January 17, 2011
An (unintentional) teachable moment
Ever since I started working on social justice issues for the American Friends Service Committee, I've made it a habit to study the history of various social and political movements (and even military history). I try to look as dispassionately as possible at what worked and what didn't--kind of like the way football coaches and players watch videos of old games or how athletes in combat sports study old fights.
Naturally, I've spent a good bit of time studying the history of the Civil Rights Movement in the US. That name, however, is misleading. It was never one unified movement, but rather several often conflicting ones. Nor was it a triumphal procession, as we tend to look back on it on a day like today. Still, in all its diversity it is an inspiring and astonishing story.
The power of that story became clear to me in the most unusual setting. Quite a few years ago, I was working at a summer camp for low income youth from two very poor and very white counties in southern West Virginia. It was free time, so I was glad to let the little heathens run free and catch a few moments of reading under a shady tree. The book was Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 by Taylor Branch.
Then something really strange happened. I drew a crowd. A circle of kids formed as if I was juggling cats or performing some other feat. It took me a while to realize that many of them possibly had never seen an adult voluntarily reading a book.
"What are you doing?" I was asked.
"Are you in school?"
"No, I just like to read."
"What are you reading?"
I showed them the book and told them what it was about, recounting as briefly but clearly as I could the history of racism and legal segregation in America and the epic fight to overcome it. This was news to several of the kids, for many of whom their only knowledge of African Americans came from television.
I showed them the pictures in the book, many of them showing acts of violence and cruelty as well as heroism. They seemed at first to have trouble believing that this kind of thing really happened.
I told them that the fight for human rights and justice was never over and that it might be their turn one day. There was an almost audible silence at that point--except for the wheels that seemed to be turning in some heads. After a few more minutes of thinking and talk, they drifted away to other diversions.
I didn't get a lot of reading done that day. But I'm glad I brought the book.