When I and other Freedom Movement veterans speak to schools, churches, and other groups, we are often asked the "Why did you..." question. It's a fair and reasonable question, but it always makes me a bit uncomfortable. For one thing, it's impossible to provide a clear, simple, 60-second answer to a very complex set of motivations. But beyond that, there are deeper problems.
To begin with, as a white activist, what I'm often being asked either explicitly or implicitly is why am I as a white person involved in fighting for racial justice? And I suspect that lurking behind that question are two equally invalid assumptions:
First, there is the assumption that racism and discrimination was (is) a Black problem that Blacks have to solve. It wasn't and isn't — it's a white problem. Blacks did not deny themselves the right to vote or have a cup of coffee at a lunch counter, nor did they create separate and unequal school systems, or "white-only" jobs, or segregated housing. And they didn't lynch themselves. Since whites were (are) the source of the problem, whites therefore have to be part of the solution.
The second incorrect assumption is that it's self-evident why Blacks were involved in the Movement, and therefore only whites need to be asked, "Why did you...?" But the truth is that while most Blacks approved of and voiced support for the Movement (unlike most whites), only a small fraction attended a mass meeting, took active part in protests, attempted to register to vote when it was a dangerous act of courage, or even just signed a petition or contributed money to a civil rights organization. And this is not surprising, social scientists tell us that few reform movements ever involve more than 5% of the population in active participation. Yet if only a small portion of Blacks were personally involved, then it is not obvious why those who put their lives and livelihoods on the line did so — and we're back to the "Why did you?" question.
So, okay, it's fair and reasonable to ask both Black and white activists the "Why did you?" question, but for me it's still the wrong question. For me, the more important, and certainly more interesting, question is to ask all those who were adults in the 1960s why they were NOT involved in the Freedom Movement. Some day, I'd like to be in the audience and ask a panel of the "silent majority" who did nothing: "What part of "With liberty and justice for all" did you not understand? Was there something in "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal" that you disagreed with?
Overt racists will, of course, loudly defend their belief in white-supremecy — that's old news. But what about the millions of living-room liberals, some of whom wrote an occasional check in the privacy of their den, but few of whom spoke up publicly, and fewer still ever raised a picket sign — why didn't they? The great moderate majority avow their love of American freedoms, how then do they explain their silence of generations as those freedoms were denied to citizens of color? They were certainly not shy about voicing their disapproval of nonviolent protesters asking for those same freedoms — that was a big part of the famous "white backlash" — so how do they square their actions and inactions with their oft-stated principles? And what about the flag-waving patriots who throw an hysterical fit if someone burns a flag or dares criticize the U.S (the self- appointed leader of the "free world"). How do they justify their utter failure to defend the freedoms they proclaim so fervently (to say nothing of their vigorous hostility to those of us who were demanding justice and equality)?
When are those questions going to be asked?
And while we're on the subject, the media closely questions political candidates of a certain age about their military service (or lack thereof) during the Vietnam era, but how come they're never asked what they did to defend freedom during the Civil Rights era?
Copyright © 2008, Bruce Hartford