Monday, January 18, 2016

On Martin Luther King Day

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I spent the earliest years of my childhood in the segregated south. My mother took me to white-only bathrooms, to white-only swimming pools, and white-only playgrounds. Coming from northern New York, my mother was deeply uncomfortable with segregation, but she had moved us to Montgomery, Alabama to be close to my grandparents.

Beautiful Alabama, the home of my father's family, a place that I love, had a deeply ugly side in the Jim Crow era. Many of the most infamous events of the Civil Rights movement happened there; the violence against the Freedom Riders in Anniston, police beatings and bombings in Birmingham, including the tragic deaths of four little girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church, and the tear gas and billy clubs of Bloody Sunday in Selma.

We're at another difficult time now, with our black friends and neighbors struggling to get the message out that "Black Lives Matter," and our Latin American friends and neighbors fighting for dignity and respect, and our Muslim friends and neighbors asking us to see them as individuals, rather than the scary other.

Sometimes, I get discouraged by how polarized we seem to be, and how far there is to go. Then I think back to how far we've come since I was a little girl in Montgomery. The lives of black Americans, women, LGBT persons and Latinos are demonstrably better than they were when I was two and George Wallace made his infamous "Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" speech. We've made great progress since then. Not for everyone, not everywhere, not as far and as fast as it should be, but we've gone from Gov. George Wallace to Pres, Barack Obama in my lifetime.

I was almost four when The Rev. Martin Luther King marched with 25,000 people to our city and gave this speech on the steps of the Capitol Building.

I know you are asking today, "How long will it take?" Somebody’s asking, "How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?" Somebody’s asking, "When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South, be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men?" Somebody’s asking, "When will the radiant star of hope be plunged against the nocturnal bosom of this lonely night, plucked from weary souls with chains of fear and the manacles of death? How long will justice be crucified, and truth bear it?" 

I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment,  however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because "truth crushed to earth will rise again." 

How long? Not long,  because "no lie can live forever." 

How long? Not long,  because "you shall reap what you sow." 

How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

How long? Not long, because: 
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat;
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! Be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on. 

 Dear readers, what are your memories of the Civil Rights Era? And do you think we've come a long way? Or not? 


  1. Somehow, despite the efforts of so many, progress does seem to be painfully slow . . . it does seem as if such prejudice should have been banished long ago.

  2. Thank you for sharing those memories, Julia, and the speech. I grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles, where I played with children whose parents or grandparents had come from China, Japan, Mexico, El Salvador, and it was all perfectly normal. And even though there were no blacks in our particular town, my parents made it a point to tell us how important it was not to be prejudiced. My father wept openly when Bobby Kennedy was shot (and maybe when King was assassinated, but I don't remember). But I had no direct experience with the Civil Rights movement.

    Certainly we've come a long way, but the hateful attitudes held by many in this country today frighten me. We still have work to do.

  3. Diane Hale here.

    I grew up in California, Nevada, and Arizona. Went to school with blacks, latinos, and native americans. I remember Mom regularly inviting a black family to dinner (she worked with the woman) and none of us thought anything about it. Have to admit, I never really saw bigotry until I moved to Texas. Perhaps that's why I've always judged the person I met by character, not color, religion, or sexual orientation. Yes, she also had a friend that I loved, and only realized as an adult and looked back that he was gay.

    In a perfect world all would judge by character, but I suspect it's a nasty human trait that there will always be "outsiders" that are denigrated to make the "group" feel better about themselves. Those who study history know that the blacks weren't the only race to be enslaved, they're just the most widely discussed.

    As for judging by religion--another example of one group trying to prove they have the only true path.

    Because of that, I don't believe there will ever be total acceptance of anyone who doesn't look the same, act the same, believe the same as the person looking to better themselves by denigrating and debasing others. Not a happy thought, but unfortunately a part of human nature.

    Will we ever evolve past these traits? I hope so.

  4. Thanks for the thoughtful post, Julia. I've been feeling very discouraged with all the divisive politics and racial troubles lately. It's good to be reminded that we have made progress.

  5. I stood in a circle at my UU fellowship meeting yesterday singing "We Shall Overcome" and admit I was feeling very discouraged. I couldn't help but think, what would Martin Luther King, Jr. think if he could see what is happening in our country today. Your post cheered me a bit, by reminding me how far we've come since the days of George Wallace, who was every bit as outrageous as some of our so-called leaders today.

  6. Grew up in a small town, Northern Ohio. I was maybe a freshman in high school when a black boy was enrolled in our school. The first time I saw him was in a study hall, when all the boys seated around him spontaneously moved their desks away from him. I'll never forget the look on that boy's face. Years later, my much younger brother was best friends with a migrant Latino boy, so times began to change. Today, it's still mostly a white community--but there are black and Latino families--and their kids are cheerleaders, on the football and track teams, etc.

  7. Thanks for this recollection, Julia. It reminded me of something that seemed small at the time but made an impression. I went to a Catholic elementary school in suburban Maryland and rode the bus to school. There were four African-American men who did odd jobs and cleaning at the school, and also drove the school buses. We called these men by their first names; for a couple of years I had ridden "Leroy's bus." One day we got a letter, sent to all the parents from the school's principal, explaining that we were going to refer to these gentlemen more respectfully, and giving their last names, which we had never known. Even at that age I was suddenly aware that I hadn't questioned calling these men by their first names, something that I would not have done with my friends' parents or my parents' friends. Perhaps it was easier because our teachers were nuns and addressed by their adopted names; we never knew their last names either. But it was an early step in my awareness of differences in how people were treated, which became much clearer when I went to high school and college in the city.

  8. Having a black President would have been unthinkable fifty years ago.

    I despair, though, and think we are all our own worst enemies, no matter what group we identify most closely with. We were taught as children that we represented our family, and that we needed to behave, so as not to bring shame on the rest of the tribe. People just don't seem to care these days, do they? Maybe it's the Jerry Springer/Maury Povitch/Sally Jesse Raphael/Oprah show syndrome: airing your dirty laundry on national TV, just for a little attention. Crassness seems to rule the day now. (Witness Amy Schumer, who says the MOST outrageous things, just to get a laugh.)

    If every person considered the rest of their family/peers/compatriots in their comportment (who even thinks about this any more?), there would be a lot less racism and bigotry, I think. It would be much harder to make the case that certain groups are one way or the other. This is not a slam at the black community; it applies to everyone, and every kind of group. We'd be a lot less likely to generalize, don't you think?

  9. Jim, your comment makes me think of another prejudice we Americans have (mostly) overcome: Anti-Catholic sentiment. My Grandmother Fleming once told me she had a neighborhood friend she played with regularly, until one day when the little girl told her she couldn't see her anymore. Her mother had found out my grandmother was Catholic.

    We've gone from JFK defending his independence from the pope to a majority of the Supreme Court being Catholic. That's real progress.

  10. Wow - what a powerful essay. Thanks, Julia. Where I grew up in California there was every bit as much segregation, we just told ourselves that there wasn't.

  11. oh, Julia. You have touched me deeply with this.

    I grew up in Cambridge, MD which is one of the first places the freedom riders visited in 1962.

    Over the next several years the town went through racial unrest and riots. H. Rap Brown visited and the black neighborhoods went up in flames in 1967. Yes, there were segregated black neighborhoods, black schools.

    We were under martial law in 1963 and again in 1967 with the National Guard living in tents on our school grounds. A curfew having everyone in their homes by dark, but it didn't stop the riots.

    Those years made me who I am today. Sadly, it made many of my classmates who they are today too - and believe me when I say we are deeply, vastly different.

  12. My mother grew up in the Jim Crow South (Louisiana) and my father came from a "holler" in West Virginia. I was a child during the Civil Rights Era, and what I heard in my own home was, shall we say, on the wrong side of history. I honestly still don't quite know how I was able to reach adulthood with a very different world view from theirs. I just remember that as I watched the TV coverage and listened to the words being said, my parents' responses felt illogical to me. And of course as I grew older, the public schools gave me a much more balanced world view. Plus I was always a voracious reader, so I was fortunate that my world wasn't shaped only by what I heard in my home.

    By the time my son was born in 1993, I had become convinced the world was a much better, fairer place. He went to integrated schools and had friends of many different backgrounds and skin colors. But the events of the past few years have made me realize that yes, there were gains -- but only in certain areas. That there are still many communities in America where having dark skin BY ITSELF increases the risk of violent death, and that underneath a thin veneer of civility a small but significant portion of white America still harbors hate and mistrust.

    And of course that just deals with racial inequalities. The LGBT community has made great strides in my lifetime, but there are still active haters who actually think that somehow their religion justifies their hate. And we have aspiring leaders of the free world suggesting that it is OK to discriminate against everyone who practices one of the world's major religions. So lately, I have been somewhat despairing of the future. I keep hoping that another prophet will arise, someone who speaks with such poetry that people cannot help but listen; that the tide will turn, and moderate voices will be heard; that in the long run, hate will not win. But on this specific date in history? I just don't see it.

  13. I remember moving to Miami (then a sleepy southern city) from Northern New Jersey when I was five. My mother and I were taking a bus from our hotel to the very famous Lincoln Road where all the name shops were. I got on, raced over the white line in the middle of the bus and dashed to a seat in the back over the bus wheel where I could put my feet up and feel the vibration of the wheels on the pavement. It was my favorite place to sit--in the North. The bus sat there, and sat there, and sat there. My mother tried to get me to the front of the bus, I, willful child that I was refused to move. The driver announced, "This bus is going nowhere until that little white girl gets out of the colored section." Now I knew whatever was going on was about me, and I was confused, frightened, and embarrassed. My mother kept tugging at my arm, by now I was howling. Finally, a black lady tapped my mother on the arm, she gathered me in her arms and carried me to the front of the bus cooing to me the whole way not to be afraid. I was quiet when she sat me down. She gave me a kiss on the cheek and said, "Don't be afraid, sweetie, someday you will be able to sit wherever you want." Quite a lesson.

  14. Thank you for the hopeful post. I am living now in New Haven, CT where I lived the day MLK,Jr was killed (I was a college senior). I remember the tensions and the vitriol -- I remember working with the Black community here. Today New Haven is a "sanctuary city" where immigrants are welcomed and valued. I pray we never return to the old ways, and I pray that there are better days ahead.

  15. Thank you, Julia. I've been feeling discouraged too as white supremacist militiamen take up residence in a Federal building here in Oregon and no one seems to be doing anything about it--and we all know that if the squatters were any kind of minority the government would have had the SWAT teams out within a day. But no, they're mainly older white guys with guns ...

    So thanks again. I think we have come a long way, but it's going to take more than our lifetimes for humans to evolve out of discrimination--and hopefully as a species we will. I also tend think that things come and go in cycles--as the disparity between the uber-rich and the rest of us grow, and we increasingly have less and less control over anything, discrimination/violence/etcetera tend to grow too--we're entering (or we've already entered) an era of great disparity. (I tend to take the very long view.)

    I recently watched "The Wire." Remember that show? Wow. What an indictment about our political/corporate/capitalist system. Powerful stuff.

  16. Kait - your story brought me to tears. Thank you.

  17. Julia, this is a beautiful piece. It's up to us to teach our children not to hate. Prejudice is not inborn. When my oldest kids were 2 and 4 we went to Barbados. There they played on a beach all week with black children and not once did they mention that they looked different in any way. They were just fun playmates and my oldest one cried when we had to leave her new best friends.
    Remember South Pacific? "You've got to be taught to hate and fear?"

  18. Thanks for the kind words, everyone. Susan, your experience shows how important reading is! Nonfiction to educate us and fiction to help us empathize with people different from us.

    Kait, what a moving story. The world has changed since we were children, and it will change again for the better. How long? Not long.

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  20. Running in late because I am traveling, but it gave me the experience of being able to read all of these comments and stories in a row… I am so honored to be among your company. And Kait-- your story is unforgetable and life changing. Thank you .

  21. We drove to FL in about 1955 and encountered OFFICIAL segregation for the first time (Milwaukee is still pretty de facto segregated, but it seems to be via social convention. This is a city of ethnic enclaves as well as ethnic festivals). My younger sister was outraged when she saw a drinking fountain marked "colored only."

    "Why can't WE drink there?" she demanded. From an eight-year-old's perspective, the shoe was on the other foot!

  22. Thank you, Julia, for your thoughtful essay reminding us how far we've actually come. I thought we had really progressed until Barack Obama became President and I would see (and still see) the vitriolic posts people make about this man. I hope that history will reflect his true accomplishments. We have come a very long way in so many areas but still have miles to go.

  23. We have indeed come a long way -- I grew up in Florida and don't remember segregated bathrooms, but I certainly remember segregated schools, and the contentious effort to desegregate them when I was eleven -- rocks got thrown at our bus the first day. I remember George Wallace. And I don't have to work hard to notice how many politicians from that time forward have used racial code language to get white Southern votes, because it's still happening today. I live in upstate New York now and I'm appalled to find racism alive and well around me here, with the same hateful rhetoric winning votes. Yes, it's heartening that President Obama won. But there's still so much work to do.

  24. Coming in very late today, but I wanted to say what a wonderful post this was, Julia. Having been born in 1954, I unfortunately witnessed segregation, but I was happy to be a part of the history of integration in the 3rd grade, when the barriers to public schools were banished.