Monday, January 21, 2008

Confessions of a Civil Rights Flunkie

I wasn't even born when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. Civil rights? I spent my childhood in the cornfields of the Midwest. Martin Luther King? Sure I studied him in school. Who doesn't know the famous 'Dream' speech? But honestly, that's about all I knew. He fought for equal rights and I got a day off school.

What I couldn't see and feel was what came before MLK. Sure I learned and read about Rosa Parks and segregation and bus rides and protests. But I could not genuinely relate to a cause I couldn't feel in my hands and I couldn't see with my eyes.

I spent most of my life in the Midwest never traveling south of the Mason Dixon line. My high school was featured on a TV special called 'Small Town America.' We walked to the ice cream shop. The basketball team won the state championship.

Seeing the Rodney King beating and the subsequent LA riots in the early 1990's were the first racially inspired conflicts I had ever seen. For a small town teenager, those were traumatizing.

I remember the moment that visual horror tore through me, squeezing the last peaceful breath out of me, replacing it with short gasps, as if those gasps were all I would have from then on. The sheer brutality failed to register in my shallow understanding of human nature.

I read a series of books this summer which I wish I would've read 15 years ago.

The most tangible example of what I had been missing came from Anne Moody's autobiography Coming of Age in Mississippi.
One of the original Woolworth lunch counter sit ins, this is her portrayal of life for a young African-American before and during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960's. It is here in her story I came face to face with what I didn't know and what I need to know still.

You can't read about Mississippi civil rights without reading Medgar Evers:
The Autobiography of Medgar Evers: A Hero's Life And Legacy Revealed Through His Writings, Letters, And Speeches by Myrlie Evers-Williams, Manning Marable (Editor)

The movie Ghosts of the Mississippi touches on his life and the trial of his killer. It's one of the few times I'll recommend an Alec Baldwin flick.

Other reading recommendations:

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs.
Based on a true story, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is one of the few full-length slave narratives written by a woman. From the vantage point of her life in New York City after she escapes from slavery in 1842, Harriet Jacobs offers a gripping account of the experiences that fueled her determination to remain hidden in a crawl space for seven years, and tells of her struggles to assure the freedom of her children (

You can read it free here.

The Annotated Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Like everyone, I read the original in high school. The illustrations and historical documentation are hugely insightful. Seriously, I did not know Harriet Beecher Stowe was a white woman. How sad is that?

So you're the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.

-Abraham Lincoln (1809 - 1865), on meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe

Now when my kids quiz me over Martin Luther King Jr., I can tell them more than I ever knew. It's still not as much as I'd like to understand.

It's a start even if it's 15 years late.

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