Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Tiptoeing into Civil Rights

(Continued from Saturday . . . )
The students in that inner-city school inspired me to become in a quiet way an advocate of Civil Rights. In the fifties, Rosa Parks refused to budge, two outraged white men murdered fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, and the Little Rock Nine stood steadfast. I’d been in college then, mostly oblivious to what was happening in the South.

         During the early sixties, Mississippi racists murdered four children in a church, freedom riders headed south, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his resounding oration “I Have a Dream,” Ku Klux Klansmen dumped the dead bodies of three civil rights workers—two white and one black—into an earthen dam, police in Birmingham used fire hoses and dogs to attack protestors, and public officials halted the march to Montgomery on the Pettus Bridge. I was in the convent with its ban on reading newspapers, watching television, or listening to radio. Once again, oblivion.
            This stupor continued after I left the convent. Only the assassination of Martin Luther King on the balcony of a Memphis motel on April 4, 1968, and the signing of the Civil Rights Act a week later opened my consciousness to what was happening in my country and within me. Weeks later a black man mailed a letter and I admitted my own bigotry.
            The lives of the students in that inner-city school soon prompted me to change. There’s too much to tell you all that happened. Too many thoughts skittered my mind. Too much growth within my spirit. So today, I’ll simply relate two of my learning experiences. In my next posting, I’ll detail a third.            
            As I wrote on Saturday, none of the students had ever been inside the large department stores in downtown Dayton. I decided to take them there. I had no car, so one afternoon six of us boarded a city bus and traveled across the river to downtown. We repeated this weekly until all the students had visited the largest downtown department store.
            The big highlight of the trip?
            Riding an escalator.
            The students had never seen one. We went up and down, up and down, until they felt comfortable stepping onto and off of that moving staircase. The store manager stood at the bottom, eyeing us suspiciously.



            The students were neither rambunctious nor rowdy. No pushing or shoving, just a little joshing around. The escalators delighted the students, who giggled as they rode. They were mannerly toward other riders—most of whom, if not all, were white.
            Afterward, we wandered the store aisles. Seeing the merchandise through their eyes widened mine.  They nudged one another, whispering at color. Style. Cost. The store manager followed us.
            One student pointed to the mannequins in the windows and throughout the store. “Nothin’ but white,” she said. For the first time in the whole of my thirty-three years I opened my eyes to the invasiveness of racism. Any black person shopping in that store saw clothing displayed only on white mannequins.
            The weekly trips to the downtown department store continued. The manager finally stopped following us from floor to floor. But I saw now with those new eyes. Reading newspaper and magazines ads I found no black models. Watching television, I saw few black actors. Only on the airways did I discover the artistry of blacks as I listened to soul music produced by Motown.



A sculpture at the Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina.

            Thus began a campaign of letter writing. I wrote to magazines throughout the country as well as the local Dayton papers. In these letters, I encouraged the publications to use black models to attract black readers, who were also consumers. I pointed out that integration was now the law of the land.  It would lead to better jobs for black workers. That, of course, would mean more to spend. I suggested that rather than drag their heels, they lead the way.



            None of the publications responded, but the students knew about my letter writing and cheered me on. We spent the year cheering one another.
                                                                               (Continued on Thursday . . . )

Click here to view a succinct timeline
of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.

All photographs from Wikipedia.

43 comments:

  1. Teaching at that inner city school certainly opened your mind to a world of equals. THANK YOU for helping me to open mine!

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    1. Dear Fishducky,
      Thank you, but I've read your postings and also your comments on many blogs and I suspect that your eyes are and have been wide open!

      Peace.

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  2. Another marvellous post, Dee. I love the way your activism wasn't just based on theory or ideals, but came from your deep care for your students and your urgent desire to make life better for them and people like them. You are so inspiring.

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    1. Dear Perpetua,
      I did try to move from thought to action. Thursday's posting will show one example of that. And I thank you for your kind words, that I want to say to you also. Your blog and your comments always inspire me.

      Peace.

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  3. The magazines, television, newspapers, movies--corporations, politicians, you name it--everything was all so white back then...and male dominated, too. The only blacks I saw were on the news--either being killed or rioting. Sad, but true. It's wonderful when you look back and see how much things have changed in the past 50 years. Isn't it amazing!!?? :):)

    Bravo for your letter writing and for bringing those kids downtown. Be waiting for the next entry! :)

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    1. Dear Rita,
      So much has changed, but I just watched a weekly television show that has a cast of six regulars. One is a woman, the other five are men and all six are white. And the ads for this show are mostly white also.

      We've come a far ways, but it seems to me we still have a far ways to go. Now I think I need to somehow meet more Muslims. What we see of them today of is not the "being killed or rioting" that you saw of blacks in the past. No, the tie is to extremists and terrorists.

      Somehow a few can cast a bad name on the entire group. Why do our minds move from one person to all? If one white person does something horrible we don't look at all whites that way. I bet that if I were a Muslim I wouldn't see all Muslims as bad because of something one did. If I were black I wouldn't see all blacks as bad because of someone one did. But we look at the person who looks or speaks or acts differently from us and say--"not good"--and then we lump a whole group into the "not good" category.

      We seem conditioned to lump people together.

      Well, I'm on a tirade now. So I'd best stop!

      Peace.

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  4. This is eye opening writing. We here in the UK have predudices but reading your well penned post have made me see many things in a different light.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Yvonne.

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    1. Dear Yvonne,
      You are so kind. Thank you. I'm sure that in the UK, as you say, there are prejudices. I suspect they exist in every culture and in every country.

      Peace.

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  5. Wow! It always amazes me reading about events like this from the past. I'm so glad that many things have changed--changed because of people like you who persevered for what's right.

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    1. Dear Elisa,
      To read about the Freedom Riders and the Civil Rights workers of the sixties is to discover stories of true heroes. They were heroic and many died for that. Others have a story to tell and it's so worth reading, like the group of young black men and women who went into a cafe and dared to sit at the counter. That was true perseverance for what's right. I'm glad to have been a small part of the struggle.

      Peace.

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  6. I tell my children and grandchildren how different things were when I was young, and they look at me and can't imagine such things. The world was changed so much in the late 50s and 60's by those brave enough to insist upon it. You were one of them.

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    1. Dear Arleen,
      Thank you for seeing me as brave. I don't think of myself that way. I think of myself as someone who can't live with herself if she doesn't seek justice for all.

      And yes, the young people of today have no idea. Unless they happen to be part of a group that others find wanting. Now we must begin to fight the battle of the classes. Of those who look down on the poor and disabled. Always there is justice that must be done.

      Peace.

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  7. Dee, your posts bring it all back to me. Unlike you, my awakening happened in high school and college. My having a roommate who was African American hastened my 'seeing' things from the other side, so to speak. I am proud of you for your quiet but persistent activism. You said in an earlier post that you weren't an activist, because you'd never been in jail. I don't accept that definition. If we acted in any way to make things better, we were activists, I believe. Thanks for this memoir. I agree with Starting Over--our kids and grandkids need to be exposed to these stories. Their experiences of our culture, while not perfect, are so different!

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    1. Dear Spindrift,
      I'm so happy for you that you had a roommate who opened your eyes to the realization that to give meaning to our lives we must try to make things better for all those groups who struggle against some kind of prejudice. Thank you for sharing your story with us.

      Peace.

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  8. Reading this brings to mind that quote from Gandhi - be the change you want to see happen . . . You were, and still are, that sort of change. Thank you.

    So much has changed, which is such a good thing, yet, there is still so much prejudice and hate and I worry as it has been bubbling around now, not quite to the boiling point. This is why your story is so important, Dee, and why it is things like writing letters still holds sway. Of course, the media has changed dramatically in a rather short time, but, I still feel confident of the "power of the pen".

    Have you seen a little movie called The Water is Wide? It deals with a similar theme of a teacher in the south on a remote island and how he tries to educate the children there.

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    1. Dear Penny,
      Oh, to have that quote from Gandhi applied to me. I think that most of us, surely you, Penny, simply try, day by day, to reach out to others so that a Oneness builds, grows, flourishes among us.

      Most of us sort of stumble through life, making mistakes and looking for meaning.

      I have to admit that in the past three years because of health problems and a general malaise, I haven't been writing the letters I wrote in Minnesota. But now we are in a new election year, and I'm gearing up to speak out for those who lack a voice. I want to find something that I can do to help the impoverished be heard.

      I haven't seen the movie, but I'll see if I can find it in the library. Thanks so much, Penny, for suggesting it.

      Peace.

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  9. It's a beautiful story of the times you experienced. Hate and prejudice don't go away; they simply change their focus. I read last week about someone who killed a family's cat, bashed its head in, and left it on their front porch with the word "LIBERAL" painted across it. It happened in Arkansas, but it wasn't an isolated incident. Hate and prejudice does not go away in the cramped minds of these people...

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    1. Dear DJan,
      Unfortunately, I believe you are right. Hate and prejudice don't go away. Probably until the day the history of the Earth ends, hate and prejudice will be with us. Some people can define themselves only by being different from others. They seem to hate what isn't themselves. And that's scary.

      Peace.

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  10. You have opened many eyes, Dee, as viewed through the comments. Your writing takes us back, helps us remember where we were during those tumultous times.

    I remember only the fun I had when six of us girls (one black, one Japanese, one Jew, three Caucasian) shared a big house downtown in the early 1970's. I can remember us talking about how hip we were, being multicultural, but I don't think we knew the word. I don't recall thinking about prejudice one way or the other back then, but I was probably pretty ignorant. We were more interested in throwing parties, and our house was rather infamous for a while!

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    1. Dear Sandi,
      Thanks so much for sharing with us your "infamous" house that was multicultural in the early 1970s! Sounds like so much fun. I doubt if you were ignorant. You sound like a person who didn't notice differences. You simply accepted people for who they were and found those wonderful parts of them to which you could relate and feel One with. In my book, that's a fine way to live.

      Peace.

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    2. Dear Sandi,
      I forget to add just one thing in my comment. The group you were with was quite diverse. People of color and people of different faith traditions. There were probably both Christians and Jews in the group. I wonder if there was a Muslim. The person who was Jewish was also I suspect Caucasian. Though he or she could have been a black Jew or an Asian Jew. It's good to think that among that group there were representatives of various faiths and races. The truth is that you became a family that pulled together as One.

      Peace.

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  11. Gorgeous! I love your fierce way of reacting to the world - the way you jump in with both feet. I am loving these stories.

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  12. Dear Kari,
    I like that world "fierce"! Thank you. I do jump in with both feet and sometimes I land in a puddle of confusion. I've always heard that it's best to think before you act. But often I forget that. How about you? Do you forget and simply spontaneously say or do things?

    Peace.

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  13. Beautiful, beatiful post. Blogger doesn't like me and wouldn't let me comment for the longest time. Four attempts later I am hopeful.

    Your students were given an incredible gift in having you as a teacher to inspire them by example. I understand that you also benefited from the exchange, but I am sure that all of them remember you with warmth and gratitude.

    And, have you noticed how few mannequins address cultural diversity yet? Most of them are still white and impossibly thin. I don't know statistically what group most people belong to now, but I am certain that thin and white is not representative.

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    1. Dear EC,
      I'm so glad you stuck with Blogger so that you finally got to comment. Your reflections on those mannequins is so accurate. I'm seldom ever in a department store--I hate to shop--and so I hadn't noticed this. Thanks for pointing it out.

      And yes, that thin, thinner, thinest aspect is so part of our culture today. I fear that young women are so adversely affected by it.

      Peace.

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  14. Dear Dee--Thank you. You know why.

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    1. Dear Fishducky,
      You are welcome. And thank you from all of us.

      Peace.

      Delete
  15. Remember, I called you a gentle activist some time ago! You are amazing! Not only are you a teacher, but such a willing learner. And you make an impact wherever you go when you respond with your heart. I am humbled! Debra

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    1. Dear Debra,
      I so like that term "gentle activist." Thank you. I suspect you are also.

      Peace.

      Delete
  16. Hi Dee, Thank you for this marvelous post. It is a reminder of the horrors that occurred.
    Martin L King was a great man and leader. How sad that he was killed by pure hatred.
    I will never understand that kind of hateful thinking and prejudice.

    Warm hugs,
    Pam

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    1. Dear Pam,
      Yes, that kind of hateful thinking and prejudice is a mystery to me too. I wonder if deep down in the people that assassinated him there was an overwhelming fear of the change he was dreaming of. A fear that their lives would be irrevocably changed. I just don't know.

      Peace.

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    2. You are amazing. Those were trying times, weren't they? It's so difficult to force a change like that. It really had to take time.

      My guru fixed my computer. Now let's hope this comment goes through. :)

      Delete
    3. Dear Manaznita,
      I'm glad your guru fixed your computer. So good to hear from you. You know I tend to think we are all amazing. Each in our own way.

      Life seems to be about how one responds to words and people and events. I hope only that my response helps to build the community of Oneness for which I long.

      Peace.

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  17. Excellent work, Dee, then and now.
    I'm waiting for the day when you tell us that you received a medal.

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    1. Dear Friko,
      Thank you.
      And just so you know--you will wait in vain!!!!

      Peace.

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  18. What an exceptional personal account. I love how you included the story of the kids in the mall, those subtle events that give us a glimmer of insight into how it feels to be suspect simply by virtue of who we are or how we look. Something that happens sporadically to white people, but a way of life for blacks. Good for you for writing back then, and thank you for writing this today.

    Re: yoga: I think you have it right - ultimately it's a way of living in the world. The physical practice opens our minds and bodies to the spiritual. The physical part is useless if we can't take its lessons into our daily lives. xo

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    1. Dear Melissa,
      You've said so well what happened with that floor manager. He did hold the students--and me--suspect "simply by virtue of who we" were and how we looked.

      Peace.

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  19. Why didn't you make this letter-writing campaign a student project?

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  20. Whe didn't you make this letter writing campaign a studen project?

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  21. Dear Jrout,
    Somehow your comment got posted twice!

    As to your question: the students--both black and write didn't want to write letters. They thought that their writing, spelling, and English "weren't good enough" to send letters to important white people. They thought these people--executives and managers--would think that they were "dumb."

    I offered to print a sample letter on the chalkboard, but the students balked at that. "They'll all be the same," some said. "Those guys will think we can't write our own letters."

    So I left it at that. I didn't want to overwhelm them with something that felt foreign to them.

    Peace.

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  22. Dear Dee,
    I grew up in a rural Midwest area, far from cities. I did not see a black person until I went to college. The Civil Rights movement was fascinating, and MLK's death was horrific, even so. My American History teacher brought a TV into the classroom, and we watched the funeral proceedings. Many of us were crying at the passing of a great man.

    Your recounting of your teaching experiences is riveting. Please tell me that you will have a book about these years! Susan

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  23. Now that's what I call activism. What a courageous, bold step, writing to all those publications. Even though not one responded, (and keeping up the writing in the face of no response takes courage), you cannot possibly know how your campaign may have fertilized the hard ground and opened it just a bit to the next suggestion, the first opportunity to make a change.

    This is one more reason why every little bit that each one of us finds we can do, using the tools we were given, is so important. Thank you for being a role model to us all.

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