and courage that I witnessed were an impressive achievement. I learned that it started in the black churches, which were a haven and a bulwark against the oppression that African Americans faced. When we heard Rev. Warnock's sermon at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, I understood this on a deeper level.
Rev. Warnock's powerful sermon was based on Psalm 23. He told us that goodness and mercy were following us, stalking us, urging us on. He told us to never be afraid and fear no evil — it was empowering to feel that I was receiving a new interpretation of my mother's favorite psalm. The message was that in my political work there is a spiritual base that will give me courage. It was a message from my mother, transformed by Rev. Warnock and my experience witnessing aspects of the civil-rights movement.
The Civil Rights Journey fed my soul and gave me an example of what people who are truly in solidarity can do!
—Linda McKim-Bell, Portland, Ore., UUSC regional coordinator of the Pacific Northwest region and member of First Unitarian Church in Portland
Submitted by Guest on Thu, 07/22/2010 - 2:16pm.
Can I forgive myself when I am racist?
Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial statue.
The Civil Rights Journey can evoke powerful emotions and inspire sincere soul searching. It provides an opportunity to examine the racism that existed and continues to exist in U.S. society, to grapple with how that shows up for each participant, and to consider ways to move forward. The following is an anonymous reflection from a 2010 participant.
The past week has really made me think about and examine my own racism and the journey that I have undergone throughout my life with regard to racism. I grew up in a middle-lower-class Irish-Italian Catholic community with minimal exposure to people of other races. There was one African American girl who went to school with me during my early elementary education, and then she disappeared. I had a friend of mixed race for a short period of time until we drifted apart.
In high school, I worked a part-time job with a male African American peer. At the time, I was in a phase of calling people — of any race — "boy." So, not knowing what I was doing, I called him "boy." He stopped working and told me in no uncertain terms that he wasn't going to put up with that and told me that that is what slaves had been called. I apologized and told him that I didn't know that this had been the case, which was true. I told him that I would not do it again. He accepted my apology, and we resumed working. On this trip, I heard how Martin Luther King Jr.'s father was called boy. I felt terrible for what I had said 30 years ago.
In the service we attended at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Rev. Warnock talked about goodness and mercy being with us all of the days of our life. I am OK with goodness being there but I am not so sure about mercy. By mercy, I mean forgiveness and, in this case, self-forgiveness.
Can I forgive myself when I am racist?
Can I forgive myself when I am clumsy?
Can I forgive myself when I am ignorant?
I am not sure how well guilt will serve me and help the human race — educating myself and learning from my mistakes will be more helpful.
Submitted by Guest on Thu, 07/22/2010 - 2:12pm.
Did you find it within:
Lucy, a Civil Rights Journey participant, expresses gratitude to Tuskegee Airman Val Archer.
One of the highlights of UUSC's Freedom Summer: A Civil Rights Journey was the chance for participants to hear from people who experienced the struggles of the civil-rights movement firsthand. Below, a few participants express their gratitude.
The individuals who spoke of their personal experiences impacted me the most. Their courage and ability to be positive when faced with hate and humiliation are inspiring. The message of forgiving but not forgetting is very important. People who fought and sacrificed did not let anger consume them, but anger for the injustices they faced moved them to action.
—Chris Fiorello, Medford, Mass., UU Church of Medford
Realizing that there isn't much time left to learn firsthand from people who directly participated in and led the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s, I jumped at the chance to join this tour - I'm glad I did. Hearing Val Archer's account of the discrimination he experienced on a daily basis as a Tuskegee Airman was inspiring. We also heard from Barbara Cross, who was a close friend of Addie Mae Collins, one of the girls who was murdered in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. She made a lasting impression by insisting that we learn the names of the four girls who were murdered. The other three are Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson. But there were so many more . . .
—Nancy Witherel, Brooklyn, N.Y., First Unitarian Universalist Congregational Society BrooklynThe following is a thank-you poem written by participant Dawn Kennedy to Val Archer, a former technical sergeant with the Tuskegee Airmen. Born April 13, 1929, Archer enlisted in the Army Air Corps at the early age of 15.
In Awe of Your Strength and Courage
Surprisingly humble, your dedication and selflessness was, is and will always be insurmountable.
Where and how did you manage to nourish it? How did you keep that flame lit when the sweeping storm surrounded you?
Did you find it within:
The spirit of your ancestors,
Or a light within?
I'll cherish the time I spent in your presence. Your spirit breathed hope into my heart.
Thank you, Val.—Dawn Kennedy, Leverett, Mass.
Submitted by Guest on Thu, 07/22/2010 - 2:00pm.
Freedom Summer: A Civil Rights Journey, 2010 participants.
This year, 24 people embarked on the seventh UUSC Freedom Summer: A Civil Rights Journey. Visiting sites of historical significance in the struggle for civil rights, they walked in the footsteps of great civil-rights activists and they heard from some of those courageous figures themselves. They listened to the music and protest songs that helped bolster the strength of these history makers. In the end, participants were surprised, inspired, and moved. Below, in the first of several blog posts, three participants share thoughts on the journey.
I have been forever changed by this trip. We really got a true taste of the U.S. civil-rights movement through discussions, guest speakers, and incredible museums. We also went to many locations that were vital to the movement, such as the 16th Street Baptist Church and the Edmund Pettus Bridge. We were also exposed to the numerous foot soldiers of the movement that have been forgotten in the history books, such as Viola Liuzzo and Rev. James Reeb.
As a high school teacher of U.S. history, I have become empowered even more now to make history more alive in my classroom by using the resources and stories I have gathered along the way on this incredible journey.
This trip is not for the fainthearted. You have to come willing to absorb a lot of incredible history and deal with the intense Southern heat. But it is a mind-blowing experience that opens your eyes to some of the most important history that defines us as a people and a nation.
—Kate Farrell, Salem, Mass., 28 years old
To be honest, when I first heard about this trip, I wasn't completely thrilled. I looked at it as a way to spend some time with my mother —l but it ended up being a fun and exciting experience. From the food to the people, this trip has been riveting and eye-opening. Everyone had a story that they were willing to tell, and it seemed as though they were telling it for the first time. I may have told my own story a thousand times, but people were still interested. The history that is shown on this trip is not a lot of the normal stuff. As a history buff, I learned more during this trip than in whole semesters during school. All in all, this was by far one of the best trips I have ever been on.
—Stephen Marsh, San Jose, Calif., 22 years old
I was impressed with the power of music in the civil-rights struggle. Throughout the tour, it was an important part of our experience; beginning with the gospel and praise music at the Ebenezer Baptist Church and continuing with the spiritual and protest songs that accompanied almost all the museum exhibits. I found that I was humming and sometimes singing snatches of songs like "Eyes on the Prize," "Motherless Child," and "We Shall Overcome." They are still echoing in my head.
—Linda Guebert, Kelseyville, Calif., Lake County UU Community
Stay tuned for more reflections from the Civil Rights Journey participants!
Submitted by Anna Bartlett on Fri, 07/17/2009 - 7:36am.
Arnold Bleiweis, Dick Harrison, Kamila Jacobs, Ann Harrison, and Roxane Bleiweis stand before the National Voting Rights Institute memorial at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.
What can make learning from a group experience so much more powerful than an individual one? The easiest way to answer that question is by example.
This past week I, along with two UUSC colleagues and 18 participants from across the country, have been following in the footsteps of the leaders and foot soldiers of the civil rights movement through Atlanta, Ga., and Montgomery, Selma, and Birmingham, Ala.
Ranging from 15 to 82, some participants are just getting their first taste of the movement, while others marched and stood up for human and civil rights with giants such as Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Stokely Carmicheal, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
The story of one such participant shows us how learning and experiencing things as a group can be a powerful and lasting experience.
We were lucky enough to have on our journey a person of conscience who answered the call for justice when the struggle for voting rights came to a head in Selma in 1965. A young minister at the time, Dick Harrison boarded the train in Urbana, Ill., and rode all the way to Montgomery to stand with hundreds of other people of faith and social-justice crusaders.
He went despite knowing neither what the outcome would be nor when he would return. His wife, Ann, another particpant in the Civil Rights Journey, talked about her fears as she, along with their five young children, waved goodbye before Dick boarded his train. She too recalls not knowing whether or not she would see him again.
Dick had not been back to Selma since, and Ann had never been. They both decided it was time to return to the place where so much prejudice was met with so much solidarity for justice.
The Selma of today is both exactly the same, and completely different. The places that we have come to associate with history — the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Brown Chapel AME, First Baptist Church, and the Dallas County Courthouse — still remain, largely unchanged, a silent testimony to important events.
But city streets that once held local businesses are largely deserted and lined with boarded-up buildings and vacant lots. Jobs that once provided the community with livelihoods have largely disappeared, leaving Selma a shell of its former self. In these ways, Selma is like many other small southern towns — struggling, tired, and scarred with memories of the past, as it lurches its way into the 21st century.
Walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge today, where more than 40 years ago on Bloody Sunday marchers were met with a sea of blue Alabama State Troopers, is a moving experience for anyone. But being able to share it with a person who answered the original call to justice makes it profound.
As a group, we have grown to know each other on a deep level throughout this journey. We've spent the last 6 days with each other, for nearly 12 hours a day. So when someone you've come to know tells a story like this, it's far more than a stranger giving a presentation on an issue. It's a friend sharing with us an important part of his life. Dick and Ann generously brought this history alive in a way that's possible only through personal testimony.
Yet sharing this experience as a group is more than hearing the stories of those who lived through the movement. Every voice has a place in our group, and each has added a richness to the experience that one cannot get as a solo journeyer. Events and places take on greater significance when you can hear what your friend experienced and allow him or her to share a moment that you missed or show a situation from a different perspective.
It is a multifaceted community experience that allows us to learn lessons on a fundamental level by combining the richness of our diverse backgrounds and experiences.
I'd like to thank everyone who took the risk of coming to Atlanta last Saturday without really knowing what they were in for. You have shared a valuable part of yourself and made the trip what it has become. Without all of you sharing parts of yourself, this would not be the enriching and powerful experience it has become.
Submitted by Meredith Barges. on Fri, 01/23/2009 - 2:37pm.
It is said that history is written by the victors. This is no less true for Northerners following the American Civil War. How else could the North write itself into history books as abolitionists and emancipators, while brushing under the rug the fact that prominent Northern families like the DeWolfs and towns like Bristol, R.I., played a leading role slavery and in the transatlantic slave trade, even decades after the United States outlawed the trade in 1808?
This is the history revealed in Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North, a documentary film about 10 descendants of the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history, the DeWolfs, who travel to Ghana and then Cuba in search of their family's hidden past.
Watching the film at the MFA last week, during the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, I was fascinated on so many levels, as a New Englander, a Northerner, an American, an American of European descent, and as a human rights activist. But I was also interested as a social-justice journeyer myself, having taken part in two social-justice journeys with UUSC: a JustJourney to Mexico in May 2008 and Freedom Summer: A Civil Rights Journey in July 2008.
As their story unfolded, I was surprised to find that the DeWolfs' journey looked a lot like the journeys organized by UUSC.
- The DeWolf descendants were an intergenerational group from around the country who traveled to sites of specific historical and cultural significance, in their case, sites relating to the DeWolf slave trade: Bristol, R.I.; Cape Coast, Ghana; and Cuba.
- They incorporated into their journey daily (usually nightly) discussions and emotional check-ins with skilled facilitators who could help them to unpack and explore their experiences.
- They met with local experts, advocacy groups, and people from the community to learn all that they could about the issue, in their case, the economic and social institution of slavery and its legacy.
- Before the end of their trip, they each committed themselves to spreading the word about what they had learned and building support in their local communities, and beyond, to make change on social-justice issues.
It was this commitment to social action that resulted in two exciting developments: the Episcopal church, of which the DeWolf family and many other slave-trading families were a part, apologized for its role in slavery; and thousands of people around the country have seen this film and read Thomas DeWolf's Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History, raising our public and private consciousness on the issues of slavery, racism, privilege, and slave reparations. Even the UUA has gotten on board, doing its part to promote the film.
However, what was decidedly different from a UUSC journey was that the DeWolf group was not interracial (perhaps for obvious reasons). This lack of racial diversity had serious consequences for the types of discussions and explorations the DeWolfs could have. At one point in the film, as the discussion heated up about racial injustice in our country, a DeWolf family member pulled into the conversation Juanita Brown, the film's coproducer, from behind the camera to weigh in on why African Americans might be hurt and angry about what they have suffered as a people.
Brown is African American. That the whole storytelling and technical boundaries of film had to be transgressed in order to get just one African-American perspective highlights just how racially insulated this group was (perhaps for obvious reasons).
Throughout the film, I kept thinking about how much more interesting and challenging their journey would have been if the DeWolfs had invited 10 African Americans with them to explore and uncover this hidden history. Their conversations would have been so much richer and more profound, even if they might have been more difficult and more painful. In the end, the DeWolfs would have been able to cover a lot more ground. But they played it safe by keeping it in the family.
Still, I strongly encourage you to see Traces of the Trade, show it in your congregation, and discuss it.
I also encourage you sign up today to be part of one of UUSC's JustJourneys or JustWorks camps, particularly Freedom Summer: A Civil Rights Journey if you are interested in issues of race and social justice in the United States.