I am of a generation that came of age in the middle of the 1960s Movement. In 1963, I graduated from high school at 16 years old, turning 17 two months before the March on Washington. Before leaving high school, I participated in what became known as "the Children's March" in Birmingham, AL my hometown. My classmates and I were spared the attacks with firehoses and dogs ordered by Eugene "Bull" Connor as we were arrested enroute, before our group of marchers got to Kelly Ingram Park, next to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where these infamous events took place.
When I speak of being in the generation in the middle, in some ways we are all generations in the middle — we are always ahead of some and behind others. The equally youthful women and men immediately before us in the Movement were Freedom Fighters — they had defied the laws and gone on Freedom Rides, been spat at and scalded with coffee at lunch counters. I watched the news as they were attacked, with their buses set afire right outside my hometown.
Despite this atmosphere of terror, I was eager to participate in the Movement and volunteered in 1964 to go to Mississippi where I saw the Free Southern Theater in action, lived in a Freedom House, saw the Freedom Schools that had been established. We sang Freedom Songs that energized and united us. In March 1965, as a college student, I marched for the right to vote under the banner of Freedom Now in Montgomery, Alabama and spent a week in jail.
It was important to do this. We were only a few. Our numbers were small but that didn't matter. I learned the important lesson that even a small group or people could have an impact and could make a change. We started seeing the results of our efforts: segregation was becoming less enforceable; doors of opportunity were opening where before they had been cruelly slammed shut in our faces.
We wanted more. Freedom and the movement towards freedom were too connected to the generations of adults before me, who surrounded me in the south, my parents, my grandparents who, having been born in the mid-1850s, had truly lived their lives in the shadow of enslavement and for whom freedom and liberty were essential goals towards a better life.
Many of my generation wanted to go past freedom. Freedom was fragile and elusive, particularly in the South where any arrest could lead to years of forced unpaid labor overseen by armed county and state officials. Communities lived in fear of vigilante groups like the Klan and other emboldened racists who might attack us singly or in groups, raping, mutilating or burning businesses and churches. The complex expression on our parents faces when whites insisted on trying to belittle them by speaking to them in disrespectful terms made us understand that freedom wasn't enough. We knew exactly what our parents' faces were saying, we could read the invisible masks they wore.
We knew we had to seek more, and we did. We looked at the world around us for lessons and examples. Nations were fighting for their independence against colonialist policies that had large numbers of their populations living in similar forms of apartheid, segregation, servitude and forced labor. Freedom was not enough. We wanted equality, dignity, the ability to decide our own goals, interests and define our own truths. To see our own beauty and to embrace and celebrate the distinctions that were constantly evolving from and within our culture.
We recognized that what we lacked was power, our own power. As Courtland Cox would often say, "we need the power to define our own narratives". We need the power to decide and to participate fully in obtaining the cultural, economic and environmental equality and resources we need to live in a just society that can offer future generations visions and dreams that we can only imagine.
Suddenly the vote took on great importance because it was a path to power. I worked in Lowndes County AL for several months in 1965 and 1966 to see if this idea could become a reality; if through their vote, the people of Lowndes could achieve their goals of participation in county government. Their wins were inspiring but also served to illustrate the complexity of this long path towards equality and respect. Racism, inequality, and the desire to suppress the other continues to plague our world and factors into many of the global upheavals we experience today.
The banner of Freedom served us well and through it several generations moved forward. Black Power led to a recognition that "being in the room where it happens" is important and political representation is essential. Artists and musicians of color around the world recognize that they too can own and control the manifestations of their works and not be exploited by others. We can communicate instantly globally, and communities can see and compare their treatment in one part of the world with another. Now I am eager to see what will capture the sentiment of this very different generation.
We've gone past Freedom. Where do we go from here?
Copyright © Jennifer Lawson
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