Mind Matters — Reflections on the Civil Rights Movement

It was 1961. I was a rising high school junior going to Catholic University for a summer journalism camp: my first time away from home and my first feeling of independence. I lived off campus with a government worker and her niece, walking the two to three miles to campus and back at least once a day. I had a roommate from my high school, another page editor for the school newspaper, as I was. Yet a lot of my time was in solitude. I got to love this new life.

What was also new, however, was meeting girls from all over the United States; mostly they seemed to be from the South. Well our class was integrated in this D.C. university, but the South hadn’t gotten to that yet. Very subtly I saw firsthand how some Southern white girls avoided sitting next to the black girls and would look disdainfully their way. There was one white girl from Georgia, I remember, who was not like her cohorts.

I struck up a friendship with two African-American girls, Lavonia and Olivia. One of the most poignant moments I remember is, at the end of our class at Catholic University, one of these friends and I hugged and wept. We didn’t speak, and maybe we, as two fifteen year olds, at the time of the burgeoning civil rights movement, weren’t quite sure where we were going.

I don’t know what happened to my summer friends. May be they both joined the freedom marchers at some point. I did not. I went back to a sheltered white existence. My shabby row house was safe. The Ku Klux Klan in my part of New Jersey had by this time stopped burning crosses—which they did in the 1920’s, to intimidate the blacks and the whites they didn’t like—for being Italian, or Jewish, or Catholic, or whatever.

There is a woman, however, who was on her way to being fifteen when she joined the Selma voting rights marches in 1965. Now sixty-four, Lynda Blackmon Lowery still bears the scar on her head from a brutal beating by an Alabama state trooper at the Selma voting rights march now known as Bloody Sunday.

We’ve just celebrated Martin Luther king Day; and it is the fiftieth anniversary of the voting rights marches of Selma, now depicted in the movie Selma.

What has impressed me most in these past few days is the focus once again on hope, change, and non-violence. Georgia congressman John Lewis was recently interviewed by Krista Tippet on the NPR program, On Being. It was there he discussed “the art and discipline of non-violence.” As a leader in the Selma marches, along with Martin Luther King, Lewis is no stranger to responding to violence with non-violence. He says of his aggressor, “You’ll almost kill me, and I’ll still love you.”

Growing up in Troy, Alabama, he saw segregation and racial discrimination and didn’t like what he saw; yet it was his faith that gave him hope. He was inspired by Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King and felt as a teen that he could change things, and knew “never to give up.”

His own insights aligned with what he was learning in the non-violent movement, and at college. He studied what Gandhi had done in South Africa and India; he studied philosophy.

Just as the non-violent movement was (and is) about seeing interconnectedness and community rather than segregation and separateness, the non-violent community of the civil rights marches reflected in their interactions with each other the same perspective of connection. Congressman Lewis says, we had a “sense of community, of being as ‘one house’ … a beloved community existed within the movement itself … blacks, whites, north, south—people in the struggle were as one.”

And this community worked hard together to learn the practice of non-violence and loving the violent perpetrators with many role plays to prepare for being beaten, attacked, and harassed.

Why? Why non-violence in the face of brutality? Congressman Lewis says, “There is a spark of the divine in everyone … we haven’t the right to forget that … even the person beating you was once an innocent [baby] … [it is about trying] … to appeal to the goodness of every human.”

So just as Congressman Lewis never gives up on what can change, he also never gives up on anyone. Furthermore, he says we need to move love into action and to do this, “to love our country, love a democratic society … we have to move our feet.”

My interpretation of his words is that we need to take action in the world with love—perhaps starting in little ways even with the driver that has just irritated us. We do not have to be John Lewis, or Martin Luther King, or Lynda Blackmon Lowery to start small changes in ourselves.