Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons and Lucas Johnson — Deromanticizing the Civil Rights Movement and Rediscovering its Humanity
January 16, 2014

Wisdom for how we can move and heal our society in our time as the Civil Rights movement galvanized its own. Lucas Johnson is bringing the art and practice of nonviolence into a new century, for new generations. Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons was an original Black Power feminist and a grassroots leader of the Mississippi Freedom Summer.

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After the rally inside of the North Carolina General Assembly building, occupants choosing not to be arrested gather on the sidewalks outside to demonstrate support for those being taken into custody. Protesters were encouraged to shout "thank you" loud enough so that those arrested inside the building can hear them.

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I was in the crm with a lot of other white southerners. No one has covered us as a group. I had friends from Alabama and Mississippi who picketed, marched, sat in, sang, and made friends in Chapel HIll, NC. Where we sat in at a crossroads of the two main drags is now half MLK Blvd. Where Joan Baez organized a march from Chapel Hill to Durham is now MLK Blvd. (She rode alongside in a VW). Another is in Eastern NC, near Fayetteville. In Asheville, NC, a white philosophy prof friend, Jim Pait, from Virginia Beach was a head of CORE. His wife left him and moved with a black woman to Roanoke, Va, where they lived together. It never occurred to me people might have thought that strange. My name was April White. A friend, Cordell Black and I used to lock arms and sing, "Black and white togetherrrr". Wonder where he is. He never graduated from UNC. Last time I saw him we were in France. At a party I met a young man who'd grown up a block or two away, but since we went to segregated schools we'd never met, unless playing together as children. I fell in love with him. He seemed to feel the same. He didn't ask for my phone number, and I didn't want to give it to him unless he asked, since he could be killed. So could I. White women were lynched in the South, but I thought of him, not me. At age 18 I picketed a segregated motel by myself, was cursed, spat at, things thrown. Best day of my life. It felt great to do the right thing! Not much. I always loved black people, Grew up with them. Miss them here in segregated NYC. Got the first African American a desk job in my building here. Everyone wasn't ecstatic. The North thinks racism is southern. Up here it's "racial profiling" not racism. Giuliani killed an unarmed black man every few weeks with his well named "street crimes unit" who did the street crime. A neighbor moved back south during Giuliani. Will there ever be an equal society here???? I hope so with all my heart!

Thank you for sharing your experience. The soul of the United States needs enlightenment and cleaning. May we all be true brothers and sisters.

Amen! While I think Cornel West is a provocative voice in America, agreeing with his more pragmatic approach, questioning if we are romanticizing the CRM [paraphrasing]: "Sanitize. Deodorize. etc. etc." there are areas I would challenge his mantra but it's a better one then the one expressed by the status quo (respectfully). We could start by empowering American educations anthropology and metaphysics re possible solutions' to a dumbed down education that stress our children, teachers, and parents. To be clear, I don't support Common Core but I don't support the attack on parent by some, not all, professionals in faith-based community initiatives. That's not a paradox; it's Christian hypocrisy to say the least.

In Bklyn where I grew up blacks were not allowed in our building.complex. They would picket outside and all the neighbors would say;" the N's are getting restless". I was called an N because I tanned really dark in the summer. I was a child and adults would come up to me and in my face laugh and say"You look just like a N.How do you get so tan? You look like a N." These were adults in Bklyn N.Y.circa 1960 to 1966.

I heard just the tail end of this story on NPR, but I understand from what I heard that Dr. Johnson is a pacifist. Here is my problem. The underlying assumption is that if we all become pacifists, then that will further world peace. And no peace activists seem to do any empirical study on war and peace to determine what it takes to made the world more peaceful--they only seem to make assumptions-- i.e.: persuade more people to be pacifists, encourage "social justice" and "tolerance", ban gun ownership, for example. And, most disturbing:, "peace" is defined by the American peace movement as no American troops engaged in wars outside the U.S. For example, the peace movement is relatively silent now that American troops are out of Iraq and are leaving Afghanistan. The peace movement, then, appears to be based on assumptions, and, with all due respect, a certain smugness and xenophobia. I did a study a few years ago of the political violence world wide since 1946 , taking the statistics from the Center for Systemic Peace ( their website is online). Here is what I found: the number of deaths from political violence worldwide spiked in 1980, were reduced somewhat during the 1980's, increased somewhat in the 1990's (remember Rwanda and Kosovo?), and was sharply reduced in the first decade of the 21st century. I calculated that in 1980, there were 17 deaths per 100,000 worldwide, and between 2001-2007, there was less than one death per 100,000 worldwide. World Peace, by empirical measurement, was essentially achieved during the years of the Bush administration--just the opposite from what peace activists assume. I am concerned that with the violence on the African continent and the Middle East, that the statistics are rising again. But, as I said above, the peace movement is basically silent. Achieving world peace is difficult work, but the difficult work of determining what it actually takes to achieve world peace does not seem to have ever been done by peace activists. It would be good for the intellectuals in the peace movement to set aside assumptions, and to do scientific study of war and peace--even if it explodes some myths, and makes peace activists uncomfortable. After all, world peace is an incredibly important goal, and comfortable assumptions are not deserving of such a noble goal.

This is not my field of study but, I smell logic error. First, extrapolating from one table that the world became more "peaceful" under former President Bush seems dubious. Further, suggesting that such a supposed outbreak of peace was fallout from his policies is, at minimum, unsubstantiated. Also, simply labeling the statements of others as "myths" doesn't prove the point.

I didn't say that the reduction in war was caused by President Bush. You can never prove cause and effect by demonstrating two events happened at the same time. It is a logical fallacy that many people fall into. I was merely trying to point out that the peace movement has never done any empirical research that I know of to determine what causes peace or war; they merely make what I would call incredible leaps of faith, that , in my observation, only result in "peace" demonstrations when American soldiers go to war, and vague articles about tolerance and other platitudes that are not particularly effective . If one is serious about peace, then one ought to study both war and peace. And I think the provocative statistics from the Center for Systemic Peace might be a start--not a conclusion.

I think you're addressing similar observation raised at 40. minutes (I commented prior and mistakenly cited 42.). My verge from context that question is the peace movement has become silenced would be re the ban of weapons. Although, my observation of why banning guns need to be thought through is understandable. We have a growing rate of uneducated populace. I don't see raising the question of gun ban as one advocating violence. More that what we need further understanding about is this is not a white or black issues; it's a race issue the is mutually shared by a up-tick trend in young men. I think material condition that empower people to experience their unique human dignity and the different ways their able to express and contribute is increasingly a form of oppression by the very groups skilled in meaningless rhetoric and group think. In contrast, the people who are experientially more skilled in group think--See: Thinking Fast Thinking Slow--are better skilled from embodied cognition in their pragmatic experience of daily life and could teach the leader promoting self-sufficiency. I don't writing this with joy; on the contrary to challenge leadership in their efforts, knowing they work very hard. I would suggest not effectively in the year 2014.

I thank the woman who at 42. minutes articulately and directly addressed "context" in the year 2014. It's not often I hear clarity re organized collaboration in continued efforts for human equality. Thank you for your frankness and well done!

One of the guests is a Sufi? As in Muslim? Wow! Had that not been mentioned during the question segment,that would not have been mentioned at all?

I'm an atheist mystic Buddhista - at times. When I listen to Bach, especially the B Minor Mass, I'm Christian. Best thing I ever heard on radio was The Jerusalem Project. Couldn't tell if it was Sephardic Jewish, Arabic, or some kind of Christian. Turned out to be all three. All marvelous! And no record of it. No cd, no download. Why not? I want to grab it and hold it. It sort of bothers me that Dr Cornell West, a hero of mine, has become angry with Obama, not seeing the other side. Obama hasn't started a war that hadn't already been there. He got US out of Iraq, which is now falling apart. Put together by a British woman with Shia, Sunnis, and Kurds. Hopefully we'll leave Afghanistan as well. A good book is "Violent Politics" by William Polk, about how counterinsurgencies only work on your own soil; begins with our revolution. Yes, I hate the drones and see them as counterproductive. But does Dr West's anger increase or decrease the negativity? That's a genuine question. I don't know the answer. I feel better when I love than when i hate. The Dalai Lama says "Kindness is my religion." And "if you see someone coming towards you with a gun, turn around and run away as fast as you can!" Who am I to judge.

Thanks for putting the focus on the real story - what happened on the ground of the civil rights movement. I have just written a chronicle of the movement in Chicago to give long over due attention to the grass root leaders who made the difference. To Dick Gregory who got arrested for leading a group of marchers to Mayor Daley's home neighborhood to protest defacto segregation in housing; to Al Raby who gave up his position as a school teacher to lead the Chicago Coalition of Community Organizations; to Tim Black Jr who organized demonstrations that convinced major corporations that the time had come to stop discriminating and to start hiring minorities; to Alex Poinsett who from his post at Ebony became the Thomas Paine of the Movement; and to the Rev Al Pitcher who served as "guy Friday", willing to undertake any chore that needed to be done. These individuals (plus Jesse Jackson who needs no introduction) created a movement that convinced Rev Martin Luther King that when it was time (1965-66) to take SCLC to the North that Chicago was the right city.

It is so interesting that you started this podcast with a comment about our sanitizing of the civil rights movement. When I gave a children's sermon this Sunday on Martin Luther King Jr and asked the children why we remember him, their responses all had to do with his speeches. They did not know about the struggle, the threats that he and his family received, the true sacrifice and danger that people involved in civil rights experienced. I wonder if they can truly understand the Civil Rights movement then and the Human Rights movement that we still need if they only understand the "pretty" parts. Thank you for raising this question.

Voices on the Radio

is assistant professor of religion at the University of Florida. She is also a member of the National Council of Elders. Her account of her work as an activist in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) is featured in the book, Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC.

Rev. Lucas Johnson

is Southeast & Mid-Atlantic Regional Coordinator of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation. He also serves on its international committee and the board of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.

Production Credits

Host/Executive Producer: Krista Tippett

Head of Content: Trent Gilliss

Technical Director: Chris Heagle

Senior Producer: Lily Percy

Associate Producer: Mariah Helgeson

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