Friday, August 28, 2020

Fannie and Martin

Sometimes I make good choices. Like watching a documentary last night called Freedom Summer on PBS. I cannot praise this film highly enough. Especially in this time when the Repugnitans are doing everything they can to subvert our right to vote and make our most precious freedom and our most central democratic tenet more difficult instead of easier (and can someone explain to me why they aren’t being tried for treason?), this film shows who the real patriots and Americans are. It’s about the extraordinary determination of Mississippi citizens to claim their right to vote in the face of terror, beatings, bombings, murder wholly supported by the local white government to maintain their white supremacy. And the 1000 white students who came to help and find out how our country really works. 


Another piece of the resistance puzzle that my schooling conveniently left out was the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that formed and went to the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City to demand representation to counter-balance/replace the all-white Mississippi delegation from a state whose population was over 50% black. In stating their case on the Convention Floor, one of the speakers was Martin Luther King.


There is rarely a time when I am not moved to tears by the eloquence and moral courage of this man. The film shows some of what he said and as usual, it was clear and strong. But he was completely overshadowed by Fannie Lou Hamer. Not that it was a competition, but if it was, it would have been Fannie 10, Martin 1. And why?


Simply because she was from Mississippi and lived the horror. Martin had lived other horrors and could be empathetic to all similar examples, but she was the one on the scene and when she spoke from her heart, it connected. (Despite Johnson’s efforts to draw attention away from her— so shameless! You will see the film, of course, so watch for that moment.) The Convention offers a “compromise”—2 delegates out of 60—and the Party refuses. When Adam Clayton Powell tries to convince them to take it, that this is how politics works, Fannie looks him in the eye and says, “Have your hands picked cotton? Were you thrown into jail and beaten and had your life threatened by the Mississippi police?” 


That struck me deeply. The people most qualified to speak on any subject, the people with the earned authority (rather than the titled authority) to represent the issue at hand, are the people who lived the life down to their bones, who paid their dues, who suffered the slings and arrows of standing up to those who would pull them down. Even someone with the experience and eloquence of Martin Luther King can’t match the person who was there first-hand. 


Not to trivialize the grandeur of this dynamic with my tiny personal examples, but it’s how I felt at school dealing with a boss 25 years younger who didn’t have the humility to understand how little he knew about the school he was supposed to run. I was the one who sat in decades of meetings shaping the school vision, who lived through the highs and lows, who created, crafted and led the ceremonies that stamped the school with its character, who led the camping trip with 60 kids each year dealing with bears, rattlesnakes, snow, escaped convicts (all true). I was the one gathering with the kids every single day creating community through singing. He was just the guy who sat in his office and came out to claim the public glory of how wonderful the school was when the visitors came or our kids performed at conventions (with me and my colleagues loading and driving the U-haul with the instruments). 


Some 10 years ago, he supported a move to change the status of staff as voting members of our school corporation from those who worked 50% to 80%. Which eliminated my wife and I, the two senior members of the faculty. When I protested his stand, he had the audacity to say I’d still have a voice but no vote. So I had my Fannie Lou Hamer moment of reminding him that in a democracy, your vote is your voice. And then he suspended me. 


Where is your own authority? What have you lived the most deeply, cared about the most consistently, put yourself on the line for? If it’s something worthy, chances are it’s on the chopping block of this next election. If you need some reminders as to how extraordinarily important your vote is and some inspiration to get yourself or others out there, please, please, please, see this film. 


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