CIVIL RIGHTS IN AMERICA

In the summer of 1968, about 20 of us students participating in a Peace Caravan by Quakers, met at a camp in Wisconsin. Byard Rustin came there to explain why the caravan was needed and why the war in Vietnam was wrong. During lunch he told me that he had visited India and mentioned some nonviolent activists as friends. I happened to know them.. Unlike other civil rights leaders he was not a preacher. A conscientious Objector, he had refused to fight during WWII and now had become a prominent figure in the peace and civil rights circle. Educated at London School of Economics he was an organizer, a superb strategist and gay. Later, I met him at several occasions as he belonged to a fraternity of former COs.

All those who sought justice through the civil rights movement were not a cohesive group. The likes of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Nation of Islam, Committee of Racial Equality (CORE) Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) Students for Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC) represented different points of view and followed different tactic. Dr. King's faction among them was the only group that was committed to nonviolence. For others, nonviolence was just a tactic. At one point, in order to draw attention to his struggle Dr.King, following Gandhi's example, wanted to go on fasting. It was Rustin who told him that was a bad idea. As he put it "First of all, fasting does not resonate the same way here as it does in India. Secondly, you are not revered the same way the people of India revere Gandhi. If you died while fasting, you will be just another black man dying without food. White America wouldn't give a hoot." It was a sobering argument and Dr. King listened. Rustin was helpful in bringing together white liberals and labor organizations into the movement.

After the Birmingham bombing, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. toyed with the idea of having armed guards for protection for him and his family. However such a practice did not go hand in hand with a nonviolent movement. It was Byard Rustin, who pointed the inconsistency. Remaining nonviolent in the face of utter violence such as attacks on marchers and lynching and bombing by Klan members was not easy especially when America was sending its young men, black and white, to save freedom in South Asia.

When student activists like Rap Brown and Stokelay Carmichael criticized the older generation as "Uncle Toms" who, in their views, refused to confront the status quo, Rustin thought the criticism "useful". Referring to French philosopher and revolutionary he would say. "Rousseau was not a cotton picker."

If blacks in the United States lived as a separate country they would form one of the richest countries in the world. They are better educated, have more money and enjoy a higher standard of living than black people anywhere. Yet, it is the history that keeps the racial division so visible. Slavery is the unique American experience that no country has gone through. Therefore, anytime anywhere in the United States there is a discussion of race the slavery stands as a reference point.

Most people avoid conflicts. Standing up to injustice is a risky business. It exacts cost. Those who are aware of the injustice but help continue are as guilty as those who practice it with ignorance. That is why slavery or segregation continued for so long. Instead of standing up for justice both whites and blacks lived their lives under accepted rules. Those who fought for justice in the past were few and far between. Those who tried to desegregate lunch counters or took "freedom rides" or registered black voters in South faced danger to their lives. The civil rights movement - from Montgomery bus boycott to King's "I have a dream" speech - shows a gradual outpouring of black anguish. The abuser and the abused were partners in suffering. One at soul and the other in body. It required deep faith and understanding of a Baptist preacher to round up everyone in prayer and persistence.


Comments on this article/book
Name  
Email(Optional)  
Comment