Tag Archives: Civil rights

Lessons from #Selma50: #1 Medgar Evers and organization #TCUCRBT

This past weekend marked the 50th Anniversary of the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama by Martin Luther King and others. To commemorate this I have traveled with 18 other students and faculty on Texas Christian University Civil Rights Bus Tour. We made our way through the Mississippi Delta on a path to Selma. Other destinations for the trip include Nashville, Tennessee and Cleveland, Mississippi. While in Jackson, Mississippi we visited several historical sites including Jackson State University, the home of Medgar Evers, and a museum dedicated to Civil Right Movement activities that  had previously been a  school with famous alumni such as Richard Wright. Perhaps one of the most intriguing attractions was the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) headquarters. As we toured the building and its surrounding area I made note of the many quotes that were displaced throughout the building.

 

One of the quotes that was particularly striking came from Bob Moses. He states: ” When you are in Mississippi the rest of America does not seem real. When you are in the rest of America, Mississippi. does not seem real.” This quote exemplifies the unique place that Mississippi has in the Civil Right Movement. In one sense it is completely different from every movement that preceded it. Cultural particularities that existed in Mississippi did not exist anywhere else. COFO research Precious stated that the methods used in Alabama would not work in Mississippi. Indeed throughout the movement’s history the freedom workers resorted to many tactics that addressed the systematic disenfranchisement caused by Jim Crow. The Freedom Movement during the Summer of 1963 acted as just one example of what made the civil rights movement unique in Mississippi. Perhaps one of the more famous yet often overlooked aspect of the freedom movement was the formation of COFO in 1961. COFO combined workers from SNCC, NAACP, CORE, and the SCLC to facilitate change and end segregation in the state of Mississippi. Admittedly it was not a perfect relationship and leaders often came into conflict with one another on a variety of issues. However, they realized that they were more effective if they were united than if they were divided. Their joints efforts were essential in facilitating change that would lead to the Voting Rights Act of 1964.

 

Perhaps, the greatest accomplishment was their ability to unite and mobilize citizens within the local communities. They registered voters and ultimately helped African American gain political power in their own communities. Another note on the uniqueness of Mississippi’s freedom struggle is that it often served as a modern day Africa according to a COFO researcher. It  was plentiful in resources because by the early 1960’s SNCC had a well established presence in the state. Medgar Evers had began to engage the people of as the field secretary for the NAACP. When James Bevel and the SCLC began to make their presence know in the state it had already become a battleground for the next phase of the movement. Members from all four groups knew that Mississippi could be used as the next location for the freedom struggle. In fact this was largely how COFO formed. However, COFO lasted only four years and many of the member of the organization left after 1965 to continue the movement in other locations. Activist Hezekiah Watkins has commented on one of his many perceptions of the movement in Miss. Watkins is noted for being the youngest freedom rider at age thirteen. He noted that many activist including freedom riders were pivotal in the fight for equality, however, he also noted that many of the participants who were not from Mississippi left after they accomplished their goals. They did not have to face members in the community who may have thought that the freedom riders were trouble makers or causing trouble. He also noted that when the outsiders left it was up to him and other member of the communities to deal with the repercussions of their resistance to Jim Crow, as well as to continue the fight on various fronts in the state.

crm mural2
The Freedom Movement in Mississippi was also very similar to other movements during the period as well. The reliance on grass root organizations was reminiscent of much of the work that SNCC had accomplished throughout the country. Bob Moses one of the leaders of COFO believed that community organization was essential to the success of the movement. Moses believed that community organization was actually a big word for talking to the people. Moses first became involved with the movement after seeing the sit-ins in New York. He saw the students and believed they looked the way he felt. He was extremely concerned with empowering the people to gain political power for themselves. This led to one of his major disagreements with MLK and ultimately led to their separation. King was far more concerned with public perception of the movement than Moses. Moses was greatly influenced by his  friendship with Ella Baker. Moses and COFO incorporated group centered leadership. They specifically focused on education programming and voter registrations as a means to empower the local citizens. It was the belief that the individual had the ability to create changed that bared striking similarity to other freedom struggles throughout the United States. Hezekiah Watkins reflected on this point as well. A major aspect missing from the Civil Right Movement today is the absence of grassroots organizations involved in politics. He strongly believes that African Americans in local communities need to be more involved in municipal elections. In essence they need to regain political control over their cities. A major issue with this is that there are not enough African American legislatures at the local level. However, he also firmly believes that having African Americans in political offices is more nuanced than their mere presence. Many who are elected do not actively work toward benefiting their communities and only appeal to them during times of election. Voters are uninformed and are not active. Thus, their only opportunity to advocate for change occurs once every four years. This means that it is imperative in the ongoing struggle for freedom to continually be informed and active.

 

So what can be taken away from the legacy of COFO and the it leaders place in history. For starters the organization provides a blueprint for activism today in one sense. Although I did not reflect on the entirety  of Hezekiah Watkins story from his conversation it was easy to sense his frustration with  the activism post- Freedom Movement. The complexities that modern human rights struggles face in some ways could not have been imagined during the height of the  Freedom Movement in Mississippi. Despite this the imaginative potential to change the world existed in an organization like COFO. That same potential resides within all of us today. It is this potential that allows people with various concerns to unite and advocate for justice in its many forms. Watkins andy many others emphasized the need to shift the focus on activism away from Civil Right to Human Rights. It is only through coalitions intentionally communicating with each other effectively that will help to create this transition. It is important to keep in mind that much COFO each organization does not necessarily have to agree with each other on every issue. Rather, each groups can agree upon as specific end goal of achieving human rights for all to create lasting systemic change.

richard notes COFO hq

Photo Descriptions: #1 (Featured photo: mural of bus tour on a wall, painting of protestors holding signs) #2 (second photo: Photo of marchers on Sunday, lots of fog, signs ranging from concerns about voter i.d. laws to police brutality)

#3 (third photo: photo of author of post, taking notes in Medgar Evers home, found on the TCU Civil Rights Bus Tour facebook page)

5 Takeaways from #Selma @SelmaMovie

This past Friday, in spite of no showings of Ava Duvernay’s Selma (2015) being shown in Fort Worth theaters, a friend and I were able to see the film in Grand Prairie. We had to endure being in line where there was only one cashier at the box office, but once we were in the theater, there weren’t even ten other viewers who showed up. Able to choose where I sat, I picked the usual: middle aisle, middle seats. Movie theaters are the only place where I choose “the Middle Way.” After we the audience got through twenty minutes of previews, the actual movie started. Throughout the film, my mind was racing with thoughts, being reminded of the current issues of today and how injustice functions and what role religion plays in society. I told a number of friends I had gone to see the movie, and a few of them requested that I write out my thoughts. So here, without further ado, are five takeaways from my viewing of SELMA. Oh and yes, general Spoiler Alert

1. Selma is an example of exactly what a “Christian” or faith film should look like. In the recent decade, Evangelical Christian culture has struggled to get a presence in Hollywood, offering movies from Fireproof to Courageous to even my favorite of that group One Night With The King.  Selma is a film that portrayed both the piety of clergy and lay people not as some awkward conversionism, but something to be embodied and portrayed everyday. When King is in jail, his friends are citing the words of Jesus to calm him down.  When King needs to hear the voice of God, he calls Mahalia Jackson to soothe his fear of death. More importantly, Christianity is depicted as more diverse than the run-of-the-mill nondenominational Bible church evangelicalism of the aforementioned films. When King decides to march across the bridge to Montgomery, he is greeted by an Eastern Orthodox priest. An almost perfect picture of ecumenism at work.

2. If it wasn’t for the women, would there be a Civil Rights Movement? Not enough work has been done on the importance of women, especially Black women’s roles during the Civil Rights Movement. We are given the opportunity to empathize with the struggle of Anna Cooper who is denied her basic right to vote. We are given a small glimpse of Diane Nash’s influence in Reverend Dr. King’s inner circle. We see just how essential Coretta Scott King was to MLK’s ministry. Her encounter with Malcolm X was symbolic of the real philosophical differences between Martin’s side and Malcolm’s side.

3. Selma’s representation of debates about how to go about dismantling White Supremacy only scratched the surface. As I mentioned above, Malcolm according to the film Selma, chose to use himself as a foil to Martin, so that MLK could be seen as the “more respectable” of the two.  Yet while these disagreements continue to be debated, I don’t think that Malcolm is portrayed as anti-thetical to the cause of Black civil rights. Malcolm’s and Martin’s goal are the same (the eradication of legal Jim Crow racial segregation) and on that front, they have common ground. The other debate, between SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (the SCLC), the typology of the young disgruntled radicals facing up against their more experienced, more powerful elders, rings true in the Internet Age. For what its worth (and I admit, I may be a part of the problem), it seems that many youthful, energetic communities that rely on digital media are playing the trope of SNCC while there is no SCLC really around.  What are the ways that contemporary movements for social justice can work against ageism? As I heard someone say before, I don’t wanna be in a revolution that my mother cannot partake.

4. The Social Justice Film Genre Is In Right Now. 12 Years A Slave. Fruitvale Station. The Help. Lee Daniels The Butler.  Beasts Of The Southern Wild. You hear about them every year now. Each year, there are those two are three independent films which center around social issues. They are for the most part, well acted. There are cameos by big name celebrities who have invested money in the film (think Oprah Winfrey in Selma, Brad Pitt in 12 Years, for example). These celebrities may even get too much camera time in this author’s opinion. Part of the experience also involves a lot of emotional investment on the part of the audience. There is a general expectation that there will either be tears or anger. It’s no laughing matter to see enslaved Black persons being beaten on the big screen. These social justice films are enjoyable, but I would not say that they are entirely pleasant experiences. We’re not talking about rom-coms here.

5. Historical accuracy can be offensive. A number of white liberals were outraged at the portrayal of President Lyndon Baines Johnson. From what we know, LBJ was a political pragmatist seeking a “third way” to calm down both sides who were “extremists.”  There’s a difference between being an extremist for love and justice, and being hate-mongering murderous White supremacists, wouldn’t you agree? LBJ and the Brogressive logic of “both sides as equally bad” is actually a form of linguistic violence, where there is a lack of nuance as well as no understanding of differences between the two parties.  Artful truth does damage to the psyche of many within the dominant culture, which would rather believe and live in the fantasy of the happy Negro rather than the real struggles of human being nonviolently revolting for political freedom. 

 

side noteTim Roth’s performance as Governor George Wallace was an Abomination. Props if you get that reference.**

So what do you think? Did I leave out anything about Selma? Are you more likely to go see it?

(Photo Description: Taken March 1965 Alabama civil rights movement: Selma to Montgomery march: Iakovos, Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy (Monday, March 15, 1965)Preferred Citation: Jack Rabin collection on Alabama civil rights and southern activists, 1941-2004 (bulk 1956-1974) , Historical Collections and Labor Archives, Eberly Family Special Collections Library, University Libraries, Pennsylvania State University. Repository: Penn State Special Collections, University Park, PA, Flickr/Creative Commons)

 

Just Arrived in the Mail from @IVPress: Birmingham Revolution by Ed Gilbreathe

Who Is Our Neighbor?

The kind folks from Intervarsity Press have sent me a review copy of Ed Gilbreathe’s Birmingham Revolution: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Epic Challenge to the Church. I look forward to reading and reviewing this book. I did enjoy Gilbreathe’s Reconciliation Blues.

Take a look at a video from IVP On Vimeo: here