21. August 2014 09:21
by Tammi Sharpe
2 Comments

Another Crossroads?

21. August 2014 09:21 by Tammi Sharpe | 2 Comments

 

My road trips in search of historic sites related to the American Civil War and Civil Rights Movement have taken me in a number of directions.  One of the most confounding was a visit to a “Faithful Slave” Monument built in 1895; its mere existence stunned me to the point that I had to sit down and call home to talk it through.  I just could not imagine how even in 1895, someone could have not seen such a monument as anything but utterly demeaning.  So, what does the fact that this monument still stands in pristine condition say about where we are today in “race relations” in the United States? 

As the incidents in Ferguson, Missouri scream out, we are not in a post-racial America.  We can look at all the remaining gaps that allow for discrimination within the cycle of our justice system from the police to the prisons despite passage of key civil rights legislation.  These gaps merit attention, but I’m not sure that this will lead us to a colorblind justice system without a corresponding close examination of our American psyche. 

In 1895 America was at a crossroads.  Debates over Jim Crow were in their early phases. Freedmen in the 30 years after the Emancipation Proclamation had been regulated to subordinates in American society throughout the country.  Lawful segregation had not yet become the norm, and African-Americans (except Mississippi) exercised their right to vote.  However, within a decade Jim Crow was law in the South, and de-facto segregation took hold in the rest of the country.  Rather than moving in a constructive direction towards freedom for former slaves, and equality and liberty for all Americans, many of our ancestors, including mine, chose to pursue a new form of racial oppression. 

This separation of the races soon became accepted as natural.  As I’m learning from oral history interviewees with those who once opposed integration, segregation structures and practices were a part of social conditioning.  For my first interviewee, Mr. Andrews, in the Oral History Project Reconciling with the Past:  The Legacy of Segregation, the structures of segregation were foremost in his memory.  Drawing on a song in the South Pacific musical, he stated: “You’ve got to be Carefully Taught.” While Mr. Andrews’ experience is his own, he describes a rather typical Southern society that sent a very clear message to its children: “Blacks and whites, we were not supposed to socially mingle.”  He elaborated: “They went to their own restaurants.  We went to ours.  You weren’t suppose to drink from the same water fountain as a black person.  I remember going to the train station in Tuskegee to take the train to Washington.  We had a black waiting room, [or as known then a] ‘colored’ waiting room, and a white waiting room.  You couldn’t sit together in a train station.  I remember going to the doctor’s office.  The blacks waited to see the doctor in a different room than where I sat.”

The memories of Mrs. Evelyn Ray Dauphin, who sat for an interview last month, revealed how insidiously the system secured its existence.  Like Mr. Andrews, as a child she saw the institution of segregation as a matter of fact:   “Other than being glad that I was white instead of black, I don’t have too many memories of racial instance because it wasn’t something that we thought about.  It was just, that was the way things were.”  She makes this last point clear in her remembrance of a childhood playmate, Katy-Lou.  Katy-Lou was the daughter of the black sharecropper family who worked on the Ray farm.

“The little girl, Katy-Lou would come and play.  It was just she and I playing while our mothers worked.  We played in a little shed….  We enjoyed each other’s company, I guess.  I don’t really know if she enjoyed it or not.  But I did.  She was my only playmate… There was no conflict between us…because I was always in charge.  We never argued like our other friends later because, [pause] it wasn’t like let’s play together: you do something like you want to do, and I’ll do something like I want to do.  I got to do what I wanted to do and she just did it.”  

Such memories suggest that segregation practices and white supremacy were like air:  even young children—too young to go to school yet—adapted white supremacy into their play, just as we instinctively know to breathe.    

In listening to these interviewees, I’ve thought back on a warning offered by Lillian Smith in the 1940s.  She described segregation as “spiritual lynching,” and she focused on the harmful effects of segregation on both whites and blacks.  In the interviews, I am finding specific examples of the harm Smith enumerated for whites:  “No white child, under the segregation pattern, can be free of arrogance and hardness of heart, and blindness to human need."* 

Mrs. Dauphin is an example of how profound this “hardness of heart” can be.  Listening to her memories, I felt as if she was still in disbelief, and frustrated with herself for how long it took her to believe in race equality.  As she exclaimed: “Finally, it took that long for me to get to that point.  This was [in the] ‘80s.”  In trying to understand why it took so long, I’ve taken note that she never recounted a traumatic event with a black person.  In fact, her contact with African-Americans was extremely limited.  The most contact she described was as a child with her playmate Katy-Lou, who epitomizes a benign contact.  As she noted early in the interview, “It was just that was the way things were.”  Near the end of the interview she commented, “I don’t believe that I ever hated.”  Yet, it took her decades to overcome the messages of white supremacy that she absorbed in her childhood.    

Mrs. Dauphin intentionally faced her conditioning and notions of white supremacy.  But has a similar effort occurred at a community, state or national level for the American psyche?  Racism was cultivated in the 1600’s to justify the enslavement of fellow humans.  Political support for slavery entailed social conditioning, which taught that the black “race” was innately inferior and it was in their best interest to be enslaved.  This fed notions of the benevolence of slavery. The inherent contradictions of the founding of the United States − freedom, liberty and equality for all men − with slavery and segregation signal how carefully taught Americans have been for centuries.   With all the racial incidents that have preceded Ferguson, can we finally see ourselves at a crossroads?   Are we courageous enough to face a longstanding history of racial oppression by carefully examining remaining remnants of racial social conditioning in American society, such as pristine “Faithful Slave” Monuments?      

 

 

*    Gladney, M. R. How Am I to be Heard?  Letters of Lillian Smith.  Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

 

31. July 2014 14:21
by Tammi Sharpe
1 Comments

Shared History

31. July 2014 14:21 by Tammi Sharpe | 1 Comments

“I wonder what those white people in the photos think now?”

An African American male youth asked this question out loud as he looked at some of the photos hanging in the Civil Rights Room of the Nashville Public Library. In a couple of the photos some white mothers with their young children defiantly stand in protest as African-American mothers lead their children to school. One mother is dressed like Mrs. Cleaver, but with a scowl on her face and her arms crossed. The other mothers are more casual in their dress with rolled up jeans, but have the same angry stare. In another photo, white male youths attack a sit-in demonstrator, who is seated at a lunch counter.

In return I wondered, did he ask that for me to hear? Had he noticed that a white female was standing less than two feet from him? Maybe he spontaneously asked the question. He looked like he was in his early twenties. He has probably experienced racism, but as one of the consequences of the Movement has likely been raised to believe in, and stand-up for his rights.

Despite the frequency of my visits to civil rights sites, I have generally sensed that I’m a trespasser. Once I joined a “Heritage Bus Tour” in Charleston, South Carolina. I was the last one on the bus, and I felt the eyes of the other tourists looking at me as I took my seat. I did not feel hostility, but I did feel as if these other participants were querying “Why is she here?” As is common, I was the only white person.

A part of me wanted to bellow out, “Yes, this is an African-American heritage tour, but ‘your’ history did not happen within a vacuum. This is our American history!” Instead, my imaginary conversation remains internal as the bus pulls out of the Charleston Visitor Center.

Our first site is reportedly a location of past lynchings. “This tree marks the spot where lynchings occurred in Charleston,” reports the guide. The guide’s voice fades as I became absorbed in my own thoughts. I’m just staring at this tree, which sits right in the middle of a residential street not far from the historic downtown area. My internal conversation begins again: “how such horrors could have happened? How could such ordinary citizens, mobs of them no less, just get worked up into such a frenzy brutally killing a man, for the color of his skin?”

The guide’s voice then jarred me back into the present as we approach the Citadel. “This base was built to train a militia of white men in the case of slave insurrections.” The legal foundation of the Citadel dates back to 1822 shortly after the almost successful slave revolt of Denmark Vesey. This, however, is not the only slave revolt to have occurred in Charleston. As we cross a bridge towards James Island, the guide tells us about the Stono River Slave Rebellion which happened almost 100 years earlier in 1739. We then pulled up to the entrance of McLeod Plantation, a quintessential Southern Plantation. For me the setting evokes “Gone with the Wind” and the portrayal of the benevolent slave owner, the faithful slave, and Confederates’ brave fight for States Rights. This image contrasts with those of slave insurrections, which clearly grew out of slaves’ desires for freedom, and the Citadel, which testifies to slave owners’ fear of such desires and their clear intention to squash these with force, brutal force, if necessary.

We gradually make our way back to the historic part of Charleston passing by a number of sites that point to African-Americans’ efforts to educate themselves, and their continued struggle for basic civil and political rights in the United States. What transpired at these sites underlined the work of scholars such as W.E.B. DuBois that white American historians ignored in the first part of the 20th Century. The neglect of these historian led to an understandable need to promote African-American studies, but does this still remain the case? Do we still need to refer to “African-American History”? Is “African-American History,” a misnomer?

DuBois’ works are now readily recognized in traditionally white academic circles. The National Park Service has incorporated the centrality of slavery in the U.S. Civil War into their exhibits alongside a host of museums, books, art, and films that document the injustices of slavery and segregation. I admit this took too long. Much more remains to be acknowledged, and absorbed into the American psyche, to fully dig up the racism that underpinned crimes, and continues to permit racial discrimination and defacto segregation. But doesn’t this require mutual recognition of this past?

While the other tourists have idly chatted with me, no one has asked why I’m here, or what I’m thinking after having traveled back in time with a focus on white Americans’ oppression of African-Americans. What if I had told them my ancestors have a degree of culpability for the crimes committed against their ancestors? What if we began such dialogues? I recently interviewed a white Southern man whose adolescence was seeped in segregation and who after much reflection, described his parents as “wrong, but not evil.” He also put forth that all whites associated with segregation should feel “twangs of guilt.” Like the majority of Southern whites, his parents were not Klan members, nor were mine. Isn’t it time to begin to explore all the complexities of our horrific past? We cannot fully understand, nor possibly reconcile, with this past until we closely examine all the contrasts of our torn, but interwoven history. When we integrate the pieces together our tapestry will more accurately reflect our history.

Maybe at all the other historic sites related to slavery and segregation the African-American tourists were simply too polite to ask me. So, when that young man asked “I wonder what those white people in the photos think now?” I seized the opportunity, turned around and responded, “Me too!”


Tammi Sharpe has recently returned to BCRI as the Human Rights Fellow.  Prior to her return she had been on a four month emergency humanitarian mission to the Central African Republic with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and completed a Alliance for Historical Dialogue and Accountability Fellowship at Columbia University. In partnership with BCRI and Columbia University she is conducting oral history interviews with Americans who opposed integration to enable more comprehensive historical research into the legacy of segregation and to create opportunities for dialogue about a sensitive past.

If you might be interested in participating in this project please contact Ms. Sharpe at tsharpe@bcri.org.  

 

25. April 2013 10:35
by Administrator
6 Comments

Reconciliation and Forgiveness in the US Civil Rights Movement by Rami Khouri

25. April 2013 10:35 by Administrator | 6 Comments

 For more information on the upcoming symposium click here:  http://bcri.org/education_programs/symposium2013.html

As we and others gather today in Birmingham, Alabama to commemorate the events of 1963 that gave the civil rights movement a great push forward towards achieving equal voting and other rights for all Americans, I think this moment is an opportunity to remember some of the core values and principles of the non-violent protests and civil disobedience campaigns that characterized the movement, and led to its ultimate success. I was reminded of that recently upon reading the news of the death of a certain Mr. Elwin Wilson, of Rock Hill, South Carolina, a racist who ironically would ultimately stand out as an icon of what the civil rights movement was, and is, all about.

He was one of many white southerners who beat up the Freedom Riders, white and black young men who integrated bus services and bus stations throughout the south in the spring of 1961, often subjecting themselves to vicious beatings. Among the Freedom Riders he once assaulted were Albert Bigelow, a white man, and John Lewis, a black man, who were in a whites-only waiting room at the Greyhound bus station. Lewis later became a prominent civil rights activist and U.S. Democratic Congressman from Georgia.

Elwin Wilson said he had an awakening after Barack Obama was elected president, and telephoned a local newspaper in 2009 to admit that he had beaten Freedom Riders and other activists, and apologized for his deeds. When he learned that Lewis had become a U.S. Congressman, he traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet him and apologize in person, and ask forgiveness. Lewis quickly expressed his forgiveness, and the two men made several media appearances after that to promote social reconciliation and forgiveness.

Lewis later said in an interview that Wilson's was the first apology he had ever received for the violence committed against him during the civil rights movement; he added that he did not hesitate for a moment to accept it. Upon learning of Wilson's death earlier this year, Lewis said that accepting the apology and expressing forgiveness, "is in keeping with the philosophy of non-violence. That's what the movement was always about, to have the capacity to forgive and move toward reconciliation."

The sheer human courage and drama of both Wilson's apology and Lewis' forgiveness are a timely reminder of the underlying goals of the civil rights movement and any other quest for social justice: not just to achieve equal individual rights for all, but to heal past grievances and wounds, and therefore to be able to push society forward to a condition of well-being, stability, and dignity for all citizens.