Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Freedom Summer, Then and Now

Last night, even though I should have gone to bed early, I stayed up to watch the PBS show Freedom Summer.  What an amazing movement for social justice!  What a thrilling moment in U.S. history!

I found myself thinking about the recent accusations of voter suppression.  Having to show a picture ID is not voter suppression.  Having to write an essay on a section of the state constitution--well, that may or may not be voter suppression.  Getting beaten when you show up to register--that's voter suppression.  Losing your job--that's voter suppression.  I'm glad we're not suppressing voters in that way.

Of course, one might say, why bother to suppress voters?  So few people vote these days.  It's amazing to watch these efforts of people to get registered.  And now so many citizens don't bother.  It's a right that so few of us have had for very long--what accounts for that change?

There was a section where people read the applications from the college kids who were willing to spend the summer of 1964 in Mississippi.  In some ways, it was chilling, especially when Rita Schwerner read hers; she's the wife of the murdered trio of Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner.  The students knew it might get bad, but they had no idea how bad it would be.

I recognize that idealism--how I love the crazy idealism of youth.  And no, I don't think it's the only way that the arc of history bends towards justice.  I think that the steadiness that comes with later life can be just as important.  And older folks have resources that most younger people don't--and I don't mean just money.

As a wild-eyed idealist activist in my youth, I watch Rita Schwerner, and I wonder what it's like to have lost your husband so young--here she is, 50 years later, still talking about him.  He's frozen in time.  I think of that Keats poem, "Ode on a Grecian Urn" that so famously tells us that it might be better to be forever young.  No one loses their idealism that way.  There's no coping with what happens as ideals and values change.

Of course, as someone who married my college activist sweetheart, I am grateful to have seen that process and survived thus far.  It is good to be married to someone who remembers our youthful passion, someone who remembers the way it used to be and the ways that change came.  It's good to have someone who will still sing freedom songs with you as the car moves across the countryside.

Here's one of my favorite CDs in that genre, "We'll Never Turn Back" by Mavis Staples:

I've seen the photo that's the cover art as part of an exhibition at the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale--powerful!  The music on the CD is just as powerful.  I'll spend some time today listening to it.  It's got my favorite rendition of "This Little Light of Mine." 

It's good to remember what we're called to do with our lights--and it's not to sit on the sofa and watch others suffer.

If you need inspiration, watch the film (I'm thinking that this website will have it available after the show airs) or listen to the CD.  There are plenty of places that need our enthusiasm for social justice and change, whether we're young, wild-eyed idealists or idealists of a different variety.  Most of us can work for social justice without paying the kind of steep price paid by the Freedom Summer students.  We should get started, if we haven't already.

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