Edited from a transcript of an April 11, 2015 gathering of civil rights veterans, students and scholars at the Martin Luther King Jr. Education and Research Institute at Stanford University. Read the entire transcript at Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement website: http://www.crmvet.org/disc/1504_fcc.htm and watch the 11 minute video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m2cz6vJnWZs&feature=youtu.be
“Gradually I learn that even though I can’t see from any perspective but this one, (meaning my own), I can include other perspectives, understand that others have their own perspective, and each one is just and true as real as mine, even if we’re in disagreement. That’s a stretch of the heart muscle.” – Katherine Thanas, Abbott, Santa Cruz Zen Center
For myself, working in the Movement in the summer of ’65, going through experiences with my coworkers in SNCC and SCLC and the local people that I worked with in Wilcox County, Alabama stretched my heart muscle so much more than my brain. We had amazing orientations. By that time, voter registration project leaders had learned from CORE and SNCC, and their own experience. The SCLC SCOPE orientation was tremendous. We had workshops; we had great speakers: Hosea Williams, Bayard Rustin, Jimmy Webb, James Bevel and Martin Luther King himself. Septima Clark taught us how to sing. We had intensive orientation, and then suddenly we are plunged into this violently segregated environment, sharing the experience of being hated, reviled, shot at, arrested, in a very, very rural area.
I was assigned to Wilcox County Alabama. I was just 19 years old and trying to grapple with the reality of how dangerous it was. At first, I had so much trust and faith in my coworkers, our leaders and the people in the community. Before that summer, my sense of myself was that I was a weak, scared girl. That summer, I felt like I really became a woman.
It was so dramatic, the violence, the threats – I was afraid all the time. The boys, both the Black and white, always talked about how brave they were and “Oh no, they can’t do nothing to me.” I was just scared all the time. But because the local people were so brave, and they were protecting us, I had to act brave. But they were the courageous ones.
I didn’t know until I went back to write my book, This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight , that men in some of the familes who kept white kids were sitting up all night with shotguns while we slept. I had no idea at the time. They didn’t let us know that they had to keep up that level of protection to take in a white field worker. I honor those people. I owe them my life, literally, because people were trying to kill us.
Besides the locals, I witnessed incredible courage, role models in both SCLC and SNCC folks I worked with. I was fortunate to work with both groups, the respected reverends and the radical students. It was so exciting to be in the thick of these world changing events. The SNCC kids in Selma, especially Charles Bonner, really broke it down for me, in terms of theory. It was the beginning of my looking at social action critically. I suppose I could have done well to apply that learning in college but when I returned I was such a physical and emotional mess that it took me 15 more years to get a B.A. degree. My experience in the Movement, learning to see the sharecropper in Alabama not as somebody less than, but just somebody with a different perspective, different life experience – that was an invaluable lesson for me. You can learn from all people, not just people like yourself.
Discussion facilitated by Ron Bridgeforth. Other civil rights veterans included: Willie B. Wazir Peacock Wazir Peacock “Stand for Freedom” Video, Jimmy Rogers, Stu House, Kathleen Kolman, Mitchell Zimmerman, Bill Light and Roy Torkington.