Courage Was the Key
 — Bruce Hartford

Presentation to a high school assembly as part of a Martin Luther King Day program, January, 2014

Courage was the key. Courage was the common thread that bound together all the many events and activities that made up the Civil Rights Movement.

Today, our mass media and popular culture usually portray courage as a man with a gun. But the Freedom Movement was nonviolent, we didn't use guns or other forms of violence to change society. It was not that we were afraid to fight, nonviolence was by no means safe. Rather, we used nonviolence because we wanted to win. In democracies like ours, engaging in political violence is a losing strategy, but nonviolence gave us a chance to win — a chance, not a certainty.

Courage is the inescapable requirement of nonviolent resistance to injustice. Yet today our culture tries to make us believe that courage can only be shown in contexts of committing violence — not true.

When depicting courage, our culture tends to portray it as a male trait. Yet it was not just men alone who courageously used nonviolence. The Freedom Movement was made up of men and women, boys and girls. Think of the two most famous names from the Civil Rights Movement — Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, a man and a woman. When you look at the old photos and newsreels, notice how many women and girls are among those facing the dogs and the firehoses and the jail cells.

Segregation was the rule in the South of the 1960s. The races were separated by law. Blacks and other nonwhite people were forbidden to use "White Only" drinking fountains, or walk in "White Only" public parks, or sit at the front of the bus. If they did so, they were arrested. Blacks could shop in stores, but not eat at the lunch counter. In 1960, it was college and high school students who declared, "No, this is wrong and we're not going to accept it anymore!"

In Greensboro NC, four college students sat down at a lunch counter and said, "We're going to sit here until we're served or arrested." They called it a "Sit-in." They said, "If you arrest us, more will come. So many will come you won't be able to arrest us all. And that's what happened. Some were arrested, but more came. This went on for months. When the college students went home for summer-vacation, students from Dudley High School continued the struggle until they achieved victory and the lunch counters were desegregated.

Think about that for a moment. By their courage high school students very much like you changed the face of their community — and history.

In Birmingham, it was college and high school students who stepped up. Led by student body presidents, football players, and cheerleaders, they kept the Freedom Movement alive. Some were beaten, some were bitten by dogs, some were knocked down by fire hoses. But they held true. They didn't give up. So many young people were arrested, that the Birmingham campaign is now known in history as the "Children's Crusade."

Young people may not have been the famous leaders, but they were the core of the Civil Rights Movement. Most of those who marched and most of those who went to jail were college & high school students — both girls and boys.

Today, people ask us, "Weren't you scared?" Well, we used to sing, "We are not afraid," — but we were afraid. We were always afraid. Courage is not the absence of fear, courage is doing what you know is right even though you're frightened.

But physical courage to face danger and arrest, is not the only kinds of courage. It's not even the most important kind of courage that the women and men and girls and boys of the Freedom Movement had to have. Deeper, more important, and often more difficult to achieve than physical courage is social courage. The courage to take a public stand for what you believe is right when others among your family, peers, and those in authority over you do not agree. Even when the majority are against you. Even when your friends laugh and jeer at you.

When confronted with a racist slur, a sexist put-down, a homophobic joke, or an ethnic or cultural sneer it takes social courage to stand up and dissent. To stand against your friends — maybe even your own family — and say, "No, that's not who I am."

The truth is, that for most of us it is harder to stand apart from custom, family, and friends than it is to risk physical danger. Which is why it's often harder to show social courage than physical courage.

You know this from your own lives. How many of you have felt uncomfortable with a bigoted joke or comment from one of your social peers, yet lacked the will to publicly challenge it within your group? How many of you have ever feared to speak up when you knew you should because your friends might mock or laugh at you, or that you might become the target of their humiliating insults and demeaning laughter?

Today, those who marched with Dr. King are honored, but that was not always so. At the time, many of our friends and family — Black and white — cautioned us, "Stay out of that mess, don't stir up trouble." Some who thought themselves wise in the ways of the world told us, "Nothing will ever change, and you're a fool for trying." And in one sense they were right, it's always safer to do nothing. But human progress is made by those with the social and physical courage to take a stand. Even if it's an unpopular stand at first.

Every generation has its challenges to face. For my generation, one of our challenges was the Civil Rights Movement. We had our challenges and you will have yours. Every generation must find the social courage, and if necessary the physical courage, to overcome those challenges. What you are being taught in this school is to prepare you for those challenges. But you will have to find the courage to face them on your own.

Copyright © Bruce Hartford, 2014


Copyright ©
Copyright to this web page, as a web page, belongs to this web site.
Copyright to the article above belongs to the author.

(Labor donated)