Tag Archives: Voter Registration

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).