a role for everyone

9 Oct

Today, I walked through the parsonage that the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his family lived in when he was the minister of Dexter Baptist Church here in Montgomery, AL. The tour guide knew her stuff, and at the end of the tour through the house (which included the table at which the SCLC was formed), we got to the kitchen. She kept the lights off, and told us the story of MLK’s kitchen table epiphany. He had been struggling, and gotten home late. Everyone was asleep. The phone rang and it was someone telling him his house was going to be bombed. He definitely couldn’t sleep after that (who could?) so he went and sat at the kitchen table. And he prayed. And in his prayers, he heard a voice, and it comforted him, and took away all his fears. He knew he was on the right path.

Every movement needs a leader. Martin Luther King, Jr. became that leader. He may or may not have chosen it. He may or may not have wanted it. But he became the leader, which was a very heavy burden.

Thankfully, he was not alone. He had many friends and trusted advisors to support him, as all good leaders need. He had his family to help ground him, and to help motivate him.

Before this trip, I had assumed that the vast majority of black people participated in the Movement, following MLK and the other leaders. And I had assumed that most white folks were clear on where they stood on the issues: either for, or against. But I have learned that these assumptions are mistaken.

The vast majority of protestors were students (high school and college) and young adults. People who still thought they were immortal (“It wasn’t about life or death, it was about ‘Do you want to win?'”), who did not have as much to lose in terms of status or family. In Selma, the Teachers March lent an air of credibility to what otherwise was mostly young people unwilling to wait any longer. There were older folks too, of couse, but without the young people, there would not have been a Movement.

And there were some black people who were against it. Today we also visited the Lowndes Interpretivive Center in between Selma and Montgomery. In Lowndes, 90% of the land was owned by only 86 white families – most of whom were adamantly against integration and the Voting Rights Act (VRA).

When the Selma to Montgomery marchers went through there in 1965, six months before the VRA, the local black sharecroppers and tenant farmers were scared! They were poor and in debt to the white landowners. They risked losing their jobs, their homes, and even their lives if they angered the white landowners. So when the marchers came through, and SNCC came through trying to register them to vote, most wanted nothing to do with it.

And with good cause. Because when the VRA did pass later that year, those who went to register to vote lost their homes. They were kicked out by those white landowners. “Tent Cities” sprang up, like the one where the interpretive center is currently located. SNCC had bought this land and set families up with basic needs, and then worked with them to buy land of their own, build houses, and start over.

So it wasn’t all (or even most!) black people that participated in the Movement, and even in the black community there were differing opinions. I hadn’t realized that.

And white people were not all clear on where they stood. It wasn’t as cut and dried as all that. In fact, some of the folks on this trip have shared that, though they were periferally aware of what was going on, it was not something they thought about or followed every day. That was something else that I was not aware of: that a white person in the 60s might not have an opinion or strong thoughts about the Movement.

I am taking this journey with two goals: to learn, and to be changed. Part of both of these come through looking at the Movement through the lens of how what I learn might better inform me in how to understand/act/speak of the current times.

Knowing history is important, but if we don’t use it to inform how we are today, the knowledge is as empty and as ineffective as an unlit candle in the darkness.

So how does knowing all of what I have written above inform what I think about today? First, for there to be change in this country, for some movement in the future to mobilize the people, there needs to be a leader. A person that the common folk can look at and take inspiration from. Someone they can trust to fortify them when the going gets tough.

Second, it does not have to be everyone. A certain critical mass can be reached without anything even close to 100% participation.

Third, there is a role for everyone. The young people who were working the Movement often had families to support them. Not everyone can be a warrior for justice. As long as we continue to confront our own prejudices and biases, our own assumptions, as long as we don’t fall prey too often to the many distractions that take us away from the work that matters, we are engaged in the struggle, in our own way.

Warriors need support personnel. There is nothing to be ashamed of in trying to raise our children and agitate for justice within the context of our lives, as long as we are always ready to lend a hand to help pull someone up who needs a hand. There may come a day when we are called upon to make sacrifices, to put our status or life on the line and I pray that I have the strength and courage to do so if that time comes. In the meantime, there is a role for everyone in the important work of creating a just world.

One Response to “a role for everyone”

  1. Annette Marquis October 11, 2012 at 10:45 am #

    Reblogged this on Living Legacy Pilgrimage Reflections.

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