Taking on the big issues

How do you make a difference in a matter like climate change, civil rights, and war? Belief, passion, and perseverance.

A few months ago, I found a treasure in a local bookstore, a signed copy of The Children by the late journalist David Halberstam. I had read a few books on the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and met and interviewed numerous participants in those social-justice battles, including for a book I co-authored. It was a time that greatly interested me, though I was born about a decade too late to join the idealistic campaigns. I thought I knew much about that movement, so I wasn’t in a hurry to read the book. I placed it on a shelf among others and went on with my life.

While watching a recent public television documentary on the life of director Sidney Lumet, a clip from some film showed 1961 Freedom Riders in a bus stopped along a country road in the Deep South. The terror on the faces of the activists sitting in their seats grew more intense as they observed white middle-aged men and youth carrying pipes, bats, and other weapons walking towards their vehicle. As the attackers smashed the bus’s windows and started to enter through the door, one rider confronted his fear by running to the door and standing against it, temporarily blocking their assailants’ passageway. The clip ended with him sacrificing his body to the mob, as hands reached in to execute their cruel injustice.

The emotional vividness of the short clip shook me enough to research further into that time. I found my knowledge of the riders’ campaign was fairly superficial. I knew it was an important segment of the civil rights movement, one that challenged the notion of segregated public buses, which the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled unconstitutional as early as 1946. Southern states, of course, had ignored those decisions, and federal officials did nothing to enforce them. So sadly, it was up to individuals to test and ultimately make the government obey its laws by putting their own lives on the line.

What I didn’t really understand until I unearthed and read Halberstam’s richly-detailed book was what it was like for those civil rights workers, how courageous and creative they had to be to take on the decades-entrenched Jim Crow system. How could a relatively few individuals, armed with nothing but their own consciences and sense of justice, lead the way to such a profound change, which had not occurred through legal means by those whose jobs it was to make such changes?

In doing so, they had to not only confront the courts, politicians, police, KKK, business community, certain media, and other segments that supported the unequal policies that signified second-class status — which included separate restrooms, schools, and water fountains, not being able to eat in most restaurants and shop in many stores, sitting in the backs of buses, and obstacles to voting. They had to take on the apathy in their own communities, their usually unsupportive parents who feared their actions would get them expelled from college, jailed, and even killed, and resistance from many African Americans who preferred being a bigger fish in their own pond to the unknown future that integration would bring.

They joined this war knowing they would not be furnished with weapons beyond training on how to ignore insults and focus on the action, how to curl up in a ball and cover your head during attacks. They knew they could be jailed. They knew they could be beaten. They knew they might even die.

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A mob of white men beats a Freedom Rider at a bus station in Birmingham, Ala., in 1961. [U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities photo, public domain]

In May 1961 outside Anniston, Ala., a mob of mostly klansman forced a Freedom Riders bus — which carried black and white activists, some of whom sat together towards the front to challenge local Jim Crow codes — to stop. After breaking windows, one attacker threw a firebomb into the vehicle, which exploded into flames. As some pressed against doors and yelled, “Burn them alive!” and worse, an exploding fuel tank made the mob back off. Riders escaped through windows and doors, but some assaulted them and talked of lynching them. That plan was halted by Alabama highway patrolmen who fired warning shots in the air.

On another bus in Anniston, KKK members almost beat 61-year-old Walter Bergman to death. When his wife begged the racists to stop, they reportedly called her a “ni — - lover.” In Birmingham, 46-year-old James Peck was beaten so badly by klan members he required 53 stitches, after he and African-American rider Charles Person tried to eat together at a lunch counter. Journalists, including Howard K. Smith of CBS News, observed parts of the attacks, and their reports eventually helped expose the Deep South savagery and attract international sympathy for the cause. The mob went after news photographers, destroying their cameras, although at least one photograph survived. In the melee, klan members even roughed up one of their own, along with unfortunate bystanders, by mistake.

As he was treated at a clinic, Peck told reporters he would continue the rides. “It is my philosophy that the struggle has to be a non-ending one, because I am not one of those idealists who envision a utopia,” he later said. Peck had been among participants in a similar bus ride campaign in 1947 that went through Upper South states like North Carolina and resulted in arrests, but only isolated violence. Between the 1930s and 1980s, he was arrested more than 60 times for various labor, social, civil rights, and environmental causes.

In subsequent rides, marches, and other actions, civil rights workers were jailed and assaulted, even killed. When told by an older mentor that he should think harder about whether to continue the Freedom Rides in Alabama and Mississippi after the first wave of violence since some participants would likely die, long-time U.S. Rep. John Lewis, one of the original riders, replied, “Yes, we understand that. We understand that that may be the price. But it has to be done.”

Lewis, like many, spoke of the continual fear during those times. But they got beyond the fear mainly through their faith, outrage over injustices, and commitment to fellow participants. Often, what kept them going was not wanting to let down each other, particularly people they had recruited into the movement. It was not unlike the bonds forged by combatants during wars, where ordinary people do extraordinary deeds for the cause and each other.

Among the highest-profile casualties were in Mississippi, where NAACP official Medgar Evans was assassinated by a klan member a few months before Kennedy, and civil rights advocates James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were murdered by klan members in 1964.

Their sacrifice resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other laws being passed. But such victories remained hollow as many states and municipalities ignored the laws until individuals challenged them, at continued risk. An often-forgotten axiom: Just because a law is passed doesn’t mean it will be enforced; challenges to injustice never end.

Growing up in a middle-class, all-white neighborhood in one of the most segregated cities in the South at that time, I was not immune to the changes. When some black kids were bused to my school, I refused to shun them, unlike many of my peers. I’m not sure why I reached out to them on the playgrounds — my parents taught me and my siblings to respect others, but it wasn’t like they were on the front lines of the civil rights movement, or even had African-American friends they invited to our home.

It just was something that innately made sense to me at a young age. Why should something as insignificant as skin color play a role in defining who you are and what rights you have as a human being? Don’t many white people try to get darker skin in the summer by sitting in the sun? As I played and followed sports, some of the black athletes — Bob Hayes, Bob Gibson, Bill Russell — were among my favorites. I was outraged as I watched movies and television shows that depicted slavery and other injustices.

In 1968, when sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black-gloved fists during an Olympic Games medal ceremony, I didn’t understand why the adults around me were mad about that. I had seen a lot of athletes raise their fists during games. Why was it so bad to do during a ceremony as the national anthem played? I wanted to learn more about why Smith and Carlos did that, and why people were so mad about it. Of course, I was shielded from the racial realities, the recent assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and another Kennedy, the civil rights struggle, the antagonism of many white people who regard any black person as automatically beneath them and resent they could make more money than them, especially for playing games, which were really entertainment businesses.

As a teen, I was more interested in sports than social movements. But I read biographies of African-American athletes like Wilt and Russell and sought to understand what they had overcome. I befriended black basketball teammates and even brought some home to play pool or ping pong. The family dog, who ironically was both black and white, wasn’t used to seeing nonwhites and barked more than usual at my black friends. Was Boots racist, or was he reflecting the racism in our lily-white neighborhood? Or was it a physical, vision issue?

During college, my biggest stands were exposing shoddy practices by a psychology professor who encouraged students to rappel down the football stadium wall with little training that resulted in one dying, advocating for the Libertarian Party presidential candidate, and calling Jimmy Carter “nuts” for believing that his 1980 Olympic Games boycott would sway the former Soviet Union. Four years later, of course, I joined the nuts, believing that a walk from California to Russia could impact the former Soviet leaders. Moral of this story: Be careful who you call nuts — you might just end up joining them one day.

I had started my journalism career as a sportswriter and soon discovered that was too limiting a career path. One thing led to another, and I found myself helping to produce an underground newspaper called the Dallas Advocate for Jobs, Peace and Freedom. I sought to be the kind of journalist who wasn’t afraid to cross the line into advocacy at times and work on some solutions, rather than merely sit back and watch. That might not be the best approach since you get labeled an activist and worse, but there was one thing I knew: You gotta do what you gotta do.

By 1984, the Cold War nuclear arms race proceeded at a furious pace, and some U.S. leaders talked of a “winnable” nuclear war against the Soviets. Then-US President Ronald Reagan and then-USSR Premier Konstantin Chernenko had not as much as met in the previous three years. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists had set its traditional “Doomsday Clock,” which has marked the danger of nuclear war since 1947, to three minutes before midnight in 1984. That was the closest the clock had been to midnight in three decades [it is now two minutes to midnight due primarily to new nuclear threats and climate change, after rising as high as 17 minutes in 1991]. In addition to the danger of nuclear war, war raged in Central America, the Middle East, Afghanistan, and numerous other places.

To me, the walk was a powerful statement on probably the most important issue that faced the world then, an affirmation of life in the midst of seemingly perilous times. Maybe our action could do something to ease the Cold War, maybe it couldn’t. But it was something I could do, a project I could sink my teeth in, climb off my apathetic couch, and perhaps inspire others to do likewise. It wasn’t about trying to change some country’s policies; it was about reaching people, individuals who could make a difference one day. We were ordinary people doing something extraordinary, and by that mere action had become transformed.

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Students C.T. Vivian, Diane Nash, and Bernard Lafayette lead a 1960 march in Nashville. [U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities photo, public domain]

As the late anthropologist Margaret Mead said, “Never ever depend on governments or institutions to solve any major problems. All social change comes from the passion of individuals.” There have been moments when governments, institutions, and individuals worked together to try to solve major problems, resulting in laws like the civil rights bill and programs such as Social Security and Medicare. But those have been relatively fleeting and usually led by individuals.

Halberstam’s book showed how the young people pushed on with civil rights actions when some leaders in the SCLC and other organizations wanted to cool off. Moreover, John Kennedy wasn’t a civil rights advocate during the start of his presidency and saw most actions as irritations, something he didn’t want to deal with since his party needed the support of racist, status-quo Democratic leaders in the South.

Indeed, the Kennedy’s sent John Seigenthaler, an administrative assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy who later became editor of The Tennessean, to lobby for an end to the Freedom Rides and negotiate with local officials to protect the riders. In a call to student civil rights leader Diane Nash, the government official and journalist pleaded, “Do you understand you’re gonna get somebody killed?” Nash reportedly replied, “Sir, you should know, we all signed our last wills and testaments last night. We know someone will be killed. But we cannot let violence overcome nonviolence.” Seigenthaler was knocked unconscious himself in Montgomery, Ala., while trying to protect some riders.

Some called our long 1984–85 walk a brave thing to do, particularly wearing shirts and carrying signs about walking for peace to Moscow and ending the Cold War through the most conservative states in the country. But it wasn’t nearly as courageous as what those civil rights workers did.

In 1982, a KKK member had driven his truck through a small group walking through the Deep South to New York for a United Nations disarmament conference, injuring one participant. We didn’t face such a direct threat, though some large log-carrying trucks came pretty close to us in rural Alabama, due more to the narrow, two-lane roads than intent. Some motorists and others who saw us — even those in northern states like New York — gave us the finger and yelled that we were commies. A grocery store owner in Alabama called us “outside agitators,” and someone threw a wad of wax at us, hitting a young walker. A Virginia state trooper threatened to “bust [us] in the chops.” But most who stopped were supportive.

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Amelia Boynton Robinson, in wheelchair holding President Obama’s hand, was on the front line of a 2015 march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. Rep. John Lewis is to Obama’s right. [White House photo, public domain]

Almost 20 years after marchers were assaulted by authorities and klansmen in Selma, our small group crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge without incident. I later met Amelia Boynton Robinson, a civil rights leader who had been beaten unconscious during the 1965 Bloody Sunday. A photograph of her lying on the bridge was circulated world-wide, sparking much sympathy. Almost two decades later, she still carried physical and psychological scars from that day. But there was no question she would do it again. “Segregation was not going to change by itself,” said Mrs. Robinson, who died in 2015 at the age of 104.

By the time I finished various walks, the Cold War had about ended. We had met with high-level government officials from the U.S. and Russia who could not dismiss us because we had backed up our commitment to the cause with powerful action and attracted a large amount of media attention. While some say the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 were caused more by Reagan’s hard-line military buildup, others take the view that efforts to bridge East-West differences like these walks played a significant role, inspiring people in Hungary, East Germany, and other countries to protest for political reforms.

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Some members of A Walk of the People meet with Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1985 in Geneva, Switzerland, during the first summit between Gorbachev and Reagan. [Creative Commons license]

I have come to see those years as an alternative to military service, community service to my country and the world in which I attempted to do what I could in my own, small way to prevent the ultimate war.

Today’s young people face a number of challenges, including a decline in good-paying jobs, rising college debt and hate crimes, and climate change. The latter was cited as the most serious world issue by young people in the World Economic Forum’s most recent Global Shapers survey. Wars ranked second, following by income and social inequality.

While some say the times were more perilous for young people during the Great Depression, World War II, Cold War, and turbulent 1960s, the atomic scientists’ doomsday clock is as close to midnight as it was in 1953. And the present age offers unique challenges. One is that the federal government is no longer so open to causes that the young cite as important, as seen in the Republican leadership’s unwillingness to support international climate treaties and programs. Following the 1963 March on Washington, the Kennedy’s invited civil rights leaders to the White House for a discussion, noted journalism professor Jon Else. The current presidential administration not only ignores large marches for women’s rights, the environment, and other causes, but Trump tries to belittle their efforts with sarcastic, demeaning Twitter messages.

Still, young people have tools that other generations didn’t, such as social media and cell phones with video. As noted before, it’s wiser to depend more on individuals than government and institutions, while not ignoring any segment that can provide aid. Approaching issues on a personal, non-partisan level can often be more effective.

The bottom line is that every generation faces fresh challenges, and the big issues can be tackled with characteristics that play to young people’s advantage, such as passion and perseverance. Embrace these challenges. If you see something that needs to be changed, get involved. Follow your consciences.

Written by

Written for 45+ newspapers/mags. Written some books — see https://www.amazon.com/Kevin-J.-Shay/e/B004BCQRTG. Visited 48 states, 30+ countries.

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