Last summer Michigan Coalition for Human Rights sent 34 young people and 12 adult mentors on an exhilarating and, at times, exhausting Freedom Tour of the South where we visited historic civil rights sites and met with great nonviolent warriors for justice in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.
Organizing Freedom Tour required months of logistical planning and recruiting as well as developing an educational formation program for our youth and mentors that included a community service component.
Before we boarded the bus, we had to gather a mountain of legal forms and paperwork and accomplish the daunting goal of raising over $100,000 to cover the cost of the Tour. For over a year, Michigan Coalition for Human Rights, an organization committed to justice issues across the board, devoted the lion’s share of its time and resources to Freedom Tour.
When we finally left Detroit at the break of dawn on June 16, we were a diverse inter-generational community. We were black, brown, white, and red. We were from Detroit, Traverse City, and Oakland County. We were from public schools, private schools, home schools. We were straight and we were gay. Some were well-seasoned activists; others were neophytes. All of us were open to what Freedom Tour had to teach us.
And what a soul-shaking, life-changing education we received while we were on the road for those two weeks.
I teach in a Jesuit school where we often tell our students that the experiences that take us out of our comfort zones and show us new worlds and perspectives can ruin us for life. I believe there is great truth to this maxim.
Experiences like Freedom Tour have the ability to ruin unchallenged assumptions. To ruin an unconscious acquiescence to injustice borne of a sense of powerlessness and despair. To ruin complacency. Sometimes to maybe even ruin well-laid plans for the future.
Yes, I deeply believe that some experiences can ruin us to such an extent that we can’t help but give ourselves over to lives of service, lives committed to justice, lives devoted to building what Dr. King called the “Beloved Community.”
My prayer as we headed down I-75 last summer was that all of us would be ruined for life as a result of our participation in Freedom Tour. In fact, this was the point in organizing Freedom Tour all along.
The Herculean task of organizing the million and one details that go into such a trip was bearable only to the extent that we held onto the vision of transformed lives, lives committed to carrying the torch of peace, justice, and human rights into the future. A vision of hands reaching from the civil rights movement of the past to the struggles of today. A vision of new voices raising new freedom songs in an idiom suited to this generation and this moment in history.
Reflecting on the past nine months, I see that my prayer was answered and that the vision that drove Freedom Tour is indeed taking root.
One of the misconceptions that some people had about Freedom Tour was that it was only about history, a nostalgic look at a movement of long ago, a two-week field trip through the museums of the South.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
To reduce Freedom Tour to a mere tribute to the past is to misread, entirely, not only the objective of Michigan Coalition for Human Rights, but history itself as if history were comprised of neat segments of time as clearly delineated as chapters in a high school text book.
No, our driving mission was to connect the struggles of the past to present-day struggles in order to help all of us better connect the destructive dots of materialism, racism, and militarism, the “giant triplets of evil”, described by Dr. King in his “Breaking the Silence” speech. Rather than see the civil rights movement as a golden moment frozen in time, a time that is long past, we grounded the Tour in the words of Dr. King who said:
The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice.
This means that the work of justice is fluid and never static, continuous and never fully completed, hope-filled and never despairing. It is work that must be passed on from generation to generation. If we accept King’s statement, we are not afforded the luxury of being passive observers of history. Rather, history demands that we roll up our sleeves and use all the love and courage and creativity we can muster during our short time on this earth to help bend this often stubborn and unyielding arc a little closer to justice.
And this is why we organized Freedom Tour.
We organized Freedom Tour to help our youth discern their gifts and passions and to help them develop the spiritual muscles needed to engage in some serious arc bending. To help them see that there is nothing soft, easy, or romantic about the work of peace and justice.
The great scholar-activist Dr. Cornel West writes of what he calls “the Santa Claus-ification” of leaders like Dr. King and Nelson Mandela. Santa Claus-ification refers to the tendency to place people on pedestals while sanitizing and softening the hard edges of their message and life’s work. The tendency to sentimentalize which only serves to marginalize. To reduce our fiery lions of justice into declawed teddy bears of popular mythology. To turn our prophets – who in their own day were persecuted, prosecuted, and often killed – into safe public icons who are celebrated but seldom studied, much less followed.
We were acutely aware of this tendency as we planned the trip so we were diligent in providing a contemporary context for everything we did while on the road. We did this in order to help us better see the continuum of justice along an arc that spans the past, present, and future and to help us better understand the risks that are always an inherent part of the struggle for justice – both then and now.
I apologize for this long preface explaining our rationale in organizing Freedom Tour, but I think it is important to articulate the primary purpose of the Tour. While it would be wonderful to show you a colorful power point of our trip and offer you a detailed account of our itinerary, I think it is far more important to share the heart of the trip which was nothing less than helping young people make the connection between struggles past and present in order to prepare them to continue the long, challenging march toward freedom in their own day.
Given the crises facing us today, we would never have spent the time, money, or energy or spent two-weeks in the Southern heat on a crowded bus for the mere purpose of revisiting the past – as important as that past is.
In the time I have left, I would like to make some connections between a few of the people we met and the places we visited and some of today’s struggles that are straining to bend history’s arc a little closer to justice.
During our first week on the Tour, we participated in an intensive four-day nonviolence training at the King Center in Atlanta, Georgia. For several hours a day, we were steeped in the principles of Kingian nonviolence, examining their application to situations of violence today – whether that violence takes place on the level of the playground or the Pentagon.
As a nonviolence trainer with Meta Peace Team, formerly Michigan Peace Team, I am here to tell you that active nonviolence and the training it requires is evidence of the universe bending in a good direction. Despite what appears to be evidence to the contrary, the world is increasingly turning toward nonviolence as a way to settle differences.
From the implementation of restorative justice circles in schools and courtrooms to nonviolent people-powered revolutions around the world, nonviolence is an idea whose time has come. Built on the backs of such a diverse group as Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoi, Mahatma Gandhi, Badshah Khan, and Martin Luther King, active nonviolence is taking hold.
In a groundbreaking book entitled Why Civil Resistance Works, scholars Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan make the well-researched and documented claim that since the beginning of the 20th century, nonviolent resistance campaigns have been more than twice as effective as violent campaigns for change.
As we speak, Meta Peace Team is on a national training tour offering nonviolent trainings around the country to large groups of people. I was in Oregon at Portland State University a few weeks ago where we trained over 80 college students and community members and will be heading to Washington, D.C. in a couple of weeks to help out with the East Coast leg of the tour.
Only a few nights ago, I was part of a monthly conference call involving over 70 people from around the country who are part of a national effort called Campaign Nonviolence, a broad coalition campaign that is calling for a week of nonviolent actions in late September, actions calling for an end to war, poverty, and environmental degradation.
These are only a few of the many harbingers of hope suggesting that people are waking up to the goodness and efficacy of nonviolence. The rigorous training that our youth received in Atlanta connects them to this great continuum of nonviolence and gives them some of the tools they will need to help move their generation forward.
From Atlanta, our group went to Mississippi to commemorate the anniversary of the martyrdom of the three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.
As we drove through the dark, twisted backwoods of Philadelphia to the very site where the three were slain, our bus was flanked by police cars. Our hosts told us that we were being watched and followed and recounted stories of the brutal repercussions they suffered after each year’s commemoration. The shell of a burned out house near where we held a picnic later in the day stands as a reminder of one such incident orchestrated by local members of the Ku Klux Klan.
Some of the students were scared when we parked the bus on a dusty, deserted street in downtown Meridian where we joined our hosts and fellow visitors for a march through empty streets to City Hall where a spirited rally was organized by local activists. The names of the Mississippi martyrs whose spirits surrounded us were invoked as we rallied against the school-to-prison pipeline, so-called right-to-work laws, and ever-widening gap between rich and poor.
The reality of ongoing struggle was nowhere more gripping than here in Mississippi where we learned that lynchings still occur in the dead of night and that shots are still fired at the tombstone of James Chaney.
The immediacy of the struggle was brought home to me by one of our young women who was too scared to get off the bus in Meridian. A few of us coaxed her out of her bus seat by taking her hand and offering to walk with her. For her, this was as frightening and real as it must have been for those taking to streets of the South in the 1960’s.
Although she was not met with dogs and fire hoses, said she felt the stares of a thousand hostile eyes looking at her from behind shuttered blinds. For her, this was not about history; it was about the reality of racism today.
As we walked arm in arm down the street, I thought of Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great rabbi, who said that when he walked in the Selma to Montgomery march felt as though he had been “praying with his feet.”
Heschel’s words became very real to me as I watched this young woman grow more confident with each step as she grabbed hold of that inexplicable spiritual power that comes when one is walking righteously for something greater than one’s self.
My final image of Mississippi is of our bus leaving a small rural Baptist church where we had gathered with great movement leaders such as Diane Nash who talked to us of agapic love and the connection between struggles past and present.
As dusk was descending, our driver, Kae, whose family lives in this area, demanded that we get off the back roads before nightfall. Her nervousness about our being in this isolated area in the dark was palpable and a sad reminder of how far we have to go as a nation.
From Mississippi, we moved on to Alabama and then back again to Georgia where we met people and visited places that helped us grab hold of the arc that we are now being asked to bend. As we journeyed, the connections between past and present became more and more apparent and, at times, even serendipitous, if I can use that word in the context of injustice.
As we walked toward the historic bridge on that sunny Selma afternoon, we carried signs calling for an end to the school-to-prison pipeline and an end to war, for cities free from emergency managers and for neighborhoods free from violence, for alternative energy and for food security , for peace, for unity, for love.
At the very moment we were marching over the summit of the bridge, we received word that the Supreme Court had just struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, a stunning and major setback for civil rights. All of us were heartbroken by this news and stung by the irony of the timing.
Over and over, our teachers along the way reminded us that we must be vigilant about protecting hard-won rights that can be taken away in an instant. The wisdom of their warning was borne out that day. This was a sobering and important lesson that left us feeling dispirited and depressed.
Other lessons were more inspiring.
None of us will ever forget our beautiful meeting with 107-year-old Amelia Robinson Boynton, the deeply spiritual civil rights warrior who in her younger years was left for dead on the Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday after state police and armed citizens deputized for the purpose of inflicting violence upon marchers, beat her and others mercilessly.
As we sat at her feet and listened to stories of courage and grace, I was reminded of the importance of elders across time and movements and offered thanks for people like Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu, and Grace Lee Boggs, elders whose experience and wisdom reminds us that the we are in this for the long haul. Who remind us that we need to keep our eyes on the prize and, as the song goes, “keep our hand on the freedom plow.”
Another graced moment of insight occurred as we stood on the side of Highway 80 next to a monument pocked with bullet holes where Detroiter Viola Liuzzo was gunned down for daring to drive a black man home after the successful Selma to Montgomery march.
Reflecting on Mrs. Liuzzo’s life, I thought of the high cost of solidarity. Viola Liuzzo was the only white woman martyred in the movement. As we stood silently, my mind turned to Rachel Corrie, the young peace activist from Olympia, Washington who was crushed by an armored IDF bulldozer while trying to prevent a home demolition in the Gaza Strip.
Both women were slandered and vilified after their deaths. As I pondered the lives of these two beautiful women who died so violently, I realized that there is a special venom reserved for those who use their privilege in the service of justice, for those who step outside the boundaries of race, class, nation, gender, or sexual orientation. To be an ally then or now is no small thing and usually comes with a cost.
This same theme of solidarity and crossing boundaries was brought home to me on the final leg of our trip when we visited Kentucky’s Berea College, the first integrated college in the South where today children of the working class and poor can attend college for free in return for service work. What a gift it was for all of us to be in a place that honors diversity and inclusion.
The juxtaposition of hallowed ground like this and the blood-stained roadsides where hate had its way, if only for a moment, was sometimes jarring.
In the end, we were given the grace of seeing what seems like an intractable and immoveable arc extending into our day – a Goliath of an arc that seems to be too much for us – an arc colored by racism, climate change, war, income disparity and so on. This was a grace because it allowed us to grasp the enormity of the struggle before us and the need to be fully awake and engaged and in community with one another.
At the same time, however, we were given an even greater grace to see a movement that is stronger than we know, a movement that plants its feet and continues to sing, “We Shall Not be Moved.” A movement that reaches far back in time and far into the future. A movement made up of the nameless and numberless foot soldiers who through history have prayed, marched, sang, and organized for freedom and dignity.
A movement being lived out in places like Koinonia Farm where we experienced deep community rooted in environmental sustainability and spirituality. A movement that continues in the streets of downtown Meridian and downtown Detroit. A movement that needs everyone who was on the bus and everyone who is in this church today.
After the third, and finally successful, march from Selma to Montgomery, Dr. King gave a speech entitled, “God is Marching On!” I would like to close by quoting from that speech.
Acknowledging the movement’s justifiable impatience with pervasive injustice, Dr. King responded to the question: “How long will it take?”
This is a perennial question that echoes through time in places where people have had enough. It is a question that we ask ourselves on those days when our spirits sag, as they sometimes do, under the weight of the many injustices that plague our world.
At those times, it is good to quiet our souls and listen to the words of Dr. King:
How long will it take?
How long? Not long, because “no lie can live forever.”
How long? Not long, because “You reap what you sow.”
How long? Not long:
Truth forever on the scaffold,
Wrong forever on the throne,
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And, behind, the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow,
Keeping watch above his own.
How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
Reflection given at Community Unitarian Universalists in Brighton (CUUB) on Sunday, March 30, 2014.