A New Day and a New Dawn
Robert D. Waterman
I am inspired by the 50th anniversary Selma March to write this and join the others who have contributed. Seeing John Lewis and President Obama at Selma caused a visceral response that touched the same stream of consciousness that I felt in 1965 when the momentum of Selma reached out through the Voting Rights Act as an invitation to many of us to take action. In my case, that meant participating that summer in SCOPE (Summer Community Organization and Political Education) a project of SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference).
My involvement gave me an intimate perspective on the consequential fruits and shadows resulting from the Movement. Obama a president: Fruit. Shadow: Political forces, especially in congress, doing everything they can to sabotage his presidency. Seeing this for me made the shadow racism that is still alive and well in our national ethos apparent as a current permutation of the many faces of Jim Crow. Many risked and gave their lives for the Voting Rights Act that is so cleverly being dismantled. Somehow how our finer sensibilities have been diminished when One Person One Vote becomes a legalistic abstraction that money is speech. For me this is an affront to all that is great and good within us. The key is learning to trust our hearts. Our minds can be fooled.
Shortly after Selma, I met two gentleman in Santa Barbara, California, where I was attending university. They were from the SCLC recruiting for SCOPE. Their recruiting efforts inspired a half dozen or so of us to go South that summer as part of the SCOPE project from the University of California at Santa Barbara. We gathered first in Atlanta. For me the experience was transformative from the beginning. I had heard King speak, but had not met the likes of Bayard Rustin, James Bevel and Hosea Williams. I found Bayard Rustin s speaking particularly inspiring and clarifying to my perception of activism. The experience of so many college students from around the nation gathered in one place and made to feel part of a greater movement of good was electrifying.
After our orientation, we dispersed to various counties throughout the South. In '65, with most of the Santa Barbara group, I went to Virginia. I was in Surrey County and the others were in the neighboring county of Sussex. Surry is mostly a rural county so we worked with local groups to canvas the dispersed residents as a means to mobilize voter registration in conjunction with the passing of the Voting Rights Act. The value of our action is apparent to me today; however, the internal transformation is where I would like to focus. The immersion in a black community in the South was transformative. It was like total enculturation in another country. It was all USA on the surface. The feeling of Black Virginia USA was warm with a depth of humanity that was new to me. A quality of heart distilled and seeped into my Soul, changing how I saw the light, physically and spiritually. An internal process began that would transform and focus my life. We attended a King speech that we reported locally in the mimeograph newspaper we started. We attended the SCLC s annual conference which was also attended by folks from the concurrent project in Chicago.
The second SCOPE summer, 1966, began with less fanfare. Most of the Santa Barbara group from the year before returned to Virginia. I stayed in Atlanta. This time we were a hand full at the Freedom House in Atlanta, meeting with Hosea Williams. Though less dramatic in the beginning, the interaction at the Freedom House was far more intimate. The energy became somewhat stagnate and perhaps unhealthy from waiting too long for field assignments. This stagnation was relieved somewhat by doing some local canvasing in Atlanta.
I m not clear on the time sequence, but then came the Meredith March in Mississippi. We joined the march after it had started. From the first day, I could feel that something had changed. The March was like a container for an internal debate, even conflict, between the constituencies of the Movement. The debate never resolved itself, yet somehow we managed to finish and make it to Jackson. What seemed like compromising and settling for less at Canton, Mississippi, turned out to be making it through by the skin of our teeth. I say this because of the underlying tension between the constituent groups.
That evening after the final event at the Jackson capital building, the frustration was palpable and it could have, understandably, turned against us. The antipathy and frustration manifested by burning the American flags that the elders had distributed earlier. Some of this ire was directed toward us. I remember watching this a feeling oddly positive. To be clear, violence can be a death spiral. I am not a violence advocate. In this case, I saw the anger as something deeper, the first emergence of a positive creative force that had been stifled. It seemed an habitual limitation was being cast off. What seemed somewhat violent was a celebration of fearlessness. Meredith would not have approved of the behavior. It was true to his intent. What I saw was the next generation wanting none of it.
Violence was not a negative option when circumstances made it necessary. When I heard the slogan, "by any means necessary," as a white man, I wanted the cheer. The upsurge of black power would be with us for a while until we came to respect it. This is not violence for its own sake, but the promise of violence gives us pause. I pray that it be a warning in these times when the gap between the haves and have nots grows rather than a necessary means. We see today, even when peaceful demonstration is the first choice, violence is the first response for those who want to do business as usual.
Originally, Meredith started out with the intent to march through Mississippi with a few black men and in this was intent to break through the fear that permeated the psyche of Black Mississippi. Early shotgun wounds took him out of the picture. Most levels of fear are obvious. The shadow of fear runs deep and is often unassuming. During the march, I remember a small exchange between me and a local black man my age. We were in a general store along the march route. We both were looking through a pile of blue jeans. We simultaneously found a perfect fit pair (we were both the same size). He had started to take them at the moment I reached out. His spontaneous abdication startled me. I tried to convince him to take the jeans but as soon as he saw my interest his reaction was a sudden visceral refusal. The blacks I grew up with in California would have taken the jeans in a minute. He shared with me later that were he lived, if a black and a white kid met at a fence crossing at the same time, with no hesitation the whites had the right-of-way. Masked as courtesy, this was survival. Seemingly a trivial event, this gave me a deep and chilling insight into a whole culture.
A seminal event for me on the March was Canton, Mississippi, and the pitch-the-tent episode. This could have been another flashpoint for the Movement. The needed intersection of forces to make it work were not there. The sacrifice would not have had the desired results and the consensus in the constituency was not present. The forces driving the Meredith March are well described in Down to the Crossroads, by Aram Goudsoiuzian. It was the change of an epoch. Frustrations was high within the march, which served as a microcosm to the changing tide of the movement nationally. King was shifting to the realization that the issues were far more endemic to the culture than civil rights and the radical young were abandoning nonviolence for the integrity of meeting force with force, a new kind of equality.
Jo Freemen told me about Down to the Crossroads when I was trying to resolve my understanding of the Meredith March and my summers in the South. I needed some refreshing of my 50 year old memories. That day in Canton, I remember the troopers marching up and putting on their gas masks. We were starting to pitch the tent, chanting pitch the tent. We had asked for permission to stay the night in the park next to an Elementary School and had been denied. So, it seemed like an opportunity, though apparently it did not turn out to be so. I was in the middle of the tent area. I looked up and gas canisters bounced off a wall on the side of the field, then more gas canisters came to the middle of the field.
As is my nature, I go calm inside during a crises. I saw people running anyway they could. I stood there for a while. Time seemed to stand still. The gas wafted around me. It seemed like I was the only one left at my location. It looked like everyone was allowed to flee unharmed other than the effects of the gas. Later I heard that some had been hit. I went to my knees from the effects of the gas, feeling totally demeaned and coughing, my eyes burning. A trooper walked up to me and took me by the arm and said in an even voice: come on lad. He helped me up and escorted me off of the field. I felt his kindness. As we walked toward the other troopers, I felt a brief twinge of apprehension. We passed them and he let me go. I walked to a nearby house where the residents invited me to wash. I did so and felt better yet exhausted.
In Down to the Crossroads, I read the account in which Jo tried to take pictures. Her account and some others didn't mention beatings. Yet, the author reported beatings. I did not see that. Was I in a bubble? Was it out of my view? What did she see? Her comment to me was that there are all kinds and I evidently met and kind trooper. From recent reports from Ferguson and other places this same ghost seems to be lurking in our nation s police forces. I pray that we have more of the kind ones. I pray that we have more kind congressman as well.
Returning to Georgia, an event that set my future path took place. I don't remember the town. It was a small town in central Georgia somewhere west of LaGrange and South of Atlanta. We were met by a blind black preacher who gave us a place to sleep and introduced us around. This man was fearless. He certainly carried the vision of what Meredith hoped to inspire. He seemed to radiate a light. When we met in groups and he led the song "This Little Light of Mine," it was a big light. He became my hero. This man walked fearlessly without a cane or guide dog anywhere he wanted to and talked to anyone he chose. When we needed something, he got it. This meeting solidified in me a vision that the true change we were looking for and the true impact we had upon one another in our SCOPE experience, black and white, was how we touched each other with our humanity, more deeply awakening us to the limitless power within us.
This, for me, was the true power that King sought to inspire. When we see the mountain top something deep and profound awakens within us. From that time on my work turned to discovering the infinite power of loving within in each of us and teaching the ways and means of that power as a practical resolution of the challenges we encounter in this world. The shining city on the hill is within us and if it is to exist for us in this world, we must choose it and make it a priority, otherwise the shadow that appears in racism will continue through it's many permutations to devastate the sweet dreams of humanity. In this day, the true enemies of living love, that exist as our soul, are the ideologies that drive the arrogant self-righteousness and partisanship of so many political leaders.
That we shall overcome is an admonition of our Soul. King saw that the source of racism was a deeper aberration within humanity. An aberration that makes us think that who we are is our difference rather than the love we share as a common soul. As a race, we have somehow managed to come this far by basing our perception of reality on fear. To go further we must base our reality of love. A central teaching that I got from King was that the Movement exists inside of all of us waiting to be awakened. This movement is an awakening of love. Awakening events will occur by fate or design, whether white police beating children, pictures of abject poverty, ISIL storming across the Iraqi desert, or Wall Street crime bankrupting America. Our habit of complacency is our enemy. We must daily choose to discovery the good and then act in its behalf. Today the principle that guides my Movement of spirit is to use everything to transform myself into greater loving, so that the transformation of the world into loving can take place. Through various levels of awareness, I believe this was and is the force that at a deep level motivated all of us to act. I pray that we can awaken without a crises to make us do so. Our love is enough. I pray that we shall overcome ourselves. Truly, we are living at the beginning of a new day and a new dawn.