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.   

 

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

 

 

18. January 2013 04:27
by Tammi Sharpe
2 Comments

In My Country Too?!*

18. January 2013 04:27 by Tammi Sharpe | 2 Comments

My work has exposed me to hearing first-hand accounts of a range of human rights violations including arbitrary arrest, brutal beatings, gang rape, amputations, beheadings, cannibalism, captivity, and sex slavery.  In trying to understand how people could reach such depths of depravity, I was struck by the reality that these violations occurred in a theatre of war and/or under the reign of a dictatorship.  This understanding did not excuse the severity of the crime but it placed brutality and cruelty within a surreal context.  With more and more exposure, this surreal context became a grey zone where it was difficult to make unequivocal statements about culpability.

The focus of my work has recently shifted and I am beginning to delve into American history and the violations that have been committed against African-Americans.  I was not ignorant of this past nor did I or do I have a glossy view of the U.S.’ current human rights record, but it has nonetheless, been a humbling experience. 

I’m looking at the post U.S. Civil War-the end of slavery.  Yet, gross forms of human rights violations against freed African-Americans continued, namely in the form of segregation and convict leasing**.  I’ve been shocked at the abhorrent conditions under which leased convicts, primarily African-Americans, labored at private farms and mining companies starting in the aftermath of the Civil War continuing till the 1940s.   Those working conditions were disturbingly similar to conditions of captivity under the Revolutionary United Front-a Sierra Leonean rebel faction.  Segregation not only created a separate, unequal system, it allowed for a climate of terror, which had parallels with accounts Haitians made about living under a repressive  dictatorship.  But the U.S. was neither a dictatorship nor were we at war when these human rights violations were being committed in the U.S.      

How, then, could these abuses happen?  The answer I am finding is not novel.  It involves an extensive web of culpability as is well-illustrated by the convict leasing abuses.  One can first look to the guards at the work sites.  The guards treated these men as less than humans, using leather whips to enforce excessive daily quotas.   But employers-prominent businessmen-not the guards, established the quotas and the work conditions.  The conditions were such that many died, and for some this death sentence could have been for a concocted crime or petty theft.  Sheriffs and local court officials respectively arrested and convicted African-Americans as, like for the employers, convict leasing was profitable for them too.  Yes, this system was authorized by state law.  A number of state legislatures (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas) passed laws creating the conditions under which convict leasing flourished as a means of exploitable and cheap labor for businessmen, which in turn benefited the state.   

At the turn of the century, the Federal Government investigated incidents of peonage and involuntary servitude in Alabama, Florida, and Georgia.  A U.S. Attorney in Alabama also tried to prosecute such cases with an aim to eradicate the practice.  A small handful of defendants pleaded guilty but the number was insufficient to dismantle the system.  In face of the prevalence and profitability of the system, the Federal Government lacked sufficient political will to fully pursue the cases.  The U.S. District Court Judge in Alabama also realized that no matter how substantial the evidence might be against this new form of slavery, sentiments of racism and white supremacy would likely cloud a rational assessment of the cases by juries.  Consequently, it took decades before this system of “slavery” ended. 

It equally took decades to overturn the legal system of segregation that was also installed in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War.  Again, evidence of the injustice existed, and culpability was extensive.  Photos of lynchings starkly depict the climate of fear that reigned.  Some of these photos also point to the wider public’s engagement:  it is not so rare to find photos of lynchings with bystanders smiling as if they were at an entertainment event rather than the scene of a murder.  Similar to the power of juries, the approval of these bystanders allowed, in part, for these crimes to go unpunished. 

Chuck Morgan,*** a white lawyer in Birmingham captured extensive culpability in a speech following the death of three girls in one of many church bombings that earned the city the name “Bombingham” in the 50s and 60s:

                        “And who is really guilty?  Each of us.  Each citizen who has not consciously attempted to bring about peaceful compliance with the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States, each citizen who has ever said ‘they ought to kill that nigger,’ every citizen who votes for the candidate with the bloody flag [Confederate Flag]; every citizen and every school board member and school-teacher and principal and businessman and judge and lawyer who has corrupted the minds of our youth; every person in this community who has in any way contributed during the past several years to the popularity of hatred is at least as guilty, or more so, than the demented fool who threw that bomb.” 

Morgan’s words lay bare a culpability that I had appreciated, but one which I did not have to consider so plainly until I began looking at human rights violations in my own country, which was a democratic state and was not at war during these times.  This type of culpability is even more difficult to rationalize, but to prevent reoccurrences of the same or those of a similar nature we need to understand the causes.  It is also disturbing to have to admit that this is part of my country’s history and therein part of my American identity too.    

 

* A longer version of this post discussing experiences aboard can be found on my personal blog http://www.journeytoreconciliation.com/blog.html

** For more on convict leasing see Blackmon, D., “Slavery by Another Name, The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II,” Anchor Books, New York, 2008.

*** Charles Morgan’s full speech can be found in his autobiography:  Morgan, C., “A Time to Speak, The story of a young American lawyer’s struggle for his city and for himself,” Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1964.