4. March 2013 09:00
by Tammi Sharpe
4 Comments

Voting Rights

4. March 2013 09:00 by Tammi Sharpe | 4 Comments

The Right to Vote was one of the major grievances of the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement.  For many of the foot soldiers it was a key motivation for joining the Movement.  In recognition of the 48th anniversary of Bloody Sunday when protests marched in Selma, AL for the Right to Vote, this week we will provide quotes from foot soldiers on the importance of voting rights and personal stories on how these rights were being violated.  

Deborah Hill  

As a young child I remember both my parents having to take a test to vote.  I remember them discussing having to pay poll taxes and it was like I felt that it was so unfair that you had to take a test as a citizen of this country in order to have the right to vote; this was something that I refused that I would have to do and when the movement came along about civil rights and equal rights for all Americans.  I felt that this was something that I was going to be a part of.  This was just another aspect in my life that I was going to be part about:  bringing about positive change within the Birmingham system.   

 

28. February 2013 04:38
by Tammi Sharpe
1 Comments

Military Service as a 2nd Class Citizen

28. February 2013 04:38 by Tammi Sharpe | 1 Comments

Can you imagine putting your life on the line in situations of combat and facing blatant discrimination during service and/or upon return?  For the next five days, we will share some experiences of African-American soldiers from War World II and Vietnam on the disrespect they were shown. 

 

Decatur Davis, who came home in the middle of his service due to a health emergency with his father, discusses his indignation and anger. 

“My father…had a stroke…I went to this little restaurant and it was 1968….I went inside the door, the lady told me, “You cannot come in here.”  I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “I cannot wait on you.  The window for y’all is outside.”…And, I already just left Vietnam fighting a war for these folks, but I was told that….Now, I’m in Vietnam fighting for my country, then I come home on leave and can’t even get a sandwich unless I go to the window around back.  The White folks come inside, but Blacks couldn’t come in.” 

 

Rallis Jones, Jr., who fought in Vietnam, on the paradox of fighting in the name of freedom for a nation that denied you, on the basis of your race, basic freedoms at home.    

“In the military I did a two year term from ’67 to ’69…I can remember when I was away in the war I would get letters or get messages saying how the demonstrations were still going on in the United States.  And we felt, most of the soldiers, felt real, real bad being over in Vietnam fighting a war, fighting the Vietnamese and Black people were back in the United States being fought by White people and it wasn’t a real good taste at all.  We constantly thought about that.” 

 

Louis Purnell, who received the Distinguished Flying Cross, on the experience of being a Tuskegee bomber pilot during War World II: 

[During a period of rest and rehabilitation there was an incident.]  One night some soldiers from the front came to our recreation room or dance hall and found that were dancing with the white Italian girls….They started shooting their guns and we didn’t know whether they were going to level them off because those guys – some of them were just combat crazy.  So we called the American MPs.  The MPs came and they seemed to join in with these White guys from the front.  We called the British MPs and in a few minutes the British MPs had the area cleared of the white American MPs and the guys from the front.  That was objectionable.

[…]

[Another incident occurred when I came across a letter that had been written by a white Sergeant, who with other bomber pilots had been] forced to land at our field [due to bad weather for three days during which time] they wrote…letters. I opened this letter, ‘Dear Starling, Christmas is approaching, this is Tommy, when I should really be with you.  I’m not even at my own air field.  I’m at a Nigger field, sleeping in Nigger beds and eating Nigger food.’….that hurt me for the longest time.”        

[...]  

“We were so busy flying and at that age, weighty decisions and current events don’t concern you.  It wasn’t until I got out that I found out why they denied entry.  It all came about because after World War I there was a study made concerning the employment of Blacks in the Army at war time.  This study was completed by October 30, 1925 and was forwarded to the War Department…the gist of the report was the fact that they found out in the study, or came to the conclusion that, blacks were cowards.  They would run in time of danger.  This is written.  That they were okay as far as menial jobs were concerned, but not technical jobs.  That the blacks were lazy.  They are stupid.  Their morals were low and that the cranial capacity of the Negro – his brain cage was so many cubic centimeters less than that of a Caucasian’s brain cage.  This is written.  This is where it started."  

Reuben Davis was drafted into the Navy in 1944

“I wanted to be a naval officer.  And, I felt I was eligible for that.  I had 4.0 conduct and I was willing to take training.  First, the Secretary of the Navy, whose name was Knox, I shall never forget it.  There was pressure from all over the country to have…a B-12 program where Blacks could go into to become naval officers.  But Secretary Knox stated that before he would allow any Black man to become a naval officer, they would fly the flag at half-mast.  And, they did that.  After that, they began to have Black naval officers.  I never did get a chance to get into that area, because I had some serious problems and from that I had a strange experience of hatred that built in my heart.  

 

20. February 2013 11:33
by Tammi Sharpe
0 Comments

Democracy, Freedom, Civic Duty, Equality

20. February 2013 11:33 by Tammi Sharpe | 0 Comments

To access the website: http://bcri.org/index.html 

A unique component to the 1963 protests in Birmingham was the engagement of young people.  It became known as the Children’s March and enabled the Civil Rights Movement to fulfill one of Ghandi’s goals for non-violent protests--to fill the jails.  In May 1963 thousands were arrested resulting in the city having to identify makeshift detention centers.  A key ingredient of the success was the participation of young people.  Some, including Malcolm X, were critical of the youth’s engagement, primarily for fear for their safety.  Valid concerns, particularly as dogs were unleashed and fire hoses were brought to bear down on the protesters.  

But as best articulated by these young Foot Soldiers, you can gain an appreciation for their right to participate as well as their right to freedom of expression.  Their explanations provide some valuable insights on the meanings of democracy, freedom, civic duties and equality. 

Robert Simpson:  Junior at Ullman High School

We didn’t know as far as what is freedom or voting or things like that.  They [members of the movement] would come and talk to us.  Most parents would tell their children, ‘Get in the house, you don’t need to hear this.’  But, with us being young kids, naturally, we were interested, curious anyway.  So, what we starting doing was just slipping off at night, going over to the church where these meetings were going on and people were talking to us, telling about the things that we were entitled to, which we had no idea about until they started talking to us.  These younger kids were more receptive to hearing what these people had to say than the older people, in the beginning.  My mother was one of those who very definitely was not or had no interesting in begin part of the Movement at that time….But, then, after she saw that…I was caught up in it…, and she couldn’t stop me.  Before I knew it, she was right there with me. 

[….]

It was like a fever that swept through Birmingham with the younger people and a lot of the older people too.  We all got caught up in this Movement.  We knew what we had been facing and we knew…what we could not do.  My aunt, I can remember she wanted to vote.  She was like in her 50s and she couldn’t vote.  She would go down…to try to take that literacy test…but they would always come up with some old trick question or something to keep her from registering to vote.  It was very few Blacks who got a chance to vote….Wherein if it was a White person…all they…did was sign on the dotted line.  But, it was all just a Black and White thing.  And, like I said, these things had been going on, but the Movement came along….[and provided the needed] leadership.  I think Dr. King coming along when he did was the greatest thing that ever happened to America.  It helped to erase a lot of things that had been going on since slavery. 

Deborah Hill:  Senior at Western Olin

As a young child I remember both my parents having to take a test to vote.  I remember them discussing having to pay poll taxes and it was like I felt that it was so unfair that you had to take a test as a citizen of this country in order to have the right to vote; this was something that I refused that I would have to do and when the movement came along about civil rights and equal rights for all Americans.  I felt that this was something that I was going to be a part of.  This was just another aspect in my life that I was going to be part about:  bringing about positive change within the Birmingham system.  

Eloise Staples:  Freshman at Parker High School

I couldn’t understand why when we walked from the car downtown if we wanted a Krystal hamburger we had to stand outside the window and order a 10 cent hamburger…there were seats inside.  I couldn’t understand, it didn’t matter that it was….I just couldn’t understand it.  My dime was as good as his dime.  Why couldn’t I just go inside and purchase what I wanted?

[...]

[Y]ou knew your place so to speak… [S]o it really didn’t bother you until the subconscious became the conscious as far as why not and I started asking questions.

Miriam McClendon:  Sophomore at Wenonah High School

My mother went to a mass meeting and I wanted to go and she took me.  And, sitting in the audience and listening to Dr. King touched on that mysterious “something” inside me and I knew that they were addressing the race question….I started going to the youth meeting and just became totally engrossed. 

Bernard Johnson:  Senior at Western Olin High

[I]n recent times I have heard various opinions about that [children being misled by adults] and the opinions range from the movement was at a stall and the scheme was to bring in children and play off the sympathy of the children being abused.  I only know of a couple of incidents where the children were around.  Everyone I was around we were pretty much high school age….I didn’t consider myself as being a child…We had a cause and if the understanding of that cause was truly understood then you would not hear one of the people that partake with the situation have any regrets about the situation….[Y]ou would leave there [from a demonstration] with that hope and that hope would be something similar to a willingness to march to hell for.

Dorothy Cotton- Key member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and one of the youth trainers on non-violence  

 [A former foot soldier who was a] youngster at the time, [said it well].  [H]e said ‘I got involved as a teenager because I had to.  I got involved because I would have felt, and did feel so left out of what was happening until I got involved.’….[P]eople got caught up in the dynamics and actually the spirit of it, and also the justness of the cause and understood and felt that something is happening here and I am going to miss out on something important if I don’t get involved. 

[….]

It was exciting to see children get turned on to this notion that we have a democracy and it is not right that a segment of the population should be excluded from the mainstream of life.   

 

14. February 2013 09:55
by Tammi Sharpe
0 Comments

Perpetual Outsider

14. February 2013 09:55 by Tammi Sharpe | 0 Comments

Could I be labeled as an “outsider” today in my own country?  After close to 18 years of international work on human rights issues, I’m back in the United States (U.S.) examining historical human rights violations against African-Americans to learn lessons on how to promote human rights.  As I’m critically looking at why it took Americans hundreds of years to end slavery and another hundred years to end segregation, I’m worrying that my own compatriots might call me an “outsider” as a means to refute the critique I am beginning to develop. 

I’ve been called the equivalent of outsider in foreign countries, but I never thought I could hear it in my own country.  No one has called me an outsider.  But my sixth sense along with advice of Southern friends indicates that I need to tread carefully.  Maybe my sensitivity relates to years of working overseas or maybe I’ve delved so deeply into the past that I am blurring the lines between the past and the present.  Yet, something suggests that this history is still sensitive and that this moniker could still be used as a means to counter critique.

Admittedly, I am not in my hometown.  But, I am not sure if I would be recognized as a local anywhere.  My roots run deep on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, which is my family base.  I, however, outside of holidays and summer vacations, have never lived in this town.  I grew up in New York State, but I essentially left this town immediately after high school.  All other residences have been short-term.

I chose my new residence in Alabama for its historical relevance to the U.S. struggle for racial equality.  Whereas in other countries I am working on issues remotely related to me, I am now examining issues that directly affect my national identity as an American.  And as I might take pride in the founding ideals of this country or the U.S.’ engagement in World War II to fight fascism, I feel equally a need to be humbled by the atrocities committed in this country, including slavery and segregation.   

What becomes tricky is the reality that these atrocities are primarily associated with the Deep South.  And the linkages between national, state, and city history may not be automatically appreciated when it concerns controversial issues.  Something internal tells me to explain that I originate from a former slave state and a state that legalized segregation.  That something also advises me to declare that I am a great granddaughter of a former slave owner and a granddaughter of those who stood on the sidelines as segregation was upheld.  But do I need to raise these associations to feel a sense of responsibility for the atrocities committed in my own country?  Isn’t simply being an American sufficient? 

Dr. King, even as a Southern African-American, battled similar sentiments.  He begins his famed “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by countering criticism of the “outsiders coming in.”  Birminghamians were not the only people to use this moniker.  It was pervasive.  I heard it growing up.  My grandmother invokes this name to explain what happened in Cambridge, Maryland in 1963.   

Like Dr. King in Birmingham, AL, those outsiders in Cambridge were protesting segregation.  While my grandmother contends that “things were fine” before the “outsiders” arrived, the fact is, nine years after the Supreme Court decision on Brown versus Board of Education, the local community had not integrated the schools.  With the arrival of the outsiders a quiet small town suddenly became a scene of repeated protests and sit-ins with incidents of violent white resistance.  While, like my grandmother, I regret the violence that erupted, and I do appreciate the trauma this small town endured, I nonetheless, unlike my grandmother, feel that the outsiders were justified in coming to Cambridge. Outsiders had a right to demonstrate for change.

Dr. King eloquently argued this point in his letter:  “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”  I take solace in these words.  These words defend why I am looking at the history of the “Deep South” as it relates to my national identity as well as family identity.  I could also easily invoke these words in my work overseas. 

President Kennedy’s speech announcing his intentions to call on Congress to pass civil rights legislation in June 1963 further justifies my research.  President Kennedy, with specific reference to Alabama, saw resistance to segregation as “a moral crisis” for the country.  He recognized that racial discrimination was pervasive throughout the country and that the remedy entailed more than just government action:  “It is time to act in the Congress, in your State and local legislative body and, above all, in all of our daily lives…. [L]egislation, I repeat, cannot solve this problem alone.  It must be solved in the homes of every American in every community across our country.” 

As Cambridge illustrates, President Kennedy and Dr. King’s words were not readily received.  Martial law in Cambridge was declared three days after the President’s speech.  It would be unfair to paint the resistance as simply deep-rooted prejudices.  I am actually baffled by my grandmother’s objection to the outsiders’ engagement.  She was not a white supremacist, and in small ways, such as giving credit equally to black and white customers at the family country store, she defied the system.  But if she believed that “things were fine” before the outsiders came, she did not fully appreciate the injustice of segregation.  Maybe the trauma of the events has overshadowed her objectivity.  However, those outside agitators were instrumental in ending segregation throughout the U.S. 

So, maybe these monikers should, instead, be seen as positives instead of negatives. And, until I become perceived as a local, I guess I will remain an outsider.  Possibly I will be an outsider for perpetuity.  Perceptions of who is a local are subjective and even residence and family ties do not confer one’s status as a local. Calling someone an outsider is a defense mechanism to refute criticism.  However, human rights violations are moral issues and we all have a right to speak out.  Maybe, instead of fearing this moniker, I should strive to earn the title outsider. 

5. February 2013 10:36
by Tammi Sharpe
1 Comments

"Hour of Freedom"

5. February 2013 10:36 by Tammi Sharpe | 1 Comments

 Click here to see the entire speech in Reverend Shuttlesworth's handwriting FS_Freedom scan.pdf (1.10 mb)

In 1958 at the 131st Emancipation Celebration in Canada, Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth gave a speech arguing that the “hour of freedom” had now arrived for African-Americans.  Fifty years later, his words transport us back in time to an era, nearly one hundred years after slavery had ended, but for African-Americans an era that continued to be defined by discrimination and fear.  You can hear his anguish at being denied freedom and the fervor with which he desired it. 

Reverend Shuttlesworth’s speech reflects the time in which he gave it.  He appealed to the audience’s intellect and morality arguing that freedom has a price but emphasizing the importance of a non-violent struggle.  As one denied basic freedoms he compared the ideologies of Communism and Democracy arguing that Democracy’s survival depended on guarantees of freedom for all citizens.  He pointed out the irony of man’s intellectual capacities to advance technologically while, remaining unable to overcome prejudices.  Unlike other speeches of Reverend Shuttlesworth this speech could not be delivered today, but as we celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, his words remind us of the value of freedom and the long struggle to obtain it in the United States.    

[…]

[R]eaffirming once again my conviction that this is the Hour of freedom, and that whenever men and women of goodwill meet upon whatever occasion they meet, the chief ingredient of life to them and for them is freedom, justice, equality, humanitarianism and fair play. 

The Hour of freedom for all mankind is upon us, however much some men may misread history, misjudge the present and misinterpret the future.  All around the world, from the Artic regions of the North to the Tropics of the south, from the bushes and backwoods of Africa to the Isles of the Seas, men seem to have sensed the importance and possibilities of this hour, and their feet march with rhythmic tramp as they move to the cherished goal of freedom.  Nothing can stop this march to freedom.  It appears that the God of this universe has intervened in men’s affairs to teach them that there is but one race – the human race; and that of one blood.  He hath made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth.  I call it a divine struggle for the…[exaltation] of the human race. 

Is it not strange then that after centuries of wars, of studies, and of knowledge, that the greatest bar to human progress and happiness is the color bar?  How ridiculous it is that men have learned from science how to send men over 100 miles up to orbit at nearly 18,000 miles per hour, but have not heard from the Bible to let men walk 10 blocks on earth at less than one mile per hour, without finding discrimination, segregation and in-humanitarianism?

We meet today as free men, as citizens of the two greatest democratic countries on earth.  Yet we meet to gain unity in our struggle for freedom.  We read in your brochure that a valiant Queen whipped out slavery with a stroke of a pen 132 years ago, but true freedom for all subjects of the Commonwealth without discrimination is not a reality today.  America, with its beautiful and sacred Constitution is finding it difficult at this moment to guarantee to all its citizens the same rights and privileges.  Democracy is on trial around the world, and you and I today are on the witness stand, testifying on its behalf.  Communism seeks to prove by the very faults and inequalities of our system that democracy will not work.  

This is a battle for men’s minds.  Both Russia and the Democratic countries can shoot rockets over the seas with accuracy; can send men into outer space and bring them back again; can photograph the moon and shoot at the sun.  The war is over moral and ethical practices now more than scientific or technological advances.  Which system can guarantee that all men must act like brothers, and none can be masters?  Which can ensure that a man’s color or origin of birth will not be a continuing obstacle throughout his life?  And which can guarantee the most benefits with the less friction?  The greatest good for the greatest number?

We believe in Democracy and that Democracy can best supply the answers for a confused mankind.  This is why we must contend for freedom now.  Time is short!  This is a glorious hour for it is a dangerous and challenging hour in man’s history.  The Negro’s great contribution to Society will be to prove in the 20th century that Love is the greatest force in the universe, that freedom is worth fighting for – even if some must die for it; and that there are those today who believe that spiritual weapons of faith, hope, and love with perseverance, will overcome the evil which has lasted for generations. 

I stand before you today as an American, one proud of my country despite its faults.  I come from one of the darkest spots on the North American continent – Birmingham, Alabama.  This is the spot where over 40 bombings have occurred in 10 years, where mobs in the past have roamed with impunity, where the police in the past have been noted for brutality, where the Police Commissioner has been quoted as saying “Damn the laws, down here we make our own laws.” 

In B’ham I have been in several mobs, and have been nearly killed three times at the hands of bombers or mobsters.  Here is a place where it seems that justice has declared a holiday; and today I am involved in more than 30 cases either civil or criminal ranging from the lowest inferior courts to the U.S. Supreme Court.   

With three other Negro Ministers, I have been sued for over 3 million dollars, and have lost a car and other valuables.  All of the five other members of my family and I have developed tensions and nevous conditions as a result of the day and night strains of 6 years fighting for freedom.  Like many others, we know what its like to await the sickening blast of bombs in the night, the howl of the mobs, on the commands of some officers who forget that they are servants and not masters. 

Out of it all we have learned that suffering for a just cause brings redemption, and that love with non-violent persistence will make even your enemy respect you. 

And so the Southern Negros have learned the key to racial progress. We have decided that now is the time; and that if now is not the time, there’ll never be another time like now.  We want freedom now, not tomorrow.  We have carried on in such manner that Federal Marshalls became the answer for southern mobsters, and the Justice Department became a prosecutor of law agencies which refused to do their duty.  

In our quest for freedom now, we have decided to fill the jails if necessary, and to transform them from dungeons to meeting places for God’s freedom loving children.  This is why I have been in jail over 20 times, and this is why Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy are in jail in Albany, GA today.  We have learned that freedom is so needful.  Now that we preachers are willing to preach on Sunday, walk picket lines on Monday, and go to jail on Tuesday. 

This is [our] prayer in its fullest sense, and this is prayerful action.  Thus the sit-ins and the Freedom Rides were not wild-eyed schemes for publicity.  Neither were they dupes or persons misled by other men.  They were men, like prophets of old, or the Apostles of the early Christian days, read to say to the Nero’s and the Ceasar’s, “We ought to obey God rather than man.”  They were, and they are, men and women young and old- who are willing to lay their brain and bodies before the mobs or the police, as living sacrifices……

Speech delivered by Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth, Windsor, Canada, 1958

 

 

31. January 2013 05:20
by Administrator
1 Comments

Martin Luther King Day through the eyes of an Egyptian

31. January 2013 05:20 by Administrator | 1 Comments

Guest Blogger:  Amina ElHalawani, Fulbright FLTA, Birmingham Southern College  

A few days ago we celebrated Martin Luther King Day in the United States.  Being a Fulbright scholar in Birmingham, Alabama I got the opportunity to go to a celebration held at the historic 16th Street Baptist Church. With the presidential inauguration taking place on the same day, it could not have been any better, any more celebratory or joyful.  People sang of freedom, of equality, of pride in the journey and the call for civil rights, but most importantly, they sang of the dream. Martin Luther King’s words “I have a dream” reverberated in the hall as they all cheered that the dream has to live on and on until it becomes fully realized, and I wondered…

The dream? Has it not been realized? Has not the Civil Rights Movement in the United States achieved its utmost goals, being crowned by the election of President Obama for a second term? Yet, as these thoughts ran through my head, I could still hear the chants “Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around...Turn me around...Turn me around...” and the occasional yell from the crowds, “Soldiers of the dream!” Moving is not enough to fully describe the celebration; full of emotion and pride people were celebrating, but in the midst of the ecstasy there was no sense of complacency, the fighting spirit instilled in them by a sense of responsibility and a calling to turn the world into a better place filled the air.

Being an Egyptian, I could immediately relate. I suddenly started visualizing Tahrir Square, the tear gas, and the water hoses… the determination, the courage and the strength of will… And back at the church the chants grew louder: “Ain't gonna let the administration turn me around...Turn me around...Turn me around...Ain't gonna let the administration turn me around...Keep on a-walkin', Keep on a-talkin'…Gonna build a brand new world.” I could see the millions who marched the streets of Egypt, hand in hand, united by the dream of building that brand new world. People of all ages, men and women, Muslims and Christians, liberals and conservatives, all marched… In the church, the choir sang, “Ain't gonna let no first-strike policy turn me around...Turn me around...Turn me around...”

The dream was alive, I could feel it in the air, I could see it in the eyes of everyone around me, as they glanced at me and smiled, knowing I am just a visitor and encouraging me to sing along. “We shall overcome” the choir started to sing, and the congregation suddenly, even more fired up, started singing along. One of the choir members doing a solo went into some kind of a trance while the people yelled “Hallelujah!” and started praying… They prayed in song, they honored the foot soldiers who were sitting among us, then put their hands together and the voices rose above the sound of the grand organ accompanying their singing.

“Where do we stand now? Two years after the revolution…Wow, two years already?” I thought to myself. Then, flashes of the packed squares and the patriotic songs that echoed in the streets as the news announced that Mubarak had stepped down rushed through my brain… What a feeling that was! Two years… it feels like so long ago now, people barely remember it. To many, this was the moment, nothing else mattered… it was going to be a nice smooth ride from there…

The chants in the church grew louder, as I held hands with the people beside me and joined the singing, “Oh Freedom… Oh Freedom… Oh Freedom, now!” On the fiftieth anniversary of major events in the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham, the dream was alive with all its greatness; the desire for a better world, for the right to be free, for the right to be treated with dignity, for the right to a world that rewards ingenuity, creativity and hard work... “Today, we stand on the shoulders of brave warriors” the preacher reminded, as he called on the people to go on, move forward and continue the journey… Fifty years the dream has lived on… “Is it going to take Egyptians that long too? Is it going to be that many years before we start reaping what our great warriors have sewn?” I certainly hope not! But, in the meantime, the dream must live on; it must be revived in every one of us… It is the dream that brought us all together, as communities, as a nation and as global citizens and it is keeping it constantly in sight that shall lead all of us through to the light at the end of the tunnel…

Oh Freedom… Oh Freedom… Oh Freedom, now!

21. January 2013 13:44
by Tammi Sharpe
4 Comments

A Leader: A tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, his fellow leaders and the Birmingham foot soldiers

21. January 2013 13:44 by Tammi Sharpe | 4 Comments

 

A Leader:  A tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, his fellow leaders and the Birmingham foot soldiers

Does America currently have a national leader fighting for a just American society like we had in the 1960s?  A leader that, as Binnie Myles said, would make you describe him/her as “the only leader that I can honestly say that I ever followed….If that man said, ‘go to jail,’ I went to jail.  And I was only 16 years at the time…..He stood out for justice and the right thing for all people, not just one.”  A leader, who could inspire you even in your 60s to protest like Emma Young, who had been born in 1902: “I was so enthused….I just love him so because he was teaching us so much.” A leader whom you would call “a parent…as well as a leader” like Mary E. Streeter Perry, who even lost her job for her participation.   In the 1960s, America had a number of such leaders, whose words generated reflection as well as action.

These quotes reflect a common thread that weaves through the hundreds of interviews with foot soldiers that have been conducted by BCRI in order to document the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham, AL.  In these interviews, foot soldiers describe mass meetings as occasions when thoughtful speakers translated the daily injustices African-Americans suffered into a discourse on rights and outlined a democratic means to obtain those rights.  These speakers’ rhetoric inspired thousands of foot soldiers to fill Birmingham’s streets in protest, to face fire hoses and dogs, and to go to jail.

Foot soldiers cite an array of inspirational speakers, such as Reverend Shuttlesworth, Andrew Young, James Bevel, Carlton Reese, and Reverend Abernathy.  And as many would suspect, Dr. King features prominently in the interviews.  The above quotes were specifically referencing Dr. King.  As evidenced by the passage of some thirty years after the protests when these interviews were conducted, Dr. King’s leadership has had enduring impact.  This most clearly come through in Mallory Coats interview.  At the age of 12 years, Mallory Coats was selected from among his fellow students to read the Emancipation Proclamation at an annual event held on New Year’s Day and at which Dr. King was the guest speaker.

“I had heard of Dr. King and the boycott of ’55 so he was not a stranger to me.  But, when I saw the policemen and all the crowds and all the people standing outside of the church, I just said to myself, ‘Dad, can we go home....?’ He said, ‘okay, you’re here, you’re going and you will do well.  No turning around.’  So, what could I do?  I got up, went on the stage and was sitting two persons from Dr. King and he gave his great address and I just sat there amazed.  That’s the first really Black person of renowned stature I had ever been [in] the company of.  I forgot about my speech.  I’m thinking wouldn’t it be great to be someone like that, to stand before people and demand their attention, to be so articulate and all that.  When it was my time on the program, I went through it and he [Dr. King] presented me this book….It’s a Negro history book and Langston Hughes was the writer of this book and his autograph is in it.  I made a promise to myself about a week after this to use this book to encourage black kids…to read.  And, so what I would do, especially when I was teaching…I would tell them [the black male students] the story of this book.  I said, “You know, I got a chance to meet one of the world’s greatest men and shake [his] hand.”  And they would say, “Who?”  I said, “Dr. Martin Luther King and I was just in the 6th grade.  And, I got that experience because I could read….You can see it’s old and has been used, but I made a promise to myself a long time ago that when it was time, I would use this book.  One of the reasons I believe I got a masters in reading was because I understood as a black male, it is so important that black males learn to read adequately…..This book has been something that has not lost its glamour or thrust with me at all.  I’ve gotten many awards, but this is the most precious thing I’ve ever received because of the spirit in which it was given and in the time that it was given….I was in the midst of the struggle and I found it to be encouraging.” 

Like these foot soldiers many Americans can still be awed by Dr. King’s eloquence.  His words can still stir our desires for a more just society.  The words of the foot soldiers, in addition to honoring Dr. King, are also inspiration.  These few foot soldiers are representative of thousands whose sacrifices substantially changed a culture of silence and conformity.  As we commemorate the legacy of Dr. King and the army of foot soldiers who made up the Civil Rights Movement, we may also wish to reflect in their honor on what more is needed to fully “transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”**  

 

*Starting in 1994 the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute began interviewing the foot soldiers of the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement as part of its Oral History Project.  Interviewees provide first hand insights on the Movement including becoming conscious of civil rights and equality, the organization and the philosophy behind the Movement, and personal reflections of participation some 30 years later.  

** King, M. L., “I Have a Dream”, March on Washington, Washington, D.C., 1963

 

15. January 2013 06:50
by Tammi Sharpe
0 Comments

"America's Challenge: Fulfilling the Dream"

15. January 2013 06:50 by Tammi Sharpe | 0 Comments

In June 1968, close to five years after Dr. Martin Luther King gave his speech, “I have a dream” in Washington, D.C., Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth gave a speech in Bay City, Michigan, titled “America’s Challenge:  Fulfilling the Dream.”   A copy of this speech is among the various items donated by Reverend Shuttlesworth to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.  As the leader of the civil rights movement in Birmingham, Reverend Shuttlesworth worked closely with Dr. King from 1955 till his death in 1968.   Reverend Shuttlesworth collaborated with Dr. King in an infinite number of ways, key amongst are the Montgomery bus boycott, the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the March on Washington, and protests in Birmingham including the one that resulted in Dr. King’s arrest in 1963 during which Dr. King wrote the famed “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”  From this close collaboration, Reverend Shuttlesworth gained some keen insights  and was intimately familiar with Dr. King’s thinking.  

Reverend Shuttlesworth’s speech, “America’s Challenge: Fulfilling the Dream,” provides not only a reflection on the meaning of Dr. King’s word but also an assessment of what followed in the five years after the speech.  In 1968 Reverend Shuttlesworth did not believe that the “dream” had been realized.  But at the same time he appreciated that he was speaking at a time of great change and progress.  In this speech, Reverend Shuttlesworth comments on the history of the civil rights movement highlighting a couple of major achievements, namely the passage of the Civil Rights Act and re-enfranchisement of African Americans.  He also discusses the essence of Dr. King’s “dream” as one of a tolerant society and economic and social justice. 

With the upcoming 50th Anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and in remembrance of Dr. King this January, Reverend Shuttlesworth’s words provide a useful guide to reflect on progress in realizing this “dream” in the last 45 years.   In some aspects, it is a speech that could be read today. 

“America’s Challenge:  Fulfilling the Dream”

There can no longer be any blinking of the fact that we are in the midst of a social and moral revolution in this land.

[….]

For unnumbered years America has allowed injustice to reign unchecked throughout the fabric of its whole life.  In the South there were open and flagrant violations against Blacks, poor Whites, and other minorities.  In the North there were the insidious, and many times, invisible workings of discrimination which were harder to see, but had the same chilling effect of killing hopes, shattering dreams, and stifling initiative.

[.…]

Then in 1955, under the leadership of a young prophet named Martin Luther King, Jr., Negroes moved to challenge the conscience of this nation by non-violent demonstrations.  It is now history – the battles of Montgomery, Alabama, Albany, Georgia, Birmingham, Alabama, which gave us the Civil Rights Bill, and Selma, Alabama, which gave Negroes the right to vote.  There was the historic 1963 March on Washington, joined in by white and black, rich and poor, high and low, in which this modern Moses spoke of his Dream for America.  His dream was not blacks overcoming whites or even the poor overcoming the rich; rather blacks and whites working together, those in power and with affluence helping to educate and lift the standards of the poor; and that somehow our land would seek to turn its face and energies from war and build here on these shores a heaven, a Beloved city, a brother hood-where man would become his brother’s keeper instead of his brother’s killer.

The Dreamer is dead but he lives in his dreams because they are really the dreams of America.  They are the dreams of hope, of fulfillment, of creativity, of richness of character and life, of peaceful protest against any and all injustices, of having enough and a little to spare, of every man looking out for his brother and standing with his brother, of every man looking into his own heart and overcoming by the disposition of love the violence therein.  This should be your dream; this is America’s Challenge. 

Dr. King and his workers dreamed of a society that could overcome its own violent and racist tendencies.  For it is a terrible violence that keeps men from becoming their best selves by whatever means it is accomplished.  It is violence that men may be born in a society, grow up within it and learn that there is really no place in society for them.  It is violence that some… in our society can brag of wall-to-wall carpets while so many complain of wall-to-wall roaches and rats.  It is violence that the education system of this land has left so many unprepared for a day of technology and automation.  

[….]

Speech Delivered by Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth, Bay City, Michigan, Saturday, June 1, 1968

9. January 2013 17:00
by Tammi Sharpe
1 Comments

Go Slow / People in Motion

9. January 2013 17:00 by Tammi Sharpe | 1 Comments

 

Click here to download full report: ACMHR1966.pdf (8.68 mb)

Go Slow / People in Motion

“Go slow” a figurative phrase capturing resistance to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s.  In 1963, Nina Simone sang “Mississippi Goddam” and conveyed the frustrations associated with this phrase.  Through powerful lyrics about “hound dogs on my trail, [and] school children sitting in jail” she conjures potent resistance that was solidifying in response to African-Americans’ growing demands for civil rights.  By asserting that “me and my people are just about due” Ms. Simone alludes to the perpetuity of the call from those who “keep on saying go slow.”  As she enumerates the goals of the Movement—desegregation, mass participation, unification, and equality—a repeating chorus line of “too slow” can be heard in the background, calling into question the prudence of the advice–“Go slow.”    

In 1966, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) evoked these same connotations in a booklet entitled “People in Motion” documenting their tenth anniversary.  This title, “People in Motion” effectively underscored the magnitude of ACMHR’s achievements through ten years of defying the advice to “go slow.”   A group of African American Ministers created the ACMHR in 1956 after Alabama officials outlawed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from operating in the state.  ACMHR continued the struggle to eliminate African-Americans’ status as second-class citizens.  Through a multitude of civil disobedience acts—court cases, petitions, protests, economic boycotts, sit-ins, registering voters—ACMHR advanced civil rights in Birmingham for African-Americans.   Their booklet provides a comprehensive overview of the activities and successes of ACMHR during the crucial period of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham (1956-1966).      

The booklet concludes by stating that the Movement, in 1966, stood at a “crossroads” summarizing progress as follows:

When one considers the original demands of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights when it formed in 1956, a remarkable number of them have been at least partially achieved.  The buses are desegregated, and so are the parks with the shameful exception of the closed swimming pools.  School segregation has been broken, even though integration is still token.* Public eating places are integrated if one can afford to eat in them; Negro police have been hired, although in token numbers.  At least a few Negroes are working in jobs never open to them before; the bars to Negro voter registration have been torn down. 

And, all important, white police cannot with impunity terrorize and brutalize Negroes on the streets and in their homes as they once could and did in Birmingham.  

But no one here feels the struggle is over or that the perfect society has arrived.  The integration that exists is still token, for the great masses of black people jobs are still non-existent or at the lowest rungs of the economic ladder. 

Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, the President of ACMHR, donated a copy of this booklet to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute Archives.  Flip through the report to gain some understanding of the injustices of segregation and the sacrifices—including potential loss of employment, arrest, physical abuse and death—that it took to bring about change.  Then consider this question: 

Since 1966, have we continued to challenge advice to “go slow”? 

* Between 1963 and 1966 more than 250 Black students were attending formerly all-white schools.

 

 

7. January 2013 14:11
by Tammi Sharpe
5 Comments

Growing Up & Segregation

7. January 2013 14:11 by Tammi Sharpe | 5 Comments

 

The below collection of excerpts of interviews with various foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement provides some glimpses into what it was like to grow up in segregation.   A couple of the interviewees reveal how children saw the police as enemies.  The anxiety created by the Klu Klux Klan through their activities including burning crosses and bombings can be gleaned from a few of the statements.  All of the statements reveal the emotional wounds and humiliation of discrimination.  

Miriam McClendon

I had always felt that there was something wrong between the races and I wasn’t really sure what that “something” was.… I didn’t like the way the black people in my community would respond when a white bill collector would come around.... They were normally very proud, aggressive men.  But, then, all of a sudden they would become rather subservient in their demeanor.

Carl Grace: 

 [T]here were several racial incidents from outside of West Field [the neighborhood where I grew up].  I remember the Fielder twins…the police from Fairfield…putting them in the car and taking them out to the city dump [where the police beat them]…until they were unrecognizable.  [T]he Klu Klux [Klan] came…on several occasions…. They would burn crosses.  I can remember a time when one guy with a hood and a rope attempted to enter in through the bedroom while I was sleeping…  I hollered out and my father came with the shotgun and ran him out…. [M]y father was the one that headed up the movement of the NAACP in West Field… He was very instrumental in voter registration and so forth.  [T]he Klu Klux [Klan] really wanted to stop him.    [Another memory concerns a childhood friend of mine, who was detained as a juvenile for] looking at a white girl…. [He was detained] for approximately ten days; [they] shaved all of his hair off and charged him with reckless eyeballs.       

Bernard Johnson

[R]ace was something that was there and we knew that it was there….[I thought] that white people were different, even superior…cause they were the ones that were primarily show in a cleaner light than we [the blacks] were shown.  We saw that through television:  Leave It to Beaver.  They would open the refrigerator and they had a ham, a carton of milk, and a dozen eggs…  Well, you open a refrigerator in my neighborhood and you can’t really recognize what’s in there…. [T]hat had an influence on me as to how I felt my life should be, but it wasn’t that way….

[Then] Emmit Till was killed and...I discovered that there was something wicked that existed in the white world.… [T]he mothers would tell [their sons] not to look at a white woman because of what happened and not to travel or go anyplace alone.... I imagine…I was [around] nine years old [when two white men brutally killed Emmit Till in Mississippi for having flirted with one of the men’s wife.] …. [T]he racial point was made with me at that time.  I knew exactly how to survive from that day on.  One of the mechanisms was not to give the white man an excuse.

John Henry Lee

We didn’t want to see the police.  It wasn’t a positive thing to see the police coming.  Something was out of hand or they were coming in to suppress something. 

Floretta Scruggs Tyson

[After the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Church] I was devastated and frightened terribly.  It was just a big shock.… I can remember that a house was bombed about two blocks from where I lived….[My father] and other fathers, went outside with guns.  I just remember him telling us don’t come outside.  I don’t know what they were looking for but everybody was upset, because… [of] what had happened earlier that day with the church being bombed [and the four little girls being killed]….It was very frightening….We didn’t know what to do.  It was so many things that were going on….incidents [were] happening… [T]hings that you hear about and my mother would tell us to be careful.  You know like, the whites were so angry.  If people would stand on the corner to catch the bus…[the whites] might be throwing rocks or anything or just shooting at you…It was just really dangerous. 

Danella Jones Bryant

[O]ne incidents…sticks out in my mind very well.  I was coming home from school one day with some of my girlfriends and were walking….[T]his pick-up truck passed by…[with] three white guys…[T]hey yelled out….[h]ey you nigger.  You niggers go home…..I was really hurt about it….It made me realize [that] things were not right in Birmingham…

I [also] remember every time I got on the bus; if it was crowded in the back and there were seats in the front, I had to stand up…. I felt that was unfair.  I remember not understanding why I couldn’t go to the Alabama Theater [which was the nicer theater in town].  I had to go to the Lyric and sit upstairs where there were rats and roaches….. 

[The police also stopped me and a friend one time.   The officer] asked my friend for his driver’s license and he showed it to him.  [The officer] …was saying something nasty to him… [H]e told him to get out of the car and that he was going to arrest him.  By this time I had gotten out of the car and I asked him, “Sir, why are you arresting him?  What have we done?  We didn’t run a red light.  We didn’t do anything?”  …[H]e pushed me to the ground…..and put a gun to my head…[saying] “I could blow your brains out and no one would even care.”….[H]e looks to his partner and he says, “Oh, this is a nigger bitch.”  So he told me to get up and run and don’t look back.  He said, “I mean you better not look back.”  And that is what I did.  I was scared…..I ran.