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Keep Your Eyes On The Prize

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Your age has a direct effect on what you are taught in history class. If you were in school during the Vietnam War, chances are you weren’t being taught anything about it (save for a current event discussion or two.) If you attended school immediately following World War II, curriculum didn’t include a section on internment camps. But these gaps, in theory, should be closed by life experience. Home life, including television, and adult learning (in any form) should eventually create a seamless sense of American history.

Whether unique or not (my personal) recent experience would dispute this scenario. Conversations prompted by the 50th anniversary of The March on Washington have revealed startling ignorance of (relatively) recent American history. My (utterly unscientific) sample included people in every decade from 20s – 70s. It would be a safe assumption that those people in their late 40s to early 50s might not have a full understanding of the history of the civil rights movement. The March, which many would identify as the fulcrum of the movement, happened before their arrival or shortly thereafter. But that particular (non-random, self-selecting) sample was not lacking in information. It was the younger people who seemed to have no knowledge beyond there having been a speech. What led to the March, the climate at the time, the danger, the heroism, and the cast of characters were all news to them. Even those at the anniversary celebration on the National Mall (presumably having an interest in the subject) did not appreciate the significance of the ringing of the bell salvaged from the Birmingham 16th Street Baptist Church.

Going beyond the 1963 March and the people who brought it to life, are the politics that preceded and proceeded. The significance of speakers; Lynda Bird Johnson Robb and Caroline Kennedy was lost on those in their 20s and 30s. More than once I dutifully explained the civil rights legislation that was crafted and signed by their respective fathers. It is hard to fathom how the details of the civil rights movement and all that happened in the 1960s could not be a major part of K-12 American history. History, like most subjects, builds on prior knowledge. Without covering the civil rights movement how does one teach women’s rights, union/migrant workers’ rights and the LGBT movement? How does one cover international civil rights and racial/ethnic issues without discussing our own domestic fight?

I’ve actually no doubt that the civil rights movement is comprehensively covered in many (if not most) schools across the nation. I suspect that the reason for those blank stares and awkward silences I received was due to the time period in which the students were taught. Learning about the 1960s in the 1980s or 1990s must have seemed abstract. Growing up in a Reagan, “greed is good”, post-affirmative action, post-Title IX world, would make the black and white imagery seem archaic and less relatable. But the thing is, it’s not an abstraction. A lack of understanding about the fight (that has not yet been won) is dangerous. If we aren’t conscious we can let too many things slide. When we see things out of context we are more willing to wave our hand and dismiss bigotry or racism. When we don’t know about the Voting Rights Act we might not notice it slipping away.

What we learned in school (whether in the classroom or out) will always shape us to some degree. But that learning and understanding should just be the start of understanding our world. We need to know what came before to appreciate how best to go forward. It is worth mention that my random unscientific sample included people of varying ethnicity and race. The lack of knowledge/understanding was equally distributed. A woman standing behind me (at the 50th anniversary) referred to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s infamous speech as ending the KKK and white supremacy. Part of me wanted to live in her world, but the other part of me wanted to forcibly open her eyes.

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Posted by on September 1, 2013 in Cultural Critique, Education

 

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Still Dreaming After All These Years

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Fifty years is a long time; a very long time. A 50th anniversary is always worthy of commemoration, and naturally occurs within the framework of modernity. Fifty years ago, on an oppressively hot humid day on August 28th, 1963, hundreds of thousands of people marched for freedom and jobs in an event twenty years in the making. They came on buses, trains and on foot; slept wherever they could or perhaps not at all. They marched through the nation’s capital, towards the mall, not knowing what to expect or how things might end. It was a dangerous time for protestors and in Washington D.C.; imprisonment, beatings and even killings were (and continued) to occur. But they came in their finest, marching and standing in that unrelenting heat all day long.

Fifty years later, in 2013, it took days of events to commemorate all that occurred on that one day. A week’s worth of marches, demonstrations, speeches, and festivities culminated in an all-day rally on August 28th, 2013. Over five hours a schedule of military minute precision brought performers and speakers to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Early on the crowd (which stretched from monument to monument) was led by Andrew Young in; Woke Up This Morning With My Mind Stayed On Freedom. This set a communal tone for a crowd diverse in age, background and agenda. Another sing-along that either conjured strong memories or made one think of one’s parents, was Peter and Paul singing Blowin’ In The Wind. Anyone familiar with Peter (in particular, but also,) Paul and the late Mary won’t be surprised to learn that Trayvon Martin’s parents stood with the performers. Many who took the stage were living remembrances of the 1963 March. Representative John Lewis (the youngest speaker in 1963) invoked sentiments repeatedly echoed on the steps; “The scars and stains of racism still remain deeply embedded in American society, whether it is stop and frisk in New York or injustice in Trayvon Martin case in Florida, the mass incarceration of millions of Americans, immigrants hiding in fear in the shadow of our society, unemployment, homelessness, poverty, hunger or the renewed struggle for voting rights. So I say to each of us today, we must never, ever give up. We must, ever give in. We must keep the faith and keep our eyes on the prize.”

Two of Dr. King’s children spoke, but it was Christine King Farris, King’s older sister who surprised and moved the crowd. She referred to herself as perhaps not the oldest person present but certainly the only one who had known Dr. King since he was in diapers. She hadn’t been able to attend 50 years prior, due to a bad flu, but had watched her brother on television and knew something magical had happened. She spoke eloquently, powerfully and personally and the crowd felt they had been invited into the circle. Reverend Bernice King, clearly inheriting her father’s gift for oration, was inspiring; “We are still chained by economic disparities, class inequalities and conditions of poverty for many of God’s children in this nation and around the world. If we are going to continue the struggle for freedom and create true community, then we will have to be relentless in exposing, confronting and ridding ourselves of the mindset of pride, and greed, and selfishness, and hate, and lust, and fear, and idleness, and lack of purpose and lack of love as my brother said for our neighbor.” She ended her remarks at precisely 3:00 PM for the ringing of the bell. The bell, the crowd learned, was salvaged from the Birmingham Baptist Church, a reminder of the extraordinary sacrifices that led us to this day.

The most remarkable aspect of the day’s programming was that of having three United States Presidents on the agenda. Presidents Carter, Clinton and Obama were greeted like rock stars and did not disappoint. They paid homage to the work of Dr. King and the strides of the movement, but as one would expect from world leaders, they also carefully criticized complacency, or worse; backsliding. It is a difficult conundrum, complacency. While it is natural to be reactionary to policies and actions that are blatantly racist, it is challenging to keep the fire burning day to day. When we are no longer daily confronted with signs of “Whites Only” or bus and school segregation, our shoulders lower and we breathe easier. But, as the speakers reminded us throughout the day, there is so much left to do. Poverty, incarceration, immigration, voting rights and equality are very current issues. Progress has been made, but we are nowhere near the finish line.

It is so tempting to lose our focus, to give into distraction. In fifty years we’ve evolved into a nation of perpetual distraction and extroversion. Where the 1963 March was an open and accessible event, the 2013 event was constrained and produced for the media. Enormous television camera towers blocked the view for all but the “ticketed” attendees (an oddity juxtaposed to a day celebrating equality.) Celebrities with no obvious connection to the movement spoke and sang (or lip synched) for the cameras. Two dance groups (in very photogenic costume) performed, an odd artistic choice for any rally with limited views. The singers (except for Peter and Paul) sang gospel music, even though international (and even national) folk singers still abound today. But the 2013 event was packaged for viewers back home. That isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just different. As were the 20-somethings playing candy crush during the speakers, and the thousands of selfie pics being taken throughout the day. But amongst all that noise were young, middle-aged and 1963 alumni, riveted and moved. Heads bowed and bobbed, hands waved in solidarity and to this attendee it looked like hope.

 
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Posted by on August 29, 2013 in Cultural Critique

 

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March On

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We are on the cusp of the 50th anniversary of the March On Washington. It is the most famous mass gathering to occur in our country. At least 200,000 people showed up to the National Mall on that late August day for a march in pursuit of equality and jobs. The march, twenty years in the making, came to life in 1963 (100 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.) People from all over the country heard about the march and found their way there. This was before cheap flights, social media and ubiquitous car ownership. It was also during a time in which travel could be challenging for people of color. They arrived, some traveling through the night or for days, anxious of what lay ahead. No one knew what exactly was in store and no doubt some concern for personal safety existed. Families, communities, church groups; people of all ages and colors took that leap of faith and participated in a peaceful day of inspiration and aspiration.

There were specific goals for the march including; job training, increase in the minimum wage, school desegregation, passage of a civil rights bill, and federal prohibition of discrimination. Many of the goals were realized, but what the march is remembered for is much more ethereal. People who were there, ordinarily perhaps quite eloquent, will grasp for words when trying to convey the feelings they had that day. Many of us listened to the iconic Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I Have A Dream speech in school. The goose bumps and throat lumps hints to what being there must have been. To be standing amongst hundreds of thousands of people with a unified purpose is to be in a heightened state of humanness. To overcome the personal and join together for a higher purpose is one of the greatest gifts of life.

Those of us who weren’t there (or weren’t born yet) may never experience anything of that magnitude. But we too can pursue the power of the collective. We can seek to right wrongs by joining strangers to make some noise. The world and humans being what they are means that there will always be something worth fighting for. Those people climbing onto buses in the wee hours of the morning had no idea that they were making history. They simply wanted to join hands and march for the most basic of civil rights.

MS 2003-36  March on Washington Program - front

 
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Posted by on August 18, 2013 in Cultural Critique

 

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