Seeing Race AND Change in Selma: A Memory

 (In the wake of the national release of the new movie “Selma” and the 50th anniversary of the 1965 march for voting rights.)

Arrival

Selma, Alabama waited on the front porch of U.S. Highway 80 and a crooked finger of road beckoned me closer into town. I slowed down my rental car. I was a Black Civil Rights Movement child on her first trip into the Deep South, traveling alone, and unaccustomed to navigating these roller coaster hills and unexpected inclines.

I had set out on this journey of reconciliation to confront some painful parts of the Civil Rights story of my sixty-something generation, to sort out why the memories are so conflicted. The new broom that swept through the country in the 1960’s left even the sanest among us with emotional debris. It causes us to shove talk about racism into corners of denial and then shudder when the headlines shine light on it. Or, erupt with anger and pointed fingers whenever the topic is raised. We who have lived through and fought for social transformations that inspired global imitation tell our children that no progress has been made.

Even a Florida-born girl like me is, as the old folks say, just as “touched in the head.” Although I grew up in segregation, I found the state’s ethnic diversity easier to align with than my troubling southern roots.  But the South is the one place in the country where race has always been right out there, on the table. Southerners expect to talk about it, to pull up a chair and sit a spell.

Eventually I would wander through six cities in four states and visit Civil Rights sites, peruse archives and hold conversations with Black and White residents about the past. By the time I wound my way through Selma I was on factual overload. That early morning in March I would join hundreds of others for a crossing of the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge and a step forward in history for a change.

Preparation

Selma was already bustling with sojourners, including Black families, young White people, politicians, celebrities and civil rights notables. We had converged for the landmark commemorative walk honoring the 40th anniversary of the ill-fated “Bloody Sunday” attempt to launch a protest march to the Capitol in Montgomery. Participants were brutalized by the police and pushed back into town, but the event set off demonstrations that led to passage of the long-resisted federal Voting Rights Act.

Vans with camera crews and streamlined coach buses filled up the lion’s share of parking spaces along Water Street but I found one, near the foot of the bridge, and went exploring.

The mass of iron lattice arched like a crown over the murky Alabama River. At the far end, a memorial plaque saluted the Voting Rights Park. Nearby – an incongruous sign about Nathan Forest, an infamous local son, and his founding of the Klan.   Scrawled boldly at the bottom of the sign was a hand-lettered message – “We ain’t scared” – a paraphrase of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words at the height of battle.

Times change. One of the speakers later would proclaim that our commemorative walk would be more like “a pilgrimage of faith.”

The March

The streets swelled with people singing spirituals as we filed out of the Brown Chapel AME Church.  Georgia Congressman John Lewis, a wounded soldier in 1965 turned Civil Rights griot called out sternly, “We did not sing; we did not talk,” enforcing solemnity.

Once the ceremonial moment of silence at the top the bridge ended, however, with no easily identifiable adversaries below, the crowd began dispersing before even reaching the other side. Where to go next? I wondered, leaning for a moment on the railing. So many sighs that river must have swallowed over the years.

A young Black teenage girl paused to flop down on the same railing, inches away, swinging legs next to a friend. I strained to overhear their take on the commemoration experience. “That’s all they did was march and they got the vote?” she asked of nobody in particular. Bored, or perplexed? I wasn’t sure. No, that’s not all, the elder in me couldn’t wait to say. But her friend jumped in and interrupted, drowning me out with a boy-story, a gift in disguise.

I probably would have touted the importance of a righteous do-or-die struggle – the story we usually tell. It’s easier to explain than the power of acting from hopeful ideals. They sustain you and keep you alive and viable in the arena, trying to make a difference even when it looks like you may not win.

Later, over dinner at the riverfront hotel, I related the incident with the teenage girl to a couple of folks I had met. Young people don’t know, and they want to know, a 27-year-old diner insisted, and the history we were experiencing should be taught.  Our table overlooked the same streets where, one night in 1965, a White minister and activist had been beaten to death by locals for just being there.

But Selma pulled on the cloak of evening and headed for bed after our march, leaving the doors open wide for us until we chose to say goodbye.

 Leaving Selma 

Traffic crept slowly for awhile out of town the next morning to give room to a ragtag group walking along the side of the road.  About 15 marchers were making their way out of Selma to Montgomery in a voluntary continuation of the commemorative walk on their own. They were American, and Australian, and Japanese, and Buddhists pounding tom-tom rhythms to their steps. From time to time, busloads of public school students joined them for a mile or two in symbolic support.

State troopers, the assaulter in the 1965, now an integrated squad of escorts, would guard the marchers as they camped overnight along the route.

Tears surfaced – surprising and sudden – for the courage of people still engaged in the act of remembrance, for the determination to keep going despite the odds. Once the traffic was allowed to speed up again we hit a stretch of road. I prepared for curves ahead. 

 If you have INSPIRATIONAL stories of race AND change, share them with the younger generation and visit. http://www.kittyoliveronline.com.

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Talking About “Race” Across Generations and Ethnicities

Meditations Of An Aging Civil Rights Child: Baby Boomers

The first wave of Baby Boomers is in the stage of life I call the passage beyond middle age.  Even the diehard health fanatics among us must concede that we’re way past the halfway point.  Heck, considering the vices and upheavals that marked our era, many of us never thought we would live this long.  And, on the surface, most of us wear our new roles as society’s elders fairly well.

The first wave name refers to those of us born between 1946 and 1955, whose rebellious 1960s experiences were different from the more jaded children of the ‘70s born between 1956 and 1964.  But we’ve all been on the front lines of racial and ethnic change. 

The boomers rounding 60 now may be battle weary but when they get together for lunch or dinner, we usually bring an upbeat attitude.

Over fat-free lattes we assay our future with grownup talk about living wills and long-term care.  Chuckles ripple around the table as the reading glasses come out when the low-carb menu arrives. 

We pass on the dessert tray to dish up memories of growing up with end-of-the-world prophecies, bomb shelters, and the fear of foreigners threatening the American way of life; of wars, assassinations, and public protests against government.  We had to take low-paying jobs in a down market because our college degrees couldn’t promise us jobs. 

We’ve lived a pendulum of economic, political and social upheavals, confirming that the only constant is change.  In today’s world that should make us the wisdom-bearers of hope, not fear and dissension, advising others on survival skills during challenging times.

 In our conversations at the table, a whiff of the frustrated child does tend to seep in.

We want to make a difference, shake things up again, and resist the pessimists who predict and expect the worst. Yet we lament the lack of a clear vision of how that can be done.  The passion and optimism of youth has waned. 

Here we are, officially the older generation, the ones “in power”, feeling ineffective.  It’s as disorienting as the aging figure staring back from the mirror each day. 

We’re in an in-between time.

On the one hand, the turbulence of our past is fading into nostalgic stories about a youth that was trouble-free, unlike the overwhelming obstacles faced by younger people today.

There’s a theory, though, that many people reach their peak in their youth and then they decline, not the society around them.

 Aristotle was even more critical of this melancholy stage, saying that as people age they get cynical, distrustful, less open to innovation and less able to absorb new ideas – about what’s possible for them, or others. 

But, research has also found that people 60 and older, in general, can be less conservative than people in their 40’s and 50’s. 

A lot of us are getting involved again in unfinished business with the environment, women’s and children’s rights, the political system – and with building bridges across racial and ethnic lines, despite the troubled waters.

Black, Whites, Hispanic/Latino and Asian boomers, especially first wavers, have become the target group for my Race and Change oral history interviews for this reason. 

We have lived through, arguably, the greatest social change in history in society and our personal lives.

A willingness to recall all of the experience and to share the lessons we have learned can be our greatest legacy.  

In the process, we’re also trying to re-envision what aging means in society today. It’s an uphill struggle, though.  (More next time.)

Writing Hopefully About “Race”

I remember my first time. 

My maiden voyage from segregation to an integrated life began with a notice on the bulletin board at my neighborhood recreation center in Jacksonville, FL, asking for teenage volunteers for a Black voter registration drive.  I was 16 and hoping to meet college boys. 

The twelve of us, mostly Whites and a few Blacks who looked a little older than me, boarded a van and I squeezed into a seat between two White girls who chatted with each other past my head.  I needed more space but I was afraid to shift around too much because I didn’t want them to sense my feelings.  The discomfort was there, all right, but there was also the exciting sensation of being within breathing space of something so alien, so forbidden, yet so accessible.

Once in awhile one of them paused and looked down at me as if waiting for me to say something.  I had no idea what.  I pretended to look at the unfamiliar scenery going by.  The van rolled down the highway, then rocked along unpaved roads to a rural Black area outside the city limits. 

Shyly I set out with them, shoving leaflets into reluctant hands and smiling, feeling like an idiot.

The first time I felt the warm hand of one of the girls on my back I flinched from the surprise of the tender touch.  “Good job,” she said casually, as we continued on in the midday heat. 

Perhaps the experience would have been the same with any group of older people taking an interest in an impressionable teenager.  But these were combative times.  Life was cruel, we were told, and we had to be tough to survive in the White world we would enter. The battle lessons began, first among ourselves, as early as elementary school.

 But, I had been unprepared.  In my first face-to-face encounter with White people my guard slowly eased down.

That was my story. 

What stories can you tell about encounters and situations involving race and ethnicity that made you aware of differences – at least in society’s eyes?  

Most likely it was someone close like a relative, or teacher, or friend, who made the message clear, but strangers are eager to provide instructions as well.  Either way, the incident must have had a lasting effect on your attitudes.  That’s why you still remember it after all this time.  You made a decision, consciously or unconsciously, about how you would deal with differences from then on, and odds are you learned the lesson well.  

That’s a great way to begin writing – and thinking – about differences at a more meaningful level. 

Today, there’s more than a 50% chance that any two people you meet will be from different racial and ethnic groups.  Toss in factors such as religion, economic status, and gender and we can find plenty of reasons to clash.

The real work of learning to live together goes on in our everyday lives in moments often too small and ordinary for the media to capture.  But, those are the moments where change occurs.  And, like society, we have all have changed in some way by choice or circumstance.

So, I search for the ways those changes have happened in books about my personal experiences with race such as the voting registration incident above (from Multicolored Memories of a Black Southern Girl) and the experiences of over 100 others from a variety of cultures; in university classes helping cross-cultural students span generations of racial history; in Lift Every Voice workshops where writers are encouraged to explore questions about race that we are rarely asked to reflect upon in a personal way. 

Racial memories can be hopeful , too.

 Those two college women ended up being the foremothers of the handful of White sister-friends who have become so important in my life today.

We are fellow travelers who still must navigate around some deep divisions, who still must heal.  As girlfriends we stumble along, learning how to share as openly about our race relations experiences as our sexual rites of passage.

Do you remember your first time? How about some writing tips to help?

Why Do You Keep Talking About “Race”?

Inspirational reflections on race and ethnicity…Everyone can have a seat at this table.

Fear is the one emotion I didn’t expect to feel when I launched the Race and Change oral history project in the year 2000 – a 21st century look at race in the U.S. from the personal point of view.
I planned to interview a cross-section of people on race and ethnic relations and they understood that their life stories would be preserved in the historical archives and shared with others on TV, radio, and the Web.
Talking to strangers was not my problem.
For a couple of decades before my academic career I had made a living as a journalist, knocking on the doors of others’ lives to gather information.
Talking about “race” in America, however, can be tricky business.
First of all, the term is a fiction: there is no biological basis. But, in reality, it has come to encompass a range of experiences where groups of people encounter prejudice, discrimination, and inequities. Language, religion, and even sexual preference get tossed into the mix, along with people wrestling with multi-racial and multi-ethnic identities.
But let’s face it, skin color and African descent looms as the most racially-charged difference that causes the most repercussions.
Still, many people persist in dismissing race as an issue of the past that has been resolved in the 21st century. We have larger global issues to work on, they say. Others just want the topic to go away so they ask: Why do you keep talking about it?
If race is not a problem today, I answer, we should be able to talk about it – and easily.
Instead, when conflict situations flare up in the media, they can be counted on to spark outrage and national debates. Minority groups usually take the lead in discussions and majority groups go on the offense, or retreat. Targets of discrimination keep changing, and on the global stage all kinds of “us” and “them” clashes are played out everyday.
Human nature gets the discredit: people will always find someone to look down on, we say. But our greatness lies in the human potential to continually strive to rise above those tendencies.
If race is a problem then we must keep talking – or trying.
We just need some better ways to do it.
I wondered this: What if you asked a cross-section of people the same questions – not about their opinions but about their personal experiences with racial change – and gave them the opportunity to discuss race relations as a naturally-occurring part of their lives? Maybe this could turn into cross-cultural dialogues that shift the tone of the conversation a bit.
During those first interviews in this new territory, though, a wave of trepidation would sweep over me, suddenly, at times. I’d pull onto the swale of some quiet street and take a few deep breaths until I felt composed enough to ring the doorbell for the scheduled interview. I was unsure of what to expect, especially from Whites. Would the wounds that I knew I would inevitably encounter across racial and ethnic lines be too painful – for all of us? Would it be possible to talk about race in a nation adept at stonewalling conversation and do it in a non-confrontational, hopeful way?
Beginning can be the hardest part.
The work has resonated with people, and with the media, over the years. So far, more than 125 race and ethnic relations oral histories of Blacks, Whites, Hispanics/Latinos, Caribbeans, and Asians have been collected for the historical archives – native-born and immigrant residents of Southern Florida, nationally cited as one of the most diverse areas in the country.
It has spawned books, public TV productions, CNN coverage, youth training programs and community projects on race in Florida as well as an expansion of “race” and change oral histories to Ghana, West Africa.
In the U.S., polls and surveys are quick to note that most of us continue to live racially-separated lives across ethnicities outside of work, school, or occasional activities, and despite the election of a president of African descent we still don’t tend to see eye-to-eye on progress in racial attitudes. But people’s personal stories provide glimpses behind those walls.
Many told me they were surprised at the things from the past – good and bad – that surfaced in the process of the telling, including struggles with differences within their own groups as well.
The fear I would feel from time to time always subsided when I remembered that this was their stories, not mine. Once I relaxed enough in the living room with a cup of morning coffee, at a dining room table after the dinner dishes were cleared, or in a quiet corner of an office at the start of end of a workday, all I had to do was listen.
Getting people to talk about racial progress and change in their personal lives proved to be much more challenging, however. Maybe that’s because we aren’t often asked? (More next time.)