Shoulders of the Past for the Future

She is helping to coordinate plans which a local college is projecting for a summer gathering of people who were involved in the Civil Rights Movement of this century. The intent evidently is to engage some of these “veterans” in dialogue with younger people for whom the Civil Rights Movement is history, sometimes seeming quite ancient and irrelevant. She has asked me for some help in thinking about who ought to be invited to participate. Reflections of this sort are significant as we move toward a new century; casting the future in recollections of the past can become a kind of “Sankofa” experience for all of us concerned with racial justice.

Here I offer a hope that any gatherings such as these inter-generational dialogues will be cast in a historical context which reaches far back beyond the Civil Rights Movement. No movement at any time has ever come full-blown or cut-to-order, just appearing on the scene seemingly out of nowhere!            Always there is a history which gave birth to the Movement; always we stand, and walk, and run on the shoulders of those who have proceeded us. In recognizing that history there is also the danger that we get so trapped in the past that we stunt creativity for the future. Acknowledging that danger, I want here to simply trace an outline of some of the context of the Civil Rights Movement which I hope will be addressed by my conference-planning friends.

When did the Civil Rights Movement begin? Reach back much earlier in the century to understand its roots, review the controversies that developed so richly between the followers of Washington and DuBois, giving life to the consciousness of a people struggling to define a new role in the land of captivity, raising in the collective will a demand for freedom and rights. Follow the sons of Africa into World War I, and meet with them for the first time African peoples from THE Continent. Feel the stretch of hearts realizing a destiny connected forever to dark-skinned peoples of the world. Come home with them to a land “fit for democracy and hypocrisy,” prepared to hear a Langston Hughes say it clearly that “America was never America” for him, but to swear allegiance to a dream that “it will be.” Hear those other voices from the Harlem Renaissance, from pen, in verse, song, and drama nurturing a generation of self-assured, confident people who knew even then that “Black was Beautiful.” Let your heart listen to the soul-full music emerging from those years as a counter-point to the oppressive mainstream of a white America whose own soul was touched at a depth it did not dare to understand. Do not forget ever Marcus Garvey, challenging a nation within a nation to new paths to fulfillment.

When did the Civil Rights Movement begin? Do not let the context stop in the early part of this century. Move back to name again the “shoulders” of another time. Remember the thousands who moved in and through and defined the struggles of Reconstruction and whose determination to overcome was fueled by its destruction. Their names fill books. Bethune and Wells-Barnett are names that lead us back even farther in that other century. Walk the talk with Sojourner Truth, run and risk with Harriet, dream and plan and conspire with Turner, and Prosser, and Vesey; let their willingness to die fire the heart of every century to follow. Stand with Garrison and Sumner, and follow once again the changes which moved John Brown from educator to revolutionary. Read again the words of Frederick Douglass, telling us that July 4th was no day for him to celebrate! Do not ever forget the un-named men and women and children who endured and found dozens of ways to rebel at the same time they nourished a spirit that could not be bound by any chains.

When did the Civil Rights Movement begin? Find the body of David Walker where he predicted it would be, dead on the streets of Boston. Some would say a fitting end for one who could write that provocative Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, perhaps the first African American call for a trans-African vision. Read those words again and you will hear the thought-seeds of our Movement. Those thought-seeds are in a thousand places: words put into the double-meanings of spirituals, words written by those who could not, should not write, words spoken by those forbidden to speak. Words, in fact, which become THE WORD for all movements of liberation.

When did the Civil Rights Movement begin? With the first African woman who suffocated her new-born rather than see it enslaved? With the enslaved man who simply broke his hoe and could not work the full day? With the first African who threw himself overboard in an unguarded fleet moment? With the quiet mocking of “massa” in the quarters of the enslaved? With the exploding rage of some unknown whipped man or woman who struck back at life-peril? The Civil Rights Movement began in each case and thousands of others; the shoulders are many, and they are of men and of women and of children sometimes broad, sometimes slender …always strong.

There is a hint of what I mean by putting the Civil Rights Movement into its historical context. The context is wider and deeper obviously beyond these suggestions, but we will not understand that Movement until it is seen, rehearsed, and felt in that context. What I have begun here is a process of putting the Civil Rights Movement into a limited context which focuses on the Black liberation struggle. That focus is appropriate for the Civil Rights Movement, because it was a Black-led movement, growing out of a specific racial group. To utilize learnings from that movement for the future must include an expansion to include the liberation struggles of other racial groups. Some of those struggles will also mean a historical context of centuries, including the history of “Indian” nations in this hemisphere, and the ancestors of Latino and Chicano peoples also indigenous to these shores. It must include the struggles of people of Asia who came later to this place. It must name the names of those heroes who have written the history of many liberation movements. Time, space, and my limited knowledge leave me inadequate to that task. Before they look to that future, I hope those who are planning this summer’s conference will take a moment to look back, to see where we as a collective have been, to learn the lessons which are taught by the age more than by the day, and to seek nourishment for the Spirit, and hope to sustain weary hearts in this dry land.

Those Shoulders of the Past are for the Future, and the next century will lead us into a movement which will encompass all of the oppressed racial groups, forming an alliance which will be a Vocal Majority, determined, committed in common action to the pursuits of life, liberty, and happiness for all the peoples of the world.