To Kill a Mockingbird

to kill a mockingbird

This is quite possibly the best book I’ve ever read. Ever. It’s definitely topping the charts for this year (sorry, Old Testament), and I can’t think of a more wholesome, refreshing, honest look at life. It’s simply fantastic.

Written at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, is the story of a 9-year-old learning some harsh truths about the society she lives in. Scout lives in southern Alabama, during the Great Depression. Her new schoolteacher won’t let her read, because she’s not supposed to learn that until 3rd grade. Her classmates often go hungry. Her father is appointed defense attorney to a Black man accused of raping a White woman, a crime that can carry the death penalty, and Scout’s neighbor Boo Radley is rumored to be a madman who haunts the streets at night. Scout encounters all these with a childish candor that blasts through the layers of complication grown-ups add to everything. To Scout, there’s just one kind of folks: folks.

This is not only a beautiful depiction of childhood, it’s also a beautiful depiction of the fight for humanity. Scout’s father Atticus Finch spends much of the book defending Tom Robinson, a Black man, even though he knows the White jury will convict Tom. Atticus already knows the cause is lost, but does everything he can to change the minds of the jury, considering it at least a “baby-step” when a juryman considers acquitting. Atticus is one of the only people in the state, it seems, who considers all human beings worthy of respect. He doesn’t allow his children to disrespect anyone, or to grow up with prejudice – but he also doesn’t become bitter in the face of opposition. He allows that everyone has their faults, and gives everyone – Black, White, learned, or ignorant – the benefit of the doubt.

I would recommend this book to anyone mature enough to understand what rape is, and to recognize that there are racial slurs in the book for the purpose of pointing out their ignorance. The writing is beautiful and hits home, making decent human behavior look like the obvious course of action. ♦

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I Have a Dream: the Most Christian Movement America Has Seen

On August 27, 1963, thousands of Americans – Black and White – marched to the nation’s capitol in Washington, D.C. in protest. They were protesting the racial segregation of schools, discrimination in the job market, police brutality, and inferior social treatment of African Americans. It was at this protest that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the “I Have a Dream” speech that still remains famous today.

This isn’t the most well-known part of this speech, but I’d like to share a part of it here:

“We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protests to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to distrust all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny.

“They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone. And as we walk we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. “

This is my favorite part of this speech – frankly, because I’m White. I was raised with the expectation that anyone of any race should be on level ground already – but I was also raised in Utah, where most of the population is White. So I grew up thinking I was racist, because I didn’t have any Black friends. It wasn’t until later on that I realized I just didn’t know any Black people. It took me, sadly, a few decades of life to figure out that being White doesn’t mean I oppress people like other White people have.

I love this speech because of its obvious, Christian doctrine of forgiveness. The nonviolence of the Civil Rights Movement shaped the minds of White America by showing a love from the Black community that most sheltered white people hadn’t seen before – they hadn’t spent enough time with Black Americans. The nonviolent protest showed the way society was supposed to work, and forgave and welcomed White Americans as soon as they wanted to join forces. There was no backlash or revenge – just a demand for equal treatment.

The purpose of the Civil Rights Movement, including Dr. King’s involvement, was to assume that “sneetches are sneetches, and no kind of sneetch is the best on the beaches.” (to quote Dr. Suess, if I may be so bold.) The movement was one of the finest examples of Christianity the world has ever seen, because it focused not on penance for sins past, but on forgiveness and improvement, offering to turn enemies into best friends. It is to fight hate with love, which is the finest thing humans are capable of. God rest you, Dr. King. ♦

You can read the full text of the speech here.

Civil Rights Saga: Episode 4

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Remember Brother Malden? What better way could you start a Sunday morning than hanging out in the Malden barber shop? We stayed and talked with Brother Malden for about half an hour, touring the barber shop (which was absolutely covered in pictures of celebrities who had come to the barber shop – either to get their hair cut or, like us, just to say they’d been there.

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This is the chair Dr. King usually sat in.

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Brother Malden is the definition of networking.

Now, I have no idea how Brother Malden got hold of these (I think I was looking at pictures when he explained it), but this man has a copy of Dr. Martin Luther King’s grades. And let me tell you, as college students, we were very interested to know what this man’s transcript looked like. And I think all of us were more than a little comforted to see his report card peppered with C’s. I said to myself, “Self: you do not have to be an A student to make a difference in the world!” And thank heavens, because… I’m definitely not.

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Hey, Mom! Guess who else was bad at statistics?

Let’s be real here – this car has nothing to do with the Civil Rights Movement. But Brother Malden just got even cooler when we saw what he drove.

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From the barbershop, we headed over to the Montgomery State Building. This particular weekend (as we had brilliantly planned) was the yearly anniversary celebration of Bloody Sunday. On March 7, 1965, Civil Rights protesters began a march from Selma, Alabama to this building in Montgomery. As the crowd came across the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, however, they met a line of policemen barring their way. After a few confusing moments, the police advanced and then attacked the unarmed crowd. Footage of police beatings was broadcast across America, and a few days later, another march was organized, led by Dr. King. This time, however, they marched only as far as the police line, knelt to pray, and then turned back and marched home. The third attempt was protected by federal troops, and days later the crowd arrived in Montgomery.  On the steps of this building, Dr. Martin Luther King gave a speech, asking “How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?…. How long? Not long.”

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As the “cradle of the Confederacy,” the Montgomery State Building still has a statue of Jefferson Davis.

And then: on to church at Dexter Avenue! From the steps of the state building, you can see the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King preached. The sermon that day (“A Filthy Rag Around a Leaky Faucet”) drew parallels from the Bible, from modern life, and from the Civil Rights Movement (the preacher was well aware that we were in town for Bloody Sunday). Everybody in the chapel wanted to say hello, and it was one of the most friendly, comfortable atmospheres I’ve ever encountered. My personal highlights were the organ player (who was good enough to play with one hand for half the service), the piano player (who was good enough to play with her eyes closed during the prayers), and the latter part of the sermon, when Rev. Handy took us through the ABC’s of sins that needed to be removed from our lives:

A is for Adultery – Kill it right now!

B is for Blasphemy (Kill it right now!)

C is for Covetousness (Kill it right now!)

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I don’t remember them all, but I do remember that Z was for Zaniness and other buffoonery, because we all looked at Jonathan, one of our instructors – who looked a little sheepish and slunk down on the pew a little more. He later apologized for some of his zany behavior (which, of course, didn’t stop a sing-along later in the car).

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Finally, we made it to Selma. After another run-in with the Secret Service (which was really less of a run-in and more of a traffic jam), we made it to the bridge and split up: half of us went to cross the bridge with the protesters, and half to watch the crowd surge over the top of the bridge. I opted to cross the bridge. On our side, the whole town was turned into a street market for the waiting protesters. Food vendors lined the streets, and the whole town smelled like cooking meat, fries, and soul food. In the middle of the streets, there were jewelry stands, souvenir stands, and CD vendors – who blasted music so loud that the entire block sounded like a party.

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This is the greatest (and largest) cheeseburger I have ever eaten in my life.

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Unfortunately, I already had that cheeseburger in my stomach when I saw this advertisement. I have no idea whether there was real alligator meat at this stand.

And then, we started to cross the bridge:

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I think this was my favorite experience of the trip. It gave you a feeling of just how huge the Movement was – and continues to be today. As we marched, we saw protesters in the crowd, some for better treatment as black citizens, but most were protesting the unethical treatment of the Latino community. (I was surprised not to see any protesters from the homosexual community.) It was strange to be sandwiched between celebration and protest – there was a sense of pride in the rights that were fought for and won – not given, but earned. And there was also a feeling of hunger, that an end of injustice in one place could signal an end of injustice everywhere. There was definitely a feeling that those in the crowd knew how far we’ve come, but also knew that we have far to go before we really achieve a perfect people. It was a very moving experience to be there, a part of it.

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One of our last stops was a little fenced-in memorial on the side of the highway. This was a memorial for Viola Liuzzo, a white woman who was run off the road and shot for offering rides to Montgomery Blacks who were boycotting the bus system. This memorial served as another reminder to me that this was not an issue of race, but an issue of hatred.

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The complete absence of traffic seemed almost too good to be true.

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It was. The Secret Service had caught up with us again. (This time it was Joe Biden, who had come to speak at the bridge crossing.) They had stopped traffic to take over the road again, and the traffic became absolutely hideous after they passed. I do wonder what they thought of our little group, chilling on the side of the road as they drove past. Fortunately, nobody got shot. In fact, one of the passengers waved.
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The next day, we drove back to the airport and headed back to Utah (and 4 of us to Ohio). Nobody wanted to go home, and I think a chunk of my heart is still in Alabama. But it was a life-changing experience, and it’s really none of my business to keep it to myself. So I’m back to stay for now, and I’m here to change things – and people – for the better. 




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Civil Rights Saga: Episode 3

Our adventure on Saturday began with a long-sought-after encounter with John Lewis. In the 60’s, John Lewis was one of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. When we heard that (now) Congressman John Lewis was going to be coming to practically all the same sites we were – at the same time – we were hoping we could get to talk with him. We were, after all, huge fans.

Our enthusiasm waned when we realized that there was not a chance we were going to come within a stone’s throw of John Lewis. Or, for that matter, of any of the museums he was in. With the Secret Service everywhere and snipers on the rooftops, we made a few U-turns (of questionable legality) and switched our schedule a bit – since it seemed that Mr. Lewis had stolen our itinerary and copied it word for word.

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The Secret Service – not cool, John Lewis.

Once we had switched things up a bit, we ended up at the Rosa Parks museum (sans Secret Service). There was a little re-enactment, as well as a documents from the Montgomery Bus Boycott that went on for a year after Mrs. Parks refused to give up her seat. It was impressive just how humble a woman Rosa Parks was, as well as how well-prepared she was for the crisis: she had taken workshops in nonviolent resistance, she was a secretary for the NAACP, and she was a youth leader. So when she decided she wasn’t going to take it anymore, she knew how to make her simple action into a meaningful protest. Overnight, a woman named JoAnn Robinson initiated a bus boycott that had already been in the making, with Mrs. Parks as the spotlight heroine.

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This quote was quite possibly my favorite part of the whole museum.

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After visiting Rosa Parks, we went to the Freedom Riders museum. These volunteer riders piled into integrated buses, riding north-south in protest of the southern segregation laws. Upon reaching the South, buses were fire-bombed, and occupants were dragged out, beaten viciously, and jailed. After meeting Catherine Burks Brooks previously, we were all super excited to see more of this story. The museum itself was built in an old, segregated Greyhound station, and the exhibits were largely projects from local artists.

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This was the old “colored” entrance to the bus station, bricked in years ago.

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We found a picture of our new friend Catherine Burks Brooks!

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After the Freedom Riders museum, we stopped for lunch at a local BBQ place. This sign was the highlight, and I consider it the pinnacle of neon achievement:

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Beautiful. Just beautiful.

Then we headed to the University of Alabama campus, to meet Reverend Bob Graetz and his wife, Jeannie. The Graetzes were definitely  one of the best parts of the trip for most of us; you can only learn so much from a museum exhibit, but you can learn a whole lot from someone who lived through the event itself. Reverend Graetz was the pastor of a Lutheran church in a Negro community just before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and he told us about his involvement in the Movement. He and his wife helped their congregation by offering and coordinating carpool rides, and their home was bombed by an angry white community. As a white woman, the Graetzes meant something special to me because they provided an example of  the white “heroes” of the Movement. It reassured me that not all white people of the era were racist.

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Here’s a plug – Reverend Graetz has written a few books, including “A White Preacher’s Memoir” (which I just read – and it is fantastic) and “A White Preacher’s Message on Race And Reconciliation: Based on His Experiences Beginning With the Montgomery Bus Boycott.”

We got to see the house Dr. Martin Luther King and his family lived in while in Montgomery (and I of course forgot to take pictures, so here’s one I kaifed from the internet):

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The porch still bears scars from a bombing.

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Brother Malden with me and Alexis

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And then the Maldens! Nelson Malden was Martin Luther King’s barber, and we got to eat dinner at his and his wife Dean’s house and talk with them about the Movement. Barbershops were a social center of the day, and Brother Malden talked about how Dr. King would come just to sit sometimes and study. (For some reason, I just can’t call these two “Mister” and “Missus”. I automatically call them “Brother” and “Sister” – probably because we sang hymns with them at the end of dinner.)  Brother Malden also talked about how much empowerment the bus drivers took from inflicting simple abuse on the black riders. 

Sister Malden impressed me (and not just with her cooking.) When one member of our group asked how she kept from hating white people for what they’d done, she looked puzzled and asked for the question to be repeated. After the question was repeated a few times, she said, “Why would anybody hate all white people?” She was honestly stunned that anybody would be angry at the whole population for the actions of a few – or even of a majority. She simply didn’t see the Movement in terms of black and white: it was a matter of treating people like they should be, on an individual basis. ♥

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Sister Malden and me

Civil Rights Saga: Episode 2

100_3045Day 2 of our action-packed Civil Rights adventure took us to Birmingham, Alabama – home of some of the worst violence of the Movement in the 60’s. Our first stop was Kelly Ingram Park, a memorial to the violence against the “foot soldiers” who marched from 16th Street Baptist Church, protesting. This is where “Bull” Connor ordered his men to unleash fire hoses and police dogs on the protesters – most of whom were children. It was freezing cold Friday morning, but it was a moving experience.

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This tree still bears the scars of high-pressure fire hoses. These hoses were turned on unprotected marchers.

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This was my favorite part of the park, with the upside-down writing.

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Here’s the whole thing together.

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Looking through the monument.

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These dogs were easily the most terrifying part of the park. You got to walk between them, as though you were marching in between angry policemen siccing their dogs on you.

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In the midst of the violence, 3 ministers knelt and began to pray. This sculpture is a tribute to their faith and nonviolent reaction to the chaos of segregation and oppression.


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This sculpture has a fire hose set up across from it, pointing toward these children.

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Staring down the barrel of a fire hose.

After wandering through the park, we went for a tour of 16th Street Baptist Church (which is just kitty-corner). At this church, a bomb was planted during  youth Sunday school, and 4 little girls were killed. Although the man who planted the bomb was widely suspected (and practically bragged about it), he wasn’t brought to justice until decades later.

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In addition to killing the girls, the bomb also severely damaged a corner of the church building. This stained glass window had to be repaired, because Jesus’s face was missing after the blast. The newspapers printed pictures of the damaged Jesus to call attention to the crisis of racism.

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This window was donated by the people of Wales, in sympathy for the Civil Rights struggle. The man is not a black Jesus – he has one hand pushing up against oppression, and one hand open to receive God’s mercy and forgiveness.

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These are the little girls who were killed: Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Carole Rosamond Robertson, and Diane Wesley.

After visiting the church, we toured the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (where pictures were not allowed). It was one of the most emotional experiences of the trip for me, because it described just how intense the oppression and hatred were that black people had to face; as I walked through the exhibits, I felt the pain and suffering of my friends, while I felt the guilt of my own race. I stopped to pray for a while, and was later comforted by pictures of protesters with white faces in the crowd. It really brought it home for me that the struggle was not one race against the other, but humanity against inhumanity – all colors included.

After lunch was the highlight of the day: Catherine Burks Brooks.

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This is Catherine Burks at the time of the Freedom Rides. The inscription to the right actually belongs to another rider – Paul Brooks, who would later become Catherine’s husband.

Catherine, now in her 80’s, met with us at the Alabama Power building and told us about her experience as a Freedom Rider. She boarded a bus, along with other black and white students who supported integration, and rode down from Memphis, Tennessee to Montgomery, Alabama in protest of Alabama’s segregated bus system. Upon reaching Alabama, buses were firebombed, riders were beaten nearly to death and jailed, and promised police protection failed to arrive or respond. Catherine told us about being arrested and dropped off near the state border – dangerously close to a white town, which would ensure their further abuse or even lynching. She told us about flirting with “Bull” Connor and giving him a piece of her mind. She told us about her group picking their way back to a safe area, where they could board the next bus and try it all over again. According to Mrs. Brooks, the best thing to do was just to “keep on keepin’ on;” not to get bogged down in the details or scared of how monumental the task was, but to take it one day at a time. She told us that was the best way to make the world better today – do a little every day, and just keep on keepin’ on.  

Civil Rights Saga: Episode 1

This semester, I was invited to participate in a Civil Rights Movement seminar. The first half of the class was historical content. After that, we would all take a trip to Georgia and Alabama and visit key historical sites and museums about the Black Civil Rights Movement in the 60’s. The second half of the course (from about now on) is designed to be a community outreach effort. Basically, it was a few months of history, 4 days of intense, emotional impact – experiencing the kind of influence the movement really had – and then back to Provo to speak to campus groups, high schools, and whoever else will listen about racism and its effects. It was an amazing experience (and still is!)

The first site we saw in Atlanta was the Martin Luther King museum. Here are a few pictures:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

James Peck, a Freedom Rider, displays the welcome he received in 1961.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I think the highlight of the day was touring the home that Dr. King grew up in. “Daddy King,” Martin’s father, preached at Ebenezer Baptist Church, just around the corner. (We tried to tour that, too, but a 6th grade class had the same brilliant idea, and we were overrun by stampede of schoolchildren.) The home was a large, middle-class house, and most of the furniture and decorations had been restored as they were when he was growing up. the most impressive thing, however, was the way he grew up. In most households of the time – black or white – children were “heard but not seen.” Not the case in the King household. Every night, the King household would sit down to dinner together, and every child would recite a scripture. (Martin’s favorite verse was, “Jesus wept.”) After reciting a scripture, the children were expected to join in conversation, and talk about local events reported in the paper, debating about their importance and impact. Is it any wonder that Martin grew to be such an amazing speaker and influential man?

“What the Chicken” sounded funny, but we decided in favor of Johnny Rockets instead.

Life-changing milkshake.

 

Dinner was also inspiring. We headed to the food court and decided against What the Chicken,”because I had discovered that there was a Johnny Rockets nearby – and if you know anything about me, it is that I will do anything legal for a good cheeseburger. What I didn’t suspect was an apple pie milkshake – as in, somebody put a piece of apple pie in a blender and served it to me in a cup. It was like shooting straight sugar into my veins. I was so hyper. I think I scared people. ♦

Rosa Parks’s Mentor

Remember Luke Skywalker? No, not that one – you’re thinking of the Jedi Luke Skywalker. The one who defeated basically the entire Empire in only a few short hours of cinematic glory. I’m talking about Luke Skywalker, sniveling teenage brat. The pre-Yoda Luke Skywalker. Yoda may have been short, and he may have only had a few scenes, but he made a pretty significant difference.

Okay, back from Star Wars. Remember Rosa Parks? Now, I’m not about to say that Rosa Parks was ever as pathetic or snively as Luke Skywalker was. I’m sure she was a great woman all on her own. But she did have her own Yoda figure. That mentor was Septima Clark.

Septima Clark was a Civil Rights activist who worked in the background. I had always had some notion that Rosa Parks just spontaneously decided one day that she’d had it, and wasn’t going to take it anymore. Which is true – but not in the sense that she suddenly had one moment when she realized, “Hey, I’m sick of it!” and put her foot down. She’d been sick of it for a long time, and planning carefully how to put her foot down. A lot of people had.

And that’s where Miss Clark comes in. Septima  Clark taught civil rights workshops at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. This school was specifically set up by black people, for black people, to help further the cause of black rights. This is where a lot of activists learned the value and principles of nonviolent resistance, and how to cool off their tempers so they wouldn’t fight back. It’s where they learned to make sure that the media caught pictures of the cruelty whites subjected them to. It’s where they learned how to take a defensive position, so they wouldn’t be literally beaten to death at a protest when the police force got violent.

Septima Clark and Rosa Parks at the Highlander Folk School

Septima Clark taught a lot of the Civil Rights Movement’s leaders, and was called the “Mother of the Movement.” While she didn’t take the front page of the newspaper, she made a huge difference in the way events played out, and helped keep passive resistance an effective tool in seeking civil rights.