Commentary: A Civil Rights Journey

Buffalo, NY – Once, it was a good idea. Now, I wonder if it still works.

Back when it started, the idea was to acknowledge that history wasn't just about wars and presidents, and that the movers and shakers weren't always the male, pale and stale folks in the headlines. So Black History Month was born - to run in the shortest month of the year; I'll leave you to find your own irony in that.

As a teacher, I'd give the idea an A, but I'd give the implementation a C. We have fallen short and, speaking again as a teacher, I am ashamed.

Is my grade too harsh? I don't think so. My colleague, Dr. Amitra Wall, and I spent 10 days last month on an experiential Civil Rights journey down South. We took eight Buff State students on an educational trip with several dozen high schoolers from the San Francisco Bay area. Time after time, after we heard from the people who marched, who were arrested, and who simply and patiently and non-violently endured and suffered, our students would ask, "Why wasn't I taught this in school?"

I didn't know. But my trip with the sponsoring organization, a group called Sojourn to the Past, has now emboldened me. I feel ordained to preach and teach a revolutionary journalism that goes beyond the simple and easy frames we use in the news business.

Dr. King was framed as an American Gandhi, a monument and not a man. Yet in his last days, beset by doubt and turmoil, he found joy. How? He had a pillow fight with his friends in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Such fun, such joy, reflects the principle of non-violence that says the universe is on the side of justice. Dr. King found joy again and he threw a pillow instead of a rock.

Conversely, Malcolm X was framed as an American Mao who was not averse to throwing rocks. "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun," Mao told the world. We were told Malcolm readily agreed.

Yet Trappist monk, philosopher and social critic Thomas Merton warned us about believing too much in those frames. In a 1966 essay, "The Meaning of Malcolm X," Merton wrote: "The picture of Malcolm X formed by the mass media during his life was inadequate We saw him as a militant, rigid, somewhat fanatical agitator."

That picture didn't account for growth and for wisdom from God. Demonizing someone the way Malcolm was demonized cheats the journalist and the audience because we no longer see the other person as real, but as a stereotype. So it's a journalist's job to provide perspective. To do that, journalists must also be critical of their own perspectives.

But the trip wasn't about journalism, it was about education. Remember my students? In their zeal they accused. "Why wasn't I taught that," they asked wide-eyed and angry in the way people are angry when they feel cheated.

Truth is, there is so much we don't know.

One of the things that struck me was how much the Civil Rights movement depended on people my students' ages - and often younger. The movement was really about their kind of hope; about believing that justice is mighty and will always triumph.

It will triumph because of the people who were never defeated even though they were arrested and threatened and bombed and beaten. Sometimes they were killed.

In 1963, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, ranging in age from 11 to 14, died when the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed. As I sat and listened to Chris and Maxine McNair talk about their little girl, I wondered what I, a father of an 11-year-old daughter, would have done. Somehow, in ways I can only marvel at, God gave the parents of the murdered children the strength to forgive.

It will triumph because of people like Minnijean Brown and Elizabeth Eckford. They were two of the nine students who tried to integrate the high school in Little Rock in 1957. As they sought refuge in the school, the maddening crowd of adults outside asked for just one of the nine to lynch.

It will triumph because of nameless and countless students in Birmingham in 1963 who were attacked by police dogs and knocked down by fire hoses. Those high school and middle school students shamed a country into change.

It will triumph because James Chaney's lonely grave off a two-lane Mississippi backroad is not forgotten.

It will triumph because of people like Jolene Bland, who as a 14-year-old was arrested time after time after time when she marched back in '65 in Selma. And in a Selma playground last month, she asked each of us to pick up a rock and take it with us. I couldn't find one, but another teacher gave me a pebble. When I feel discouraged, I look at that pebble and know that non-violence will always win and endure, just like the pebble that was handed from hand to hand to find a home by my desk.

Listener Commentator Joe Marren is an associate professor of communications at Buffalo State College.

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