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Baylor University’s Civil Rights Tour: Hard Fought Words of Wisdom (Part I)

by Carson T. Clark on April 1, 2012

A few weeks ago I went on Baylor University’s Civil Rights Tour over spring break. Our bus full of students and AmeriCorps members as well as Dr. James SoRelle from the history department traveled all across the South, making stops in Little Rock, Memphis, Birmingham, Montgomery, Selma, Jackson, and Houston.11.Our destinations include Central High School, National Civil Rights Museum, 16th St. Baptist Church, Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Southern Poverty Law Center, Dexter St. Baptist Church, Rosa Parks Museum, National Voting Rights Museum and Institute, the Viola Liuzzo memorial, COFO Center, Jackson State University, Texas Southern University. It was simultaneously one of the most convicting and inspirational experiences of my life. I came home emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and physically exhausted, but in a good way. If any of you ever get an opportunity to go on a similar trip, I cannot encourage it highly enough.

Of all the things I heard and saw, easily the most impactful were the lessons I learned from those who were actually a part of the movement. Some of this came from documentations or old footage, but the firsthand accounts were my favorite. Among the civil rights veterans we got an opportunity to meet were Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles, Dolores Lynch Williams, Hollis Watkins, and Flonzie Brown-Wright. Most weren’t even legally adults when they first got involved. So far as I can tell, all were and are devout Christians. Their wisdom was breathtaking. I was honored to hear them address our group and speak to a few individually.

Few things are worse than the words, “You had to be there.” You return from this life-changing experience and people ask what you did but your description fails to convey the intensity of what you where thinking and feeling. You try and try, but your friends and family keep staring at you with this facial expression that clearly says, “What’s the big deal?” Finally you give up and utter the dreaded words. Since coming home I’ve been trying to figure out how to overcome that obstacle. The best idea I’ve come up with is to try and repeat the things that I found most meaningful, and challenging.

What follows is not a verbatim quotation of what any single person told me, but a compilation of all their wise words into a single statement. The fictional persona I’m using is an African America senior who had a leadership role in the movement before his 18th birthday:22.In the text below I’ve tried my best to faithfully preserve what was shared with me, but would be remiss to not readily acknowledge my inability to represent such a diverse set of experiences, temperaments, beliefs, opinions, and the like in a concise manner. This is an exceedingly imperfect exercise

A lot of young people today–black and white–ask me about the moral condition of the black community, including the culture of violence, drug use, misogynist lyrics, gang loyalty, and so on. People like you ask what happened to Dr. King’s dream. They ask where things went awry. They ask how we’ve so quickly forgotten the sacrifices that were made. But, really, what they’re asking is what the vision should be for the younger generation and how they should go about it. What I can tell you is that there’s no good, easy answers. The movement continues.

Today we see a culture in turmoil. I grew up not being able to look a white woman in the eyes for fear of being hung. My generation’s focus was on ending that. After hundreds of years of oppression and poverty, we got our freedom! But is it any wonder that our kids and grandkids are acting out with shows of rebellion and materialism and all the rest? What we, my generation, failed to consider is how we should raise our kids in that new world. We were unshackled but didn’t know what to do with our freedom. It’s Reconstruction after the Civil War all over again. What we’re seeing is a generational overreaction to generation after generation of white hegemony. The movement continues.

Yeah, I tell my grandson he looks like a fool with his pants down below his butt. And it really saddens me because he doesn’t understand the history. He doesn’t know the origins of sagging pants went back to slave owners giving out pants without a belt that were too big so they couldn’t run away easily, and later wardens doing the same thing with black convicts in prison. But what we have to learn is some plain and simple grace. Show some compassion. Be slow to judge and quick to love. The movement continues.

And for those of you white kids, keep in mind that “thug” is the new “n*****.” It’s the socially acceptable word used by my white brothers and sisters to dehumanize black people, be condescending, and dismiss the history that brought us here. The same goes for words like “pimps” and “hustlers.” Be careful how you use them. We’re all foolish if we expect hundreds of years of oppression to be healed in 60 years. God is gracious, but it takes time. The Civil Rights Movement was a tectonic shift. An earthquake. The ground beneath our feet is still settling. We’re feeling the aftershocks even today. People think that just because we have a black president, now we as a nation have achieved true equality. That’s a landmark, a big step forward for certain, but the movement continues.

As a church-going man, I don’t know what to tell you. What I believe is that the Body of Christ is supposed to overcome racial, economic, linguistic, and cultural boundaries. A church should be the one place where a poor black man and a rich white woman–or a rich black woman and a poor white man–have reason to spend time building relationships with one another. Yet our churches remain oh so separate. But do the white churches want to give up their worship styles to join us? Probably not. Do our black churches want to give up our history and practices to join them? Absolutely not! I don’t think this is racism so much as plain preference. Maybe what we should do is proactively be searching for opportunities to worship and minister together. Keep building those bridges. That’s a tough one. The movement continues.

What is the next frontier for the Civil Rights Movement? Got to be black, male incarceration. One in three black men in this country will spend time behind bars. In 2001 more than 2.1 million African Americans were in prison. These statistics can just keep going. What we’re seeing is a government-led breakdown of the black family as one fatherless generation breeds but doesn’t raise another, and the problem keeps getting worse. Divorce is a big problem for all American families, of course. But the incarceration rates among black males definitely amplifies the problem. People have got to stop being sent to jail for a decade for petty drug charges. The laws have got to change. The movement continues.

The other big area we’ve still got to tackle is economic change. It’s no coincidence that Martin died when he did. He died helping black garbage men in Memphis get economic justice. Nobody outside of the black community or the history students talks about this, but in Dr. King’s final years he has challenging the systemic, racial injustices lingering from slavery in our whole socio-economic system. Going after that is what will get you killed. People like to say they’re about peace, justice, and equality, but when you challenge their wallets–that’s when you find out where their commitments lie. The movement continues.

  • Pmpope68

    Thank you, Carson. As an African-American, one of the things that I feel is that when we forget or ignore history, we do with disastrous consequences. One of the eye-openers that I’ve had in the last several years is the lack of real knowledge people have about Black history. It is real and impacts and colors much of what takes place today. Nothing happens in a vacuum. When we understand even a little about another’s history, we begin to understand them and some of what has formed them.

    Race is a difficult thing. While we are all part of the human race and are one in Christ, the reality is that we are of different races and ethnicities and to ignore that and all that comes with it, is in my opinion well-meaning, but dismissive. I am a Christian, a woman, a daughter, a sister, an aunt and also an African-American whose experiences, challenges, joys and sorrows are rooted in something much deeper than just the present moment.

    I am so glad you did this tour and wish more people would avail themself of opportunities to learn. A visit to Birmingham is not the only way to do it for those who may think that’s what they have to do. Documentaries are available through one’s local library on slavery, the Civil Rights movement and the time in between. Some cities have Black history museums. And then there’s always good, honest dialogue with the people of color in one’s life.

    Thank you again. The fact that you did this means a lot to me, particularly having recently left a predominantly white, evangelical church where I encountered a lot of ignorance and insensitivity.

  • Jas-nDye

    It was towards the end when I started resonating with this piece, Carson. I would ask, however, were you able to get ahold of any of these men and women that you reported on/conglomerated into this piece to see if this reflects what they were trying to say? It sounds accurate enough for a blog, I suppose (after all, we’re not trying to set up hit pieces, but at the same time, we’re not exactly journalists), but I’m wondering about the amateur historian Carson Clark. Trying to get voice and tone is integral, especially when telling another’s story that we may not have firsthand experience in. What do you think?

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