If you don’t know much about Fannie Lou Hamer, I encourage you to dig into her history.
Like much of the civil rights movement and the wider fight for justice, it’s many of the same conversations we’ve been having over and over and over again.
Such as standing for the national anthem:
“It’s hard for me to stand up and sing the national anthem. I stand up and I work my mouth, but I don’t always come through with the verses. ‘O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light, what so proudly we hailed,’ cuz actually the land of the free and the home of the brave has meant the land of the treed and the home of the grave for so many of us.”
Something I love about Hamer is that she says it like it is:
“This is just a lot of crap that folks talk about the true democracy of this country.”
Lately I’ve been reading about the civil rights movement and it’s incredible.
Everyone knows that, but reading the details is something else.
I could probably write a lengthy post going into all kinds of details, but there’s just too much to say and that’s too hard to swallow. Instead I think it’ll be easier (for you and me) to just throw out random thoughts as they come.
Tonight I was struck by how a nostalgic view of 1950s America has to be completely blind to issues of race.
I imagine 1950s nostalgia is blind to a great many things. But race seems like the most offensive.
Viewing the 1950s as the golden age of America forgets that Jim Crow was in full force in the South. Even though court rulings had dismantled segregation, it still existed as a practical matter. Much of the civil rights movement was about claiming what had already been won in court and was being illegally denied.
It’s a shocking thing to consider. Comparisons don’t do it justice, but they help put it in perspective. The Supreme Court recently struck down California’s Prop 8, making gay marriage legal in the state of California. Imagine if gay people went to California to get married and were not only turned away, they were arrested, beaten and jailed?
It’s inconceivable today. Yet that’s what happened with the Freedom Riders in Mississippi.
The 1950s were hardly a rosy time of peace, prosperity and good morals. Especially for blacks in the South.
I love that my wife is a kindergarten teacher. It means we have a vast collection of good children’s books—so many that I haven’t read a lot of them.
So today when Lexi pulled When Marian Sang off the shelf for her pre-naptime book, I was reading it for the first time. It’s beautifully illustrated and tells the story of black singer Marian Anderson and her struggles in the segregated, pre-civil rights America. I’d never heard of Marian Anderson before, but her tremendous voice was respected around the world.
In 1939 Howard University brought Marian to Washington, D.C., to perform. They tried to book Constitution Hall, but the Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.), who ran the hall, refused to allow Marian to perform because she was black. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the D.A.R. over the incident.
Marian eventually performed on Easter Sunday at the Lincoln Memorial to a mixed-race crowd of 75,000 and a radio audience in the millions.
In 1943 the D.A.R. invited Marian to perform at Constitution Hall in support of the war effort. She agreed on the condition that the seating be mixed (as opposed to an all-white crowd or only allowing blacks to sit in the balcony). The D.A.R. agreed and it was the first time in the history of Constitution Hall that blacks and whites sat together.
I got choked up a few times reading the story and could barely keep it together. The injustice and cruelty of America’s history of racism is just stupid. I don’t have a better word for it.
At the point in the story when Marian isn’t allowed to apply to a music school—”We don’t take colored,” she’s told—there’s a picture of Marian’s mother comforting her. Lexi and I had this exchange:
“What’s wrong with her?” Lexi asked, pointing to the picture.
“She’s sad,” I said.
“Why is she sad?”
“They wouldn’t let her go to school because of the color of her skin.” My voice was already wavering, trying to hold it together.
“That’s not fair!” Like most kids, Lexi exclaims this over the most mundane things (no dessert, bed time, etc.), but she had real anger this time.
“No, it’s not fair,” I said, shaking my head and biting my lip to keep from sobbing.
Knowing her experience makes the words of the spirituals she sang all the more poignant: “Oh, nobody knows the trouble I see, nobody knows my sorrow…”
I have a hard time appreciating just how incredible the American Civil Rights movement was. I just watched this video, how to defeat the KKK, and then did minimal research on Wade Watts and read this story about his interactions with former KKK leader Johnny Lee Clary. Watts was one of many heroes in this movement, a man I’d never heard of before. I love this story:
When Oklahoma State Sen. Gene Stipe and civil rights activist Wade Watts walked into a restaurant in the late 1950s, a waitress confronted them at the door and told Watts, an African American, that the restaurant did not serve Negroes.
With a smile, Watts replied, “I don’t eat Negroes. I just came to get some ham and eggs.”
And that’s tame compared to Watts’ reactions to Clary as detailed in the video. That’s incredible love in the face of overwhelming and completely overt hatred.