The fight for equality began in North Carolina, in 1961, at a Woolworth. That day, four young black men demanded to be served lunch at a whites-only counter. The battle for civil rights also began in Montgomery, when a young woman refused to move to the back of the bus. It also started with the resulting bus boycott, led by a young man named Martin, who later marched into our nation’s capital and told the American people about his ‘Dream’.
The fight began again, eighteen days after that march on D.C., when four young girls were killed in a bomb explosion at a popular, black church. Its beginnings were also in 1962, when a young man named James Meredith enrolled in the University of Mississippi, causing riots so fierce, President Kennedy had to send 5,000 troops, all because one black man wanted to pursue an education.
In May of 1963, guns, dogs and fire hoses were turned on protesters in Birmingham. This act was televised around the world, and not only was this day the beginning of the fight for civil rights; it was also a shameful and embarrassing moment for America, throughout the world.
In 1948, President Truman passed an Executive Order. “It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin.” This was also the first day of the movement toward equality, and a response to the horrendous way the men who had served and died for their country were being treated by the very government they fought to protect. The military, this honorable institution, these Defenders of the Constitution had to be told that they were going to be held accountable for ignoring an Amendment that had been added to that same Constitution 80 years prior, the Amendment of justice for all. I will forever be baffled at the ability for some to be able to ignore that, which they fight so hard to preserve, their own country’s Constitution.
And the fight for equality, it began again…
It began, but did not end, because of the Emancipation Proclamation. The Civil War, of which 200,000 black men fought and thousands died for their own freedom, that was also the beginning of the movement. The fight for equality began in the churches, the small towns and the larger cities. It began with that farmer, who refused to buy human beings, in the ship captains who refused to transport people like cattle and even in the landowners who paid fairly, treated humanely and never let the workers believe they could not leave if they so choose. These people were instrumental in the cause itself, as was the Underground Railroad, the writings of the abolitionist and the work of communities like the Quakers, who chose to live the teachings of the Bible, rather than re-interpret it to fit their needs.
Where the fight also began, was in the fields and the farmhouses of America. It began in men and women who worked from first light until moonlight. It began in mothers who watched their children be shouted at by white women, men who watched their wives be whipped or worse, and wives who watched their husbands lower their heads, lower their voices and become submissive to a human being half their worth.
The fight also began in the first words of prayers, the first jingle of laughter and in the first notes of a song. These songs were called Spiritual Songs and Freedom Songs.
They sang not only to praise God or remember their old lives, they sang about a new life, a new day in which they would be free. But they sang about something else as well. Their songs were messages, codes for their fellow slaves. Songs informed about the Underground Railroad, nearby runaways, how to navigate by stars and one song even provided an ‘oral’ map of how to get to Canada. Songs told them what time of the year to run, as some rivers could only be crossed in winter, when they had frozen over. These songs worked their way from plantation to plantation. They existed as both a means of survival and defiance.
That was when the movement began. When these men and women went against an unjust law, the only way they knew how. They put their lives on the line not because they thought things could change for them, in their circumstance, but because they knew that there had to be a better way for their children, and their children’s children.
Every single person who fought, every marcher who walked and every speaker who shouted and stood for a moral cause, they are when the movement began. Every worker who declined to ride a bus to work, every student who refused to move from a counter and ever man, woman and child who faced the clubs, the dogs and the hate just to cast a vote, eat a sandwich or walk to a classroom, these are all parts of the same movement.
And yet again…
For a man to wake up in the morning, put on his best clothes and step out his door knowing that today, his color may cost him his life, was a new beginning for the march toward moral justice. Every mother who sent her child into a world of people, who would hurt him at the drop of a hat, that moment, and each moment like it, was her first day of the march. The movement may have started so long ago, but the choice to either sit aside or to join in step, with conviction, toward a moral society, that is when the cause for good starts again and again.
Those four men who sat at that counter at Woolworth demanded to be seen as human beings. They sat, as small flames of resistance, in an America shadowed by the ignorance and hatred of racism. They only had the history of their ancestors behind them, the struggles and the fears of generations to comfort them. They had joined the march, little steps along a long road, but they were willing to take those steps. They marched their march by refusing to leave those stools.
Today, inequality still exists in America, for minorities, homosexuals and women, but the march for justice continues to move forward. We can watch, and hope things change, or we can join in, and the moment you stand and say ‘ENOUGH’, that is the day the fight begins again.
The next day at that Woolworth, 25 students sat with those 4 men, soon it grew to 60. Within a few days, over 300 people in 70 establishments, across the South, were sitting in for their rights as citizens. Thousands performed sit-ins all across America. Libraries, swimming pools, movie theaters and parks saw a wave of defiance begin to turn the tide throughout this great land.
The most amazing part of the story is what Franklin McCain, one of the original four, tells happened that day. He says that as they sat there, having been refused service, an older white woman stood up and walked toward them. He wasn’t sure what was going to happen or what type of hate might spew forth.
I’m sure, by this time, they had learned that racism knows no age, sex or religious boundary. The man who goes to church on Sunday could just as well have been at a Klan meeting the night before. Racism was rampant and a source of pride, displayed in windows and on water fountains and shouted from the pulpit. But within so much fear and hate, what could sometimes seem like an overwhelming oppressive cloak of darkness, there are sometimes little flickers of light that shine through.
Mr. McCain, at that lunch counter, says that little old lady walked up to him, placed her hand on his shoulder, smiled and said, “Boys, I am so proud of you. I only regret that you didn’t do this ten years ago.”
And yet again…
And that moment was when the Civil Rights movement began again, for those boys, that woman, that town and this country. The movement begins again and again, every time we teach our children that race is not a factor, other religions are not to be feared and diversity should be celebrated. The movement begins again every time a woman demands equal pay, guilt is not assumed based on the color of the person or the clothes they wear and the right to marry who you love is celebrated, not voted against because of someone else’s definition of right or wrong.
This fight will never end. There will always be those who want to oppress others, because of their feelings of inadequacy or lack of self-worth, misinterpretation of their ‘values’ or just blatant ignorance. Those in the minority will always face a battle of acceptance, and equality, will often be an uphill climb.
Of course, the wave of hate and fear toward diversity will dig in its heels. It may be hinted at in church, in the lunchroom or by the talking heads on television, and sometimes it will have the strength to even pull itself up to its knees. But in the end, those four boys, that elderly lady, those four little girls, the woman on the bus, the man who died outside that motel room and those who sang in the fields those many years ago, they are the army of lights moving us forward against the darkness.
Six months later, those original four men were served lunch at that same counter. The powers of the human spirit, to stand up for what is right, will always overcome ignorance and hate, every time. And I like to embrace the fact that eventually, flames become bonfires.