Saturday, January 19, 2008

Honoring MLK's army

Why is it that every great social movement has to have a single human face attached to it to make it real?

With no disrespect to the Rev. Martin Luther King (I don’t want a phone call from Barack Obama’s people), I don’t believe that the civil rights revolution would never have happened if he hadn’t been born. The time was ripe. If it hadn’t been him, some other leader would have emerged.

Therefore, while it’s important to honor a man who gave his life (literally and figuratively) for the cause that shaped his legacy, I believe it’s also important to use Martin Luther King Day as an opportunity to also recognize all the other courageous people who finally took down segregation.

Beginning with …

1. The black World War II veterans who returned from fighting for their country in godforsaken places around the globe, only to be shooed to the back of the bus. The resentment this created smoldered for years until King and others poured gasoline on it.

2. The college students, black and white, who staged sit-ins at lunch counters across the South, not knowing if this act of defiance would result in a plate of grits in the face or a police baton over their heads

3. The Montgomery domestic workers who trudged miles to clean out their employers' cupboards and toilets in order to honor the transportation strike triggered by Rosa Parks.

I remember visiting my relatives in North Carolina as a child and regarding the segregated bathrooms and drinking fountains merely as some quaint local custom. Nobody, black or white, seemed especially distressed by it all (although I know now that was an illusion).

There should have been a sign at the Mason-Dixon Line, clearly visible to southbound travelers: “Welcome to Dixie. We’ve Always Done It This Way.”

King and his followers faced hatred, racism and anger in their crusade. We all know about that. Even more, though, they faced the apathy of a region firmly set in its ways.

And the real dangers to breaking with the established order weren’t being lynched or having a cross burned on your lawn, although those things happened. The real dangers were losing your job, or your friends.

A wise longtime Lynchburg resident once told me something that made a lot of sense regarding the white community and the communal treatment of blacks prior to the 1960s.

“Only a few people really made a big deal out of race,” she said, “maybe 10 percent. But 80 percent of everyone else was afraid of that 10 percent.”

Human nature. You’re walking down the hall in high school and see a bully picking on someone. You keep walking, lest that bully turn on you.

What Martin Luther King did, though, was to invite the reaction of that 10 percent. He baited them, hoping that when they were flushed out into the open, the majority would see them for what they really were.

When racist cops beat up black prisoners in a back room, it went unnoticed. But when Jim Clark and Bull Connor turned fire hoses and police dogs on peaceful demonstrators, the New York Times had a front page story and the networks had great film footage for the 6 o’clock.

King did that. He could not, however, have done it alone. No general can win a battle without an army.

So on this day when King is remembered, here are just a few Central Virginia people who should be acknowledged, as well. Every community had them.

  • Anne Spencer, who refused to sit in the back of the bus even before Rosa Parks.
  • Vivian Camm, who when she became principal of Garland-Rodes Elementary School, took down the portraits of the Confederate generals for whom the school was named,
  • Jim Ould, a white City council member who voted to re-open and integrate the city’s swimming pools in 1965.
  • Oliver C. Thaxton, who led a “wade-in” that got those pools closed a year earlier, and lost his trucking business because of it.
  • Lynda Woodruff and Owen Cardwell, who took on the enormous challenge of being the first two black students to enroll at E.C. Glass.
  • The students from Lynchburg College, Randolph-Macon Woman's College and Virginia Seminary who were jailed for their participation in the lunch counter sit-ins.
  • Former Lynchburg Mayor Leighton Dodd (a Caucasian), who spoke out in a memorable meeting about the injustices he felt were being inflicted upon the local black community. He did get a cross on his lawn.

Obviously, I'm leaving out a lot of others. But they know who they are, and so do the people for whom went out on a limb.

The civil rights movement -- and, by extension, all of American society -- owes a large debt of gratitude to Martin Luther King. But what happened was bigger than him, too.

1 comment:

OKonheim said...

Very good points. It's interesting that someone refused to sit in the back of the bus even before Rosa Parks.