Sunday, October 17, 2010

Relationships and Time: Necessities of a Movement

The familiar scene of the
oratory powers of MLK. 
The civil rights movement can sometimes --often times-- be truncated and abbreviated. "One day, a nice old lady, Rosa Parks, sat down on a buss and got arrested. The next day, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood up, and the Montgomery bus boycott followed. And sometime later, King delivered his famous 'I Have a Dream' speech and segregation was over" (p. xiv).

What we lose when we only look to the familiar characters is the commitment that thousands of individuals made to walking from house to house and talking with people about their rights as citizens of the United States. The organizing tradition within the civil rights movement in the mid-twentieth century is an important but oft forgotten piece of the long and rich history of the struggle for justice and rights for African-Americans. This aspect of the freedom struggle doesn't make it into textbooks, unless it's a brief mention on the way to highlighting the leaders of the movement. It is difficult to travel in this country without seeing MLK's name. The belief that the movement began in the 1960s misses the struggles and work done by many, taking place years earlier. 

A much less familiar photo of
Septima Clark and the Citizenship Schools.
Mention the "I Have a Dream" speech and we hear about children being judged on their character and not by the color of their skin. We know this story. We can hear King's voice and the crowd in D.C. when these words are uttered. But what happens when we mention SNCC or Citizenship Schools? The movement was composed of many individuals who were committed to the long road that needed to be traveled in order to transform the realities of African-Americans being marginalized, disrespected, and intimidated by Whites, as well as being brutally injured and killed. The struggle for freedom in the South, especially in Mississippi, brought together people who were committed to taking the time to establish relationships with African-Americans with the hopes that they would do their part in registering to vote as well as become members of the movement themselves. 
The difficult work of meeting with
citizens when no one seems to care.

The movement never would have been if it was only boycott and marches. Much of the work was unglamorous and quite dangerous. People walked door-to-door talking with people about how they might help realize the belief that we are all citizens and that we have rights because of that belief in what citizenship constitutes. 

Learning about this other story of the civil rights movement forces us to rethink what it was that took place half a century ago in the United States. Additionally, it forces us to rethink social movements today. It seems to me that if we acknowledge and learn from the freedom struggle as experienced by the many nameless individuals who shaped the movement long before Parks and King, we might address some of the pressing challenges we face today when it comes to discrimination and division in this country and in the world. Change didn't come overnight then and it surely won't now.

Below is a video that captures a sense of the struggle for respect and freedom in the South. 

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