Tag Archives: Alabama

To Stand in the Shadows and Follow in the Footsteps of the Greats

Since, I was first introduced to the concept of making a pilgrimage to the South following in the footsteps of the Freedom Riders and Voting Registration activists, I have been incredibly excited to go to the very places where our liberties and freedoms were fought for and won.  I fully understand that racial and political climate is not the same today as it was in the 1950s and 1960s, but to feel the same weather, to walk some of the same streets, to see some of the same buildings and landscapes will help to make the stories more tangible to me. I have also just received notification that voting for all equally is still being challenged in Alabama: According to “Raw Story,” in the counties where 75% or greater of the registered voters are non-white citizens they will stop issuing driver’s licenses. This is a problem because photo identification is required to vote in Alabama and this will potentially bar people in those counties from voting. So, although the situation is different there are also more than remnants of the Civil Rights Era for us to learn from and participate.

Without question, the component of this adventure that I am most apprehensive about is all the cushy, emotional, touchy, feely stuff that has become such a norm at all of our meetings; and we are going to be on a bus together for over a week where I am sure this will be an expectation. I do believe that these types of experiences have their place, but because I have been so active in fighting an unjust system and in reactive modes of operation wherein I have had to silence or hide my emotions, this is somewhat difficult for me. On the one hand, it often feels like a waste of time to me, especially, since there are battles that I believe need to be fought. For example, while we will be on this pilgrimage the budget hearings for the City of Seattle will be going on and will be determining how much money is allocated for alternatives to incarcerating youth; a struggle that we have been waging for quite some time. Or in other cases, such as, people dying from police brutality, when responses to the unprovoked and unjust violence are necessary.

In my brain and the way that I have been thinking for so long, getting mushy and emotional has not been a high priority. However, I have also been coming to realize the importance of building community and that requires a deeper and more personal characteristic to our and my relationships. This is something that I have been watching emerge in the pilgrimage group. So, although, it is uncomfortable, I am beginning to see that it has advantages and is something that I have needed for much longer than I would care to admit. That however, does not change the fact that the emotional stuff on the bus is what I am least looking forward to during our pilgrimage.

I have never been to the South and as a result, I have never had an opportunity to experience being immersed in the Southern culture I have heard so much about. I mostly hear negative opinions about the South, but here and there brilliance has shined through the reports I have received. I am hoping that our short time will broaden my perspective about a people and a place I have never experienced firsthand. I do so loath forming opinions about subjects based on other people’s perspectives; it feels too much like rumors too me to fully trust.

With a host of friends, I will have the opportunity to meet some of the people who fought and won some of the rights we have today, and that many take for granted. I will get to listen to their stories firsthand, be able to feel their emotions, see their expressions, and share new and old experiences with people that I look up to and will stand with if the opportunity ever arises. We will be exploring the South for a little more than a week, getting a crash course in challenging the government and culture, seemingly against all odds. The harsh reality is that many were lost during the struggle and so that will be part of the learning as well, as some of those horrible stories are relived. But, we cannot forget the stories and the lives of those who gave so much to ensure a brighter future. All of this will inform and shape how I make decisions in the future and I am going down there with space prepared in both my mind and heart, so that I can carry as much back with me as is humanly possible.

Today we are confronted with a form of segregation and apartheid that is similar, but at the same time vastly different from Jim Crow because in the mid-20th century, the segregation was up-front and in people’s faces, but today it is behind fences and cement walls. The language that is used to justify the system of oppression has also evolved, but the feelings that gird them have remained somewhat consistent, however hidden them may seem to be. Challenging the system and the ideologies also seems to have changed because as the people have learned from the Civil Rights Era, so has the government and the people in power who wish for the system to remain the way it is; who protect the status quo. Our identities are much easier to track down and our relations much easier to flesh out today than in the 1960s because of the advent of social media so, it is not as easy to remain off the radar of programs or organizations like the COINTELPRO or the Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.), respectively. However, the risks do not seem very much different than what the people we are going to meet were faced with, namely, restrictions on their life, liberty, and quality of life. I am hoping to learn how they managed to keep up their strength and dedication in light of the omnipresent, impending doom that always loomed right around the corner. I would love to learn just how they were able to motivate people and how they were able to overcome the petty difference that arose between the people. I especially want to learn how they addressed the class issues both within and without the Black communities they engaged with and how they were able to reconcile those differences.

To accomplish learning these things it will require that I neither, climb into my social shell, nor that I cling to it, but instead that I set it aside and expose myself to the uncomfortable emotional and intellectual experiences on the bus and at our stops along the way. Otherwise, I will not be able to engage in the conversations where such questions may be asked and lessons learned.  It is a small price to invest to gain access to a wellspring of knowledge and wisdom. Who knows, I may even make a few life-long friends along the way and stretch my conception of community all the way to Alabama after this trip.

Thoughts on Nonviolent Direct Action

Bernard LaFayette, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Director in Selma, Alabama leading up to the infamous Bloody Sunday and eventually the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, was a person with a simply designed two-winged program of voter registration and nonviolence. Yet, while the idea of the program was simple, this is not to be interpreted as the objectives of either wing being simple, but rather, to imply that both components were necessary and that the objectives and strategies were focused to ensure their goals were achieved.  If the strategies would have been both nonviolent and violent at any given time during the protracted struggle in Selma; then it would have convoluted the message about which party was guilty of wrong-doing. It would also potentially not have garnered the sympathy and support of the majority, which they believed was necessary to influence the federal government to stand in opposition of state authority and abuses. The activists could have also focused on the police brutality and the state sanctioned violence that resulted from their struggles for equal citizenship, and they had claim to it because state troopers had killed Jimmie Lee Jackson, but it would have distracted attention from their primary objective, which was justice for all and equal citizenship. Bernard LaFayette and SNCC, with the assistance of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), headed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., maintained a simple program acutely focused because they believed it was the best strategy to achieve their objectives.

Writing about both the violence that is used against people and the nonviolent response to it and why it is important, LaFayette states: “One of the reasons people attack you is that they have already reduced your humanity and view you as an object. Looking directly at an attacker, eye to eye, reinforces the idea that you are a human being and that he or she, too, is a human being with choices” (LaFayette, “In Peace and Freedom” 75). It is no simple task to stand still and non-combative or defensive while another is causing serious bodily harm and potentially death to you, it requires both philosophy and practice. The philosophy is what grounds the motivation to respond to violence in such a manner and here LaFayette is identifying two very important characteristics of why nonviolence is important. First, all people are human and part of one moral community who deserve to be treated as part of that community and as a human; this is true for both the attacked and the attacker. Second, is that we all as humans and members of the moral community have choices we can and must make, choices that we are morally responsible for. Nonviolent direct action in response to violence and unjust behaviors explicitly denies the perceived reduction of a human to an object, what Dr. King called, “to thingify” a person, and it maintains that the reduction is a fallacy. Thus, nonviolence asserts the humanity of the person who practices it and for a people who had almost continuously been denied their humanity, this was a powerful and direct challenge to a culture and a society that sought to maintain that reduction to an object. The philosophy founded the practice, and the practice reinforced the belief in the people who learned the philosophy strengthening the community as the philosophy was spread.

It was the displaying of the lack of acceptance by the white population of full participation within this moral community of the black population, in direct contradiction of the moral principles entailed within the US Constitution, which most Americans in the early 1960s believed in, that swayed the federal government to step in to guarantee full participation and citizenship to those denied. This was the objective of the entire project in Selma and violence on the part of those denied full participation in the moral community, would have clouded the message that they were moral members of the community who deserved equal protection. If the teachers who marched to the registrar’s office when barred access to the building and Sheriff Jim Clark forcefully ejected the teachers, had instead forced their way into the building, the fact that they were being denied their right to vote would have been lost under the reports of their ‘uncivilized’ behavior. However, they made three peaceful attempts to enter the registrar’s office and were willing to receive the unjust abuse from the sheriff and his officers to reveal the state sanctioned denial to full participation within in the moral community. This demonstration by members of the community and SNCC, asserted their humanity, respected the humanity of those who treated them unjustly, and garnered the moral support of both the national and international moral community. It was the swaying of the majority of the moral community that provided the eventual victory they were after in Selma, and that was the strategy from the beginning. They could very well have focused their attention on police brutality, instead of the right to vote and full participation in the moral community, but ending police brutality and not gaining the right to full participation would not have achieved their goals. Furthermore, the police brutality the people were suffering was addressed by exposing it during their continued pressure to achieve their primary objective, so they did not need to make it their primary focus.

When seeking to change an unjust system, it is vitally important to select an issue that will achieve multiple objectives simultaneously and that will reap the broadest breadth of change possible. The only two resources that activists have are time and space and both are too valuable to waste. It is also essential to select a strategy that compliments the objectives the people want to achieve. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek” (King, “Why We Can’t Wait” 110).

American Values Under Fire: A Response to the Civil Rights Movement

American Values Under Fire: A Response to the Civil Rights Movements

In the United States of America, the 1950’s and the 1960’s were times of vast amounts of social, economic and legal changes that revolutionized how America and Americans addressed contemporary issues. This era of the United States, however, was neither without dissension nor conflict, nor was it without domestic bloodshed. The battle for civil rights was fought on many planes including but not limited to politics in the Senate and the House of Representatives; the White House with Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon; in State legislatures and elections; the Federal Judicial system in the U.S. Supreme Court; and in the grassroots movements and riots that on many occasions turned bloody. In addition to this complicated and convoluted domestic environment was the turbulent reality of the Cold War, which began after the end of World War II. In this environment, many of the government’s domestic activities in the U.S. were focused on limiting Communism and Left-Wing Liberalism from taking shape in the United States, thought to be capable of subverting the capitalist system and the American way of life. Both domestic and abroad in the international spectrum, the 50’s and 60’s exemplified a battle over political, economic, societal, educational and familial values. It was precisely these values that Alabama governor, George C. Wallace claimed were being destroyed by the Federal Judiciary system and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. During a speech given in 1964, Wallace criticized the Supreme Court, President Lyndon B. Johnson and the press, claiming that they were “left-wing liberals,” associated with Communists, responsible for tyrannizing the country and robbing citizens of their rights.[1]

George C. Wallace was a staunch opponent of desegregation and this was evinced in his 1963 gubernatorial inaugural address when he said, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”[2] Wallace ran for office both as a Democrat and as an Independent, with three bids for the presidency and no victory. He nonetheless served five terms as the Governor of Alabama and was involved in politics for many years, even after an assassination attempt in 1972, which left him paralyzed.[3] Wallace represented a larger body of people in the United States who believed that desegregation was an infringement upon their rights. He gave a public face and a name to their concerns and fought for what they believed was the correct direction for the nation, and particularly in the south. In his July 4, 1964 speech, Wallace condemned the Federal Judiciary for being, as he considered, like “Hitler, Mussolini, or Khrushchev,”—the Communist leader of Russia after Stalin’s death—for what he believed to be communistic decisions of the court in “every single decision of the last ten years,” since 1954.[4]

As a result of WWII there was an economic boom when people who customarily would not have been considered for military service or industrial work, for example women and people of color, were employed by these industries and in the services. Although the economic growth of these two groups as a whole were substantially less than White-male Americans, their gains were subsequently more than they had been prior to the war. For African Americans, in the 1950’s this allowed for further distribution of their tasks to activities other than work and for their children to attend school and even college; when and where they were accepted. In 1954, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) pursued and won the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision, under Chief Justice Earl Warren: Brown v. Board of Education, which determined that segregation in Public Schools, was unconstitutional. This decision was followed up and supported by TITLE IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: Desegregation of Public Schools. Governor Wallace believed this law would “destroy neighborhood schools[,]” but he did not provide any reasoning for how the schools would be destroyed in his speech, all he did was make clear that he was against desegregation.[5] The Brown v. Board of Education decision went into effect in 1957, and that is when the incident of the “Little Rock Nine” occurred in Little Rock, Arkansas. Nine African American students were blockaded by the National Guard from entering Little Rock High School, of which they were enrolled, and the week after they were escorted into the school by Paratroopers under President Eisenhower’s order, signifying that just because something was written into law that it did not necessarily mean it was something adhered to.[6] Wallace considered this an “invasion of the State of Arkansas…by the armed forces of the United States and maintained in the state against the will of the people and without consent of state legislatures[,]” and as such was a tyrannical act.[7]

So, when George C. Wallace accused the Federal Judiciary of being as tyrannical as “King George III”—the British king who presided during the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783)—he voiced what he and many others believed; that the U.S. government was usurping their liberties.[8]  Wallace considered the Federal Judiciary to be “the greatest single threat to individual freedom,” fearing that the new laws would declare unconstitutional their “customs, traditions, and beliefs.”[9] For example, the Abington School District v. Schempp case outlawed reading the Bible in public schools, which compromised all three: customs, beliefs and traditions; and was viewed, as Wallace said, as “the destruction of the concept of God and the abolition of religion,” a sensational and unfounded claim, but nonetheless it is how many people felt at the time.[10] The claim was unfounded because the case neither outlawed religion, nor prayer in public schools, just the compulsory reading of the Bible in an effort to protect the 1st Amendment rights of people who did not choose to do so.[11] Yet, the Federal Judiciary system was not the only component of the U.S. government under fire, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was also suspect in Wallace’s opinion.

The third Civil Rights Act since 1957, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, official titled: PUBLIC LAW 88-352-July 2, 1964, was approved by the House of Representatives during the 2nd Session of the 88th Congress of the United States, and signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson the year after President Kennedy was assassinated. Although it was celebrated by many as a long overdue piece of legislation, by others it was viewed as an overreaching act and as an abuse of the Federal Government’s power to invade into the private lives of Americans. In the beginning of George C. Wallace’s speech in 1964, he labeled the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as “the most monstrous piece of legislation ever enacted by the United States Congress” and called it “a fraud, a sham, and a hoax” because he believed its tenets to be oppressive in nature.[12] Wallace charged that the Act violated the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments of the U.S. Constitution. In particular, Wallace was concerned about the Freedom of Speech clause of the 1st Amendment and Trial by Jury clauses of the 5th, 6th, and 7th Amendments. In fact, TITLE XI—Miscellaneous; Sec. 1101 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, states: “In any proceeding for criminal contempt arising under title II, III, IV, V, VI, or VI of this Act, the accused, upon demand thereof, shall be entitled to a trial by jury, which shall conform as near as may be to the practice in criminal cases[,]” which contradicts Wallace’s claim that the Act excludes one from the right of a trial by jury.[13] When Wallace claims that the law will “destroy the individual freedom and liberty in this country”[14] and given that Title II of the Act addresses “Discrimination in Public Places[,]”[15] it is a fair assumption that Wallace was not speaking about the liberties of all American citizens, as many Americans had been denied their full liberties under the Jim Crow laws. Many of Wallace’s assertions about what the Civil Rights Act of 1964, had the authority to do, and the predictions about how it would subvert the values of American of citizens were not grounded in actual text of the Act.

In addition to Wallace’s inaccurate assessment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he also accused the “American press” for inaccurately informing the United States population of what was contained in the bill.[16] In his 1964 speech, Wallace asserted that the “truth” of the Act was concealed by “left-wing liberals, Communist sympathizers, and members of the Americans for Democratic Action and other Communist front organizations” to sway public opinion and to subvert American government.[17] Essentially, Wallace was asserting that the people who were seeking to make the laws of the United States in the 1950’ and 1960’s more equitable and to hold those who violated that equality responsible for their actions; with being Communists. And given that the United States was enthralled in the Cold War with communist Soviet Union, Wallace’s rhetoric and fears of communist subversion were shared by many Americans at the time. Notwithstanding Wallace’s perception of the drafters of the bill, in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, one of the only groups not protected by Title VII—Equal Employment Opportunity; were communists and those associated with communist activities.[18] So, while the fears about the communist threat were real, as it turned out it was Wallace who was spreading information that was not true about the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and that the bill was not necessarily drafted by Communists, but rather by people who were interested in ensuring individual freedoms and liberties of the American people.

George C. Wallace’s speech in 1964 reveals the fear and apprehension of many of the people in the United States during the 1960’s in response the Civil Rights movements that were occurring. The new laws the U.S. government was implementing, in their perspective, were in direct contrast to their traditional values and many of their core beliefs. They believed they were losing liberties and freedoms, while in reality marginalized people were gaining liberties and freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, which had been denied to them. Since before slavery ended in the U.S. in 1865, there had been a fear of a mixing of the races and of a watering down of American culture, and although the legal transitions of the 50’s and 60’s tore down and discredited many of the boundaries that had been drawn between the races, it did not quiet those fears. The function of Wallace’s speech was to incite a fearful reaction from the public to demand a retraction of the Federal government and judiciary system and he played on Cold War fears in attempt to achieve his end; safeguarding traditional American values. The people of Alabama responded to Governor Wallace by continuing to vote him into office until 1986, and this is evidence that many people shared his convictions.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

“George Wallace—Segregation Forever.mp4.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hLLDn7MjbF0 (accessed June 9, 2013).

Roark, James L., et al. The American Promise: A History of the United States. 5th Edition. New York: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2012.

Waldo E. Martin, Jr. and Patricia Sullivan, eds. “George C. Wallace.” Civil Rights in the United States. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2000. U.S. History In Context. Web. 2 June 2013.

http://ic.galegroup.com.ez.sccd.ctc.edu:3048/ic/uhic/ReferenceDetailsPage/ReferenceDetailsWindow?query=&prodId=UHIC&displayGroupName=Reference&limiter=&source=&disableHighlighting=false&displayGroups=&sortBy=&search_within_results=&action=2&catId=&activityType=&documentId=GALE%7CBT2338131222&userGroupName=seat92874&jsid=17bd5e3be290cf35f0e97fda6129bd26

Wallace, George C. “Document 28-3: George C. Wallace Denounces the Civil Rights Movement.” In Reading the American Past: Selected Historical Document, 5th Edition, edited by Michael P. Johnson, 259-263. New York: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2012.

United States House of Representatives.  “The Civil Rights Act of 1964.” Public Law 88-352- July 2, 1964. 88th Cong. 2nd sess, July 2, 1964.                                               http://library.clerk.house.gov/reference-files/PPL_088_352_CivilRightsAct_1964.pdf


CITATIONS

[1]George C. Wallace, “Document 28-3: George C. Wallace Denounces the Civil Rights Movement.”  (New York: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2012.),  260.

[2] “George Wallace—Segregation Forever.mp4.”                              http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hLLDn7MjbF0 (accessed June 9, 2013).

[3] Waldo E. Martin, Jr. and Patricia Sullivan, eds. “George C. Wallace.” Civil Rights in the United States. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2000. U.S. History In Context. Web. 2 June 2013.

[4]George C. Wallace, 262.

[5] George C. Wallace, 261.

[6] Roark, James L., et al. “The American Promise: A History of the United States.” 5th Edition. (New York: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2012), ch. 27.

[7] George C. Wallace, 262.

[8] George C. Wallace, 261.

[9] George C. Wallace, 261.

[10] George C. Wallace, 263.

[11] Roark, James L., et al., 938.

[12] George C. Wallace, 260.

[13] United States House of Representatives.  “The Civil Rights Act of 1964.” Public Law 88-352-July 2, 1964. 88th Cong. 2nd sess., 1964, 268.  

[14] George C. Wallace, 261.

[15]United States House of Representatives.  “The Civil Rights Act of 1964.” Public Law 88-352-July 2, 1964. 88th Cong. 2nd sess., 1964, 243.  

[16] George C. Wallace, 261.

[17] George C. Wallace, 260-263.

[18] United States House of Representatives.  “The Civil Rights Act of 1964.” Public Law 88-352-July 2, 1964. 88th Cong. 2nd sess., 1964, 256.