Shall We Overcome?

I don’t say this lightly, but it’s not often you experience what is literally a transformative, life-changing experience. Yet that is what I found on my recent journey through the Deep South as my wife Hope and I followed the civil-rights trail from Georgia through Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee.

Joel Bellman
Joel Bellman

We knew the history in broad strokes, even though I was only in elementary school during the height of the movement. I remember my history book with a chapter titled, “Mrs. Parks Refuses,” about the brave “Negro” lady who integrated the Montgomery bus system. I remember evening newscasts about the lunch-counter sit-ins in 1960, and the Freedom Rides in 1961 to integrate the interstate bus companies like Greyhound and Continental Trailways. I remember a guy named James Meredith who won his Supreme Court case to attend college at Ole Miss, and triggered violence and rioting simply for trying to go to class.

Poring over my parents’ Life magazines in 1963, when I was only seven, I struggled to understand the pictorials about the children of Birmingham attacked by Bull Connor’s police dogs, knocked down and their clothes stripped away by high-pressure firehoses, incarcerated in the city jail; the assassination of the NAACP Mississippi field secretary Medgar Evers, who was shot dead in his own driveway as his wife and children waited inside their house for his safe return; the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church a few months later, which killed four young girls.

Freedom Summer, when a thousand Northern college kids descended on Mississippi in 1964 to teach poor black kids at “freedom schools” and register their parents to vote—and the two who were murdered by a Klan posse, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, along with their black colleague, James Chaney. The march, finally successful on the third try, from Selma to Montgomery in March 1965 that helped secure President Johnson’s signature on the Voting Rights Act five months later. The assassination of Martin Luther King on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis in 1968, and so much more.

For nearly three weeks, most of our waking hours were spent immersed in that history, visiting the sites, museums and memorials to those who fought to secure our most basic civil rights. Days after we returned, I found I still could not even describe to friends and family what we’d seen and experienced without choking up or breaking into tears.

Back then, the federal government finally became a force for good and an engine of social progress. Today, more than 50 years later, we look at the political wreckage Trump has strewn in his wake in abject despair. What, if anything, can we do? The 19th century Swiss philosopher Henri-Frédéric Amiel once posed and answered the question: “You desire to know the art of living, my friend? It is contained in one phrase: make use of suffering.”

So, after some reflection, here are my four suggestions:

Go on a news diet. Too much TV news is nothing more than political pornography, highly addictive, briefly gratifying, but no substitute for the real thing. It’s manipulative, repetitious, and more aggravating than informative. Watch less, read more, think most.

Register, vote, and encourage others to do so. Without voting, nothing is possible. With it, everything. We came home in time for the June primary—only to see three out of four registered Californians simply throwing away the hard-earned rights that those civil-rights activists marched, organized, and died for.

Champion our First Amendment rights to free speech and a free press at every opportunity with all your strength. Whether it’s Michelle Wolf or Bill Maher, NFL players taking a knee, or reporters asking impertinent questions that lying and evasive officials won’t answer, we must join together to defend our First Freedom against Trump’s unrelenting and full-on assault.

Be kind. Like the song says, “try a little tenderness.” In literally every city and town we traveled, we were struck by the basic courtesy, consideration, and kindness we were shown, and that others showed to one another, in every social interaction, large and small, men and women, black and white—to a degree that is virtually unknown in Los Angeles. We have become numb and blind to how corrosive our coarseness, rudeness, impatience, and disrespect is to human and family relations, not to mention our own mental health.

You think this is all too hard, too daunting? The whole system is rigged? What can one person do? Imagine the odds facing those Southern blacks: a society deeply segregated by custom and by law; centuries of cruelty, oppression, and exploitation; a local and state political and judicial system biased entirely in favor of white supremacy, where obtaining justice or even protecting one’s personal safety was virtually impossible; a federal government almost entirely uninterested and unresponsive. Yet they overcame.

Now, what’s your excuse?

Joel Bellman
Joel Bellman

Joel Bellman worked in journalism and local government in Los Angeles for 35 years. He now teaches and writes on politics and pop culture. He can be contacted at jbellman@ca.rr.com

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