Children Went To Jail
Children went to jail.
By scores, 50 to 100 at a time, children went to jail.
Routinely, strategically, day after day, children went to jail.
This is a major part of how the Voting Rights Act was won.
Reading Lynda Blackmon Lowery’s memoire, Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom, this simple fact was impressed upon me. I never learned this in school.
Reading and Reflecting For Black History Month
I have so much to learn. In the Segregated States of America, the aftermath of segregation laws – and the inequities and prejudices they perpetuated which continue to shape policies of injustice – continues to divide schools and neighborhoods. This division is more than skin deep. Our nation’s notorious legacy of racial division largely divides the American experience itself according to race.
This means that white Americans like myself need to listen and take our cues from people of color, and use what we learn to transform our racial advantage into the compassionate equality we idealize. African Americans have a lived understanding of the nightmarish shadow of the American dream, the reality lurking beneath the myth that paints the United States as the land of “liberty and justice for all.” The chasm between how far our nation claims to have come and how far we have yet to go is deep and deadly, and must be bridged with understanding, empathy, repentance, and reparation.
It is with this in mind that, for Black History Month, I have committed myself to reading and reflecting on the writings of African American authors. And that is how I learned that Lynda Blackmon, along with so many African American children in Selma, Alabama, was arrested 9 times before she turned 15 in order to secure the right to vote.
Lowery explains that simply for trying to register to vote (which included long applications, ridiculous literacy tests with impossible questions, and the degrading need for a “sponsor”) African Americans could be fired. That wasn’t news to me, but I had not thought through the implications of this. It meant that for trying to work for rights that should have been available since the 15th Amendment, African Americans could lose their income and their livelihood and their ability to care for their children. Thus, it was the children themselves who marched to give their parents and eventual selves the right to vote. They coordinated with teachers to skip school and other students who stayed in school to help them learn what they missed. Their parents would send them off knowing that they might very well be arrested, giving them extra food to eat in the jail cells until they would be released. This was preferable to losing the family income.
Reading this book (along with my elementary-aged daughter), I had to pause periodically to sit in the discomfort of living in a nation that routinely arrested children so that their parents could have rights they should have had in the first place. The realization that we haven’t come very far and are even taking steps backward sinks like a stone in my stomach as I consider how police today can arrest, pull guns on, and even shoot children with impunity.
Reflecting on Lowery’s story and the way progress on the long road to equality is still blocked and in some ways even reversed today, I have four interrelated thoughts.
Dehumanization as Projection
First, the dehumanizing stereotyping and scapegoating of African Americans that continues to this day is the projection of a white supremacist culture. A history of carefully-crafted anti-black mythology that justified exploitation, slavery, and segregation led white police officers to treat children as criminals. The worst part of all is that almost nothing has changed.
I’m thinking of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice, all killed by the lethal weapon of demonization and white fear. And I’m thinking of the persistent myths used to demonize not only individuals but also families and communities. Lowery’s story testifies not only to her personal resilience, but to the strength and mutual support of her family and community. Her memoire makes it abundantly clear that it was the persistence and compassion of African Americans supporting each other that made the Civil Rights movement possible. Yet the dehumanization of African American people and communities is as prevalent now as it was when Lowery was handcuffed at age 14. The violence of denying the vote and arresting children was overlooked while the nonviolent disruption of an unjust order was spun as “violence.” The same thing happens today when Black Lives Matter is depicted as a hate group instead of a movement built on self-love and intent on expanding the boundaries of liberty and justice. That’s projection. It’s placing onto others qualities we fear and are loath to see in ourselves.
The Myth of American Exceptionalism Upholds the Dehumanizing Myths About African Americans
Second, the myth of American exceptionalism contributes to the dehumanization of African Americans. Our culture claims to value self-reliance while our nation itself was built on unpaid labor. Our society touts individuality while for generations our nation engaged in the wholesale demonization of African Americans. We promote the myth of “self-made,” but throughout history our government has given help for housing and education and employment… to white people only. The very democracy in which we take pride has been denied to African Americans, necessitating the struggle for the Voting Rights Act among so many other things.
The truth that no one is self-sufficient, that we need each other and we should not be ashamed of that, is undermined by the American aesthetic of rugged individualism. But nothing belies that myth more than the exploitation of African Americans. Furthermore, when white Americans are blinded by the myth of American self-sufficiency and individuality, they not only fail to recognize the uncompensated labor of African Americans throughout history, but also place the blame for wealth inequality and disparities in housing and education at the feet of African Americans instead of in the racist system. Too many of us would rather believe the myth that anyone can “make it” than acknowledge the truth that America has always been designed to lift some above others. The evils of racism were not wiped out with the changing of laws. Too often, white Americans will glorify the Civil Rights movement while failing to acknowledge all the work that still must be done. White Americans (including myself) are failing to transform the foundation of our nation from racism to equality, partly because of the myopia created by our misplaced faith in individualism and our failure to deal with the paradox that a nation founded on the principle of liberty and justice for all was built by slaves.
Steady, Loving Confrontation Is Not Violence
Third, the “steady, loving confrontation” advocated by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that Dr. Lowery writes about was not recognized as nonviolent then, and corresponding nonviolent movements are not universally recognized as nonviolent today. Projection, fear, and a failure to acknowledge the violence of the status quo (enhanced by uncritical acceptance of American exceptionalism) accounts for some of the disconnect. Also, people rarely accept confrontation as loving. Most of us take a lot of pride in believing ourselves to be right, and a protest demanding that we see flaws in our society or our ideology feels like a personal attack.
Protests, the most visible aspects of wider social movements, are not usually seen as love-fests, especially from the outside. But, as Lowery’s story shows, they are motivated by a fierce love for what the rest of society has undervalued, and moreover by survival. When people take to the streets to make themselves heard, they are taking a risk because the default social conditions have been unbearable for too long. Yes, protests are filled with feelings other than love – frustration and anger – but they are also rallies against despair and resignation.
Fierce love for what society has refused to love has a way of catching, a way of persuading and turning hearts. For all who demonize the Black Lives Matter movement, there are other allies who, because of Black Lives Matter, are coming to a more thorough and empathetic understanding of the way racism continues to permeate society and harm black lives. Mimetic theory can testify to the way social movements like BLM can change the conversation and begin to change the world.
Unfortunately, others will be disinclined to see the greater peace for which Black Lives Matters strives when it aims to dismantle the status quo. Those who respond to Black Lives Matter as a hate group foment the climate of fear that contributes to the violence that Black Lives Matter stands against. When protests are violently repressed, defensive violence is a natural reaction. But the status quo that protests seek to change is the dominant violence, and people raising their voices in solidarity with one another for change is essential for building peace.
Those viewing protests and the social movements behind them from the outside should recognize them as a call for us to become our better selves. Protest alerts us that something is wrong that we need to hear and understand and change. The healthy way to respond to protest is the same as the healthy way to respond to criticism – by listening and making a commitment to improve. If we take protest as a sign of faith in the potential for our nation to do better, we can welcome it. Few today would argue that the Civil Rights movement did not help our nation improve. We must look at the Black Lives Matter movement and anti-police brutality marches the same way.
When Nonviolence Doesn’t Work, People Will Stop Believing in It
Fourth, when the progress achieved by steady, loving confrontation – including the routine arrest of children – continues to be rolled back, the efficacy of nonviolence will inevitably be questioned. Children went to jail so African Americans would have the right to vote. Now provisions of the Voting Rights Act have been repealed and polls in African American neighborhoods have closed. African Americans are arrested and given longer sentences at disproportionate rates. And officers kill unarmed and nonthreatening African Americans with impunity. Faced with this reality, who can argue when people disillusioned with nonviolence correctly claim that gains made through nonviolent protests and social movements have been too little, too fragile, and too easily reversed?
We have the most militaristic nation on the planet, with occupying forces in more than 70 countries and militarized police occupying African American neighborhoods here at home. Americans, as a whole, believe in violence. Yet our nation invokes nonviolence when those on the underside of oppressive power structures in our own nation seek to rise up. Cynicism about the efficacy of nonviolence is understandable.
All I can say to my fellow white people is that if we look at the horrors of racism, as books like Lowery’s portray them, if we consider the horror that is arresting children for being the social conscience of our nation, we will understand the need to end this evil by any means necessary. I still firmly believe that violence begets violence, that violence escalates and harms more than it helps. But those of us who believe in nonviolence and benefit from the privileges of a society still so structured on racial advantage must look to our own violence rather than tone-police anyone else. White defensiveness adds to a climate of fear that exacerbates real violence against African Americans.
The only way to end the violence of racism is to acknowledge it and transform it. Lynda Blackmon Lowery and movements like Black Lives Matter expose the horrors of racism and show us the damage they cause. Transformation will come when the larger community listens and commits itself to honoring the dignity of black lives rather than perceiving violence in challenges to the status quo and becoming defensive. The best way to fundamentally shift the attitude of our culture is for children and adults to listen to the voices and stories of African Americans. We need books like Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom and movements like Black Lives Matter to show us the violent world we live in, and then we need to work to change it.
Image: Photo of the front cover of Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom by Lynda Blackmon Lowery, as told to Leacock and Susan Buckley.