Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Trading your life for a sandwich

 This month we're commemorating the 50 anniversary of the Freedom Rides which helped desegregate the south.  The PBS program, American Experience, is showing a documentary about the Freedom Rides also in May: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/freedomriders/

Oprah, on May 4th, will have 150 folks who traveled around the southern states to bring the spot light to the insanity of Jim Crow laws which forbid blacks and whites from eating together publicly.
That makes sense but there's something oddly surreal about the colored queen of daytime TV with all of her international star power sitting down with those who risked their lives when they sat down at segregated lunch counters in the summer of 1961. I'm happy that finally their service to the civil rights movement is being celebrated.  Mostly they were young college students or working people who committed themselves to nonviolence in the face of direct verbal and physical abuse. 

And there was nowhere to turn if you were being beaten or spat on at a lunch counter. The white southern sheriffs were not going to come to the aid of any civil rights activist—black or white.

As a teenager I watched the heroics of the demonstrators on the evening news every night and, was moved to tears.  I was also inspired to participate in demonstrations in my own home town, Boston, often more subtly but just as strictly segregated. 

James Baldwin was deeply imbedded in the Civil Rights Movement of that time, talking with leaders regularly, gauging when his prestigious presence would be a valuable element to the team strategy. His participation was intellectual as well as physical.  His essays helped frame the discussion of racial politics for the entire country.

It was a heady time when we all saw the world changing around us faster than it ever had before.  Every day held hope that equality was just up the road if we kept marching.  But there is always a price to pay for commitment.  The files that the FBI kept on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were spiteful attempts to prove he was at the very least a Communist. If the US government had spent as much time protecting the rights of African Americans as it did peeking through the curtains of black leaders, desegregation might have been less bloody and certainly more speedy.

James Baldwin was also, like most activists, the object of FBI surveillance; but even more damaging than that perhaps was the disapproving eye fellow black activists kept on Baldwin and other ‘known’ gays.  A NY Congressman threatened to spread a rumor that Dr. King was having an affair with Bayard Rustin if King didn't fire his gay colleague.  (Rustin went on to organize the original March on Washington. See the Nancy Kates documentary "Brother Outsider.") At the same time other black activists tried to undermine any influence that Baldwin had.

There's a lovely documentary about Baldwin by Karen Thorsen, “Price of the Ticket,” in which many black activists appear at Baldwin’s memorial in Manhattan to praise their brother.  As I watched it I thought about their severe lack of brotherhood when Baldwin was alive. In his lifetime the nationalist element treated him like the FBI treated them and other black activists.

All of us carry those scars from what sometimes might seem like harmless wounds. We just don t know what residual affects we’ll end up carrying around with us.  Maybe that's what made James Baldwin such an overachiever.  Who knows? 

These were the treacherous waters Baldwin navigated as he wrote “Giovanni’s Room.”  People were risking their lives; demonstrators were being maimed and killed.  How important was it for him to write a book his brothers thought would set back the Civil Rights Movement?

Reflecting on Baldwin’s dilemma does make me wonder what is different today in our many movements.  How dismissive are we with each other? Recent reverberations from the fight against Proposition 8 in California in the hope of legalizing marriage equality was a good reminder of how insular communities can be.  The black community may feel that the gay movement is riding on its accomplishments as if all movements are not made from the same bricks. 

 The gay community may feel so hip it doesn't have time to really look at the past and honor what went before.  But if we can honor that past and invest in a future that includes us all there might be something worth fighting for.  The hard road that Baldwin walked may have been worth it. 

It’s weirdly great that Oprah is honoring the Freedom Riders.  Yes, it’ll be sudsy and glitzy at the same time. But truth is the heartland watches Oprah!  It’s crucial that they and we remember.

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