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We Have Come So Far
We have come so far, yet we still have a long, long way to go. "Freedom is a constant struggle," says the Negro spiritual. "We've struggled so long, that we must be free." And we are free. That is the lesson of the American civil rights movement. We are as free as we dare to be.
There were many who made the American civil rights movement possible: men and women, preachers and laypeople, students and workers, young and old. But in the 1960s, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the organization I was involved with during the civil rights movement, was largely made up of thirtyish, Southern-born, Negro preachers. We were children of the New Deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. We spent our adolescence enjoying the rise of the United States as a defender of liberty and democracy in World War II. Our high school and university life was defined and colored by the social responsibility of the Marshall Plan, a sense of world community signaled by the founding of the United Nations and, yes, the successful liberation of India from British colonialism—without violence.
Even with the nuclear clouds above us, racial segregation surrounding us, and crippling seeds of inferiority sown within us by a thoroughly racist society, we were able to lay claim to a heritage of faith in God, confidence in the undiminished potential of our country, and hope for better tomorrows for ourselves and our children. We believed because we sensed the power and grandeur of the ideals of this nation. We lived in the South, in the midst of its horror and shame, but our eyes were on the prize of freedom; wewere willing to pay the price for freedom, we were willing to die for freedom, but we knew that the freedom to which we aspired could never be achieved by killing.
We began our struggle as a means of survival against the oppressive racism of our time. We were all confronted daily with disadvantages imposed on us simply by the color of our skin and the texture of our hair. Our religion taught us that we too were created in the image of God. Our schoolbooks taught us that we were "endowed by [our] Creator with certain unalienable rights." Yet our society determined to legally deprive us of self-respect, educational opportunity, political power, and economic access. Because we believed in this nation, we sought to remove the barriers that separated us from white society—not out of a need to be close to white people, but to gain the same access to society's benefits that they enjoyed. Whites and some blacks assumed this would mean the assimilation of traditional white values and culture. But we knew there were no intrinsically "white values" and that in an open relationship the power and meaning of our black experience would stand on its own merit and enrich the larger society.
We believed in spite of it all, that as children of God and agents of history we could redeem the soul of America. In the Old Testament, the redeemer was a kinsman who bought back land that one had lost. In the New Testament, the Redeemer is Jesus Christ, who paid for the sins of all believers with his life. The former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass described the effort to end slavery as a struggle to save "black men's bodies and white men's souls." It was in this tradition that the preachers who founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference decided its mission was "to redeem the soul of America." It was an ambitious mission for a small band of Negro preachers, a mission that could only be conceived in faith. That soul we saw less in America's actions than in its ideals: freedom, equality, justice. While we endured segregation, we knew that America had shed the blood of hundreds of thousands of its sons and daughters in a war that ended slavery. We knew that America had risen up out of the depths of a Great Depression to defeat fascism. We had cheered the exploits of Dorie Miller and the Tuskegee Airmen and other colored soldiers who refused to let racial segregation prevent them from offering their lives for freedom and for America, and we were inspired by their example. Dorie Miller was told he could only be a cook's helper, but he dared to believe he could shoot down enemy aircraft. The Tuskegee Airmen dared to believe black men could fly.
We were thought to be naive, but in truth we were visionary. We dared to believe that America could be healed of the gangrene of racism. We saw America as we could become, not just as we were. We believed that people could change, because we were constantly aware of how far we had come, personally. But most of all, we believed that a free society was constantly changing and that we could influence those changes to accommodate the needs and aspirations of all of our citizens, and that race, creed, gender, and national origin could be strengths rather than problems.
We began with the limited goal of ending racial segregation. But we came to understand segregation as just one aspect of the barrier confronting black Americans in American society. The March on Washington became a march for jobs and freedom, because in a nation based on free enterprise, access to jobs and money are an essential component of freedom. We came to see the war in Vietnam as a symbol of the destructive role America was playing in suppressing the cause of freedom for people of color not just at home, but around the world. As America made the world safe for democracy, we had to make America's democracy safe for the world.
Racism, war, and poverty were anchors dragging on our society, preventing us from reaching our full potential, as if anchors from a nineteenth-century sailing ship had been attached to the space shuttle. We accepted the challenges of detaching those anchors. We knew it was a burden, but we believed it was an easy burden in a country as great as ours. We believed that God didn't give anyone more burden than he or she had the strength to bear. Our faith made our burdens light, because we never carried them alone. Our understanding and clarity of vision was a blessing, and I was taught that God requires us to use the gifts that we have been given. Racism, war, and poverty were heavy burdens, to challenge injustice was an easy burden.
We possessed a fundamental faith in democracy and free enterprise. We learned to address the nation through a free press; we made our claims on the economy by word and deed. We believed in our American heritage—a great people in a great nation that was ready to lead humankind in a new way of thinking and working. We believed in a future that we would help to create from our faith in spite of very real fears. Martin expressed it for all of us when he constantly reminded us that "the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
Each of us came to the civil rights movement by a different path and our backgrounds influenced our styles of leadership and approaches to the challenges we faced. I begin by sharing my personal history, because of its impact on the role I chose to play in SCLC, to give some sense of life for American Negroes before the civil rights movement, and to share the spiritual and cultural values of the black community that were the foundation for our efforts.
I hope this book will foster a better understanding of our intentions and our tactics, our struggles and weaknesses, and in so doing will help all of us recognize that our struggle continues, that the rise and fall of enthusiasms is a necessary rhythm of social change. Energy and vitality come with vision, and at this moment we do not see clearly.
But perhaps a brighter vision of our future can be inspired by a better understanding of our recent past.
On Tuesday, April 7th, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Andrew Young, author of AN EASY BURDEN THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT AND THE TRANSFORMATION OF AMERICA.
Andrew Young: Well, I was not directly involved with the Black Panther Party. I was largely in the South, with the exception of Chicago. I always thought the Panthers were different from us. We were trying to make the system work for everybody, and they seemed to be younger and more angry and lashing out in frustration. I thought, given a chance, they would grow up and be a very positive contribution. But most of them never got a chance to grow old. The one or two who are still around -- Bobby Rush is now in Congress; Elaine Brown, a wonderful writer -- I think demonstrate that they did have enormous potential. But I think their anger and society conspired to destroy them before their time.
Andrew Young: I would not agree with that at all. I think Carter introduced human rights into the body politic. And I think that the fact that they were singing "We Shall Overcome" when the Berlin Wall came down, and that Zimbabwe, Namibia, and eventually South Africa changed with minimal violence, are indications that it was successful. I think that without the Panama Canal Treaty, or Camp David, we would not have had a chance to make progress in Central America and the Middle East.
Andrew Young: It does disturb me. And yet I have to plead guilty for not helping to mount a sustained opposition either to his ideas or to his candidacy. I think I've tried to oppose his ideas, but I'm embarrassed that Harvey Gant could have been elected in 1996 with just 10 or 20 thousand more votes.
Andrew Young: No, I don't. I think that much of the FBI's investigation of us came from the personal animosity of J. Edgar Hoover toward Martin Luther King, which I think was a deep-seated, pathological envy. writer.
Andrew Young: I think we have many leaders who are influenced by the vision of Martin Luther King. But because he was the first to express that vision, I think those who follow will never measure up, except as disciples. He was an original.Howe.
Andrew Young: I think that St. Augustine has never quite developed its multiracial potential. So much of the leadership of the '60s was driven out, and the victory which we won was largely through the federal courts and the Congress, and never had much local support. So I'm afraid that St. Augustine contributed to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and to the desegregation of the entire South but never fulfilled its own potential.
Andrew Young: You have to break down barriers between business and politics and neighborhoods, and find the common ground, a common language, and a common purpose that they can all agree to. It takes time, but then the city really will move forward. I think Mayor Archer is moving in that direction.
Andrew Young: I think the Million Man March was a tribute more to Martin Luther King than to Louis Farrakhan. When we marched in 1963, we had to pay everybody's way. But in the Million Man March, people came by plane, by car, stayed in hotels, and paid their own expenses. They were the ones who had benefited from Martin Luther King's effort. And I think they were saying that they remembered those that were still left in poverty, and that for them the struggle would continue, as men. And I think the women were very much the same; they agreed.
Andrew Young: Two years ago, I wrote my first adult horror novel. I've been writing for kids for 25 years, and I think that to some extent the Black Panthers and the Ku Klux Klan are expressions of the frustration of being born in poverty. Our movement was about racism, war, and poverty. I think we made changes racially and in regard to war. But I think since the death of Martin Luther King, the question of poverty has been neglected. Dr. King said, "America cannot exist with some people isolated on lonely islands of poverty, in the midst of an ocean of material wealth." There is a sense that the frustration of the Panthers and the hatred of the Klan are both born of poverty and alienation. And while I applaud Bobby Rush in the Congress, it is because he brings a breath of wisdom and a very wholesome, positive view of America's global potential as a leader in the 21st century. And I think he has transcended many of the problems of both race and poverty. I'm afraid Jesse Helms is trying to preserve a 19th century long since passed, that really didn't even meet the needs of white people, if we're honest about it. Though there would be some things that I would even agree with Jesse Helms on, for I think there were some values of family and of faith and of national pride which should be preserved from centuries past. But I quote, "Bring him new occasions, teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth. They must upward strive, and onward, who would keep a breast of truth."
Andrew Young: Well, one, I don't think I've ever left the clergy. And I liken my ministry to the ministry of the Apostle Paul, who gave up a local congregation to preach to cities, and I thought that that was what I was doing with Martin Luther King. I always thought of Congress as a 435-member congregation, and I was one of the pastors. And at the U.N., there were 150 countries, and I was a minister to bring peace on earth, and goodwill toward men. If I'm free on a Sunday, I never turn down an opportunity to preach. I'm presently serving as part of a team ministry at the First Congregational Church in Atlanta.
Andrew Young: I'm very happy doing what I'm doing, and I have never sought...well...I've always been very reluctant to seek public office. And given the difficulties that people now experience in public life, it would be a very real act of faith for me to even consider it. And I would do so only if I thought -- let's say I'd be very reluctant to do anything in public life. I'm reminded constantly that Martin Luther King never held an office. And that Jimmy Carter has been extremely effective after his presidency and has enjoyed a level of success and respect that he never enjoyed as President. I'm enjoying being out of public office and doing exactly what I want to do whenever I want to do it, and I'd be very reluctant to give up that freedom.
Andrew Young: I think Martin Luther King would have been thrilled by the President's trip, but because it pointed to a new relationship in the future. Martin always had a no-fault approach to the guilt of the past. And he thought that it was a burden that was best left behind in working together toward a cooperative future.
Andrew Young: Well, I don't agree that it's becoming one of the most segregated. I think that its economic success is largely because of its integration and affirmative action efforts. We have always had strong opinions, black and white, in Atlanta. Our success is that we're able to meet together regularly and find a common ground. We did so in the civil rights movement, and we have done so recently again with the Olympics. Atlanta's problem is more the 30 percent of people who are still locked in poverty. The middle classes and upper classes, black and white, work together and play together with relative ease.
Andrew Young: Oh, yes, I think Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Bill long before his problems with the Vietnam War became public. The Civil Rights Bill was passed in July of '64 and August of '65. It was really '67 when Robert Kennedy and Jean McCarthy and the student population came out against the war. It was also in '67 when Martin Luther King came out against the war. He spoke against the war in '65 and '66, but his first demonstration against the war was in April of '67, one year to the day before his assassination.
Andrew Young: It's very good having an opportunity to get feedback from my readers, and I'll look forward to doing it again soon.