Thursday, August 5, 2010

I Have Not the Courage

I recently visited the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina. Although a range of African-American experience and worldwide social injustice is covered, emphasis is on the African-American Civil Rights Movement, 1955-1968.

I was born at the end of this movement, so I have no firsthand memory of it. Textbooks I used in the 1970s and 1980s didn't include many events past World War II. (Encyclopedias I used as a child stated, "Someday man might explore space.") My upbringing in a white area in the North didn't provide exposure to racial tension; it existed in town, but didn't enter the few square blocks of my life. I knew only of a few events, like Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a bus, the Little Rock Nine pioneering school integration, and Martin Luther King saying "I have a dream."

So, when our exceptionally fabulous tour guide queued up displays with, "Of course, we're all familiar with the story…", I, shamefully, wasn't familiar. For example:
In 1955, 14-year-old, black, Chicagoan, Emmett Till, was brutally murdered while visiting family in Mississippi. Dared by his cousins, he wolf-whistled at a white woman. As a result, he was kidnapped, beaten, blinded, and shot in the head. His body was thrown into a river with a 74-pound cotton gin fan tied to his neck with barbed wire. His mutilated body could only be identified by a ring he wore. The two white suspects were acquitted by a jury of white men after only 67 minutes of deliberation. Afterward, the defendants gave an interview in which they admitted their crime. They never expressed remorse
As a mother, I'm shaky as I recall the photos—indescribable anguish on the face of Till's mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, viewing an unrecognizable lump that was once the face of her son. She insisted on an open-casket funeral, saying, "I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby."

The International Civil Rights Center and Museum is the original site of the Greensboro Four sit-in (a story I vaguely recall hearing before). On February 1, 1960, four African-American North Carolina A&T University students sat at the all-white lunch counter of F.W. Woolworth in Greensboro, triggering nonviolent sit-ins throughout the U.S. Joined daily by other students, they continued until the drugstore chain served all "properly dressed and well behaved people," regardless of race several months later.

It's unfathomable that such extreme and unpunished injustice and brutality could have been so common in my country (almost) within my lifetime.

The Greensboro Four were phenomenally courageous, given the extreme retribution exacted from a child who merely whistled 5 years earlier. How did they ever muster the courage to defy their oppressors? How did parents of college and high school students sitting in protest at that counter, amid jeers and threats, endure their fear for their children's safety, while remembering the heart-rending story of Mamie Till-Mobley's loss?

It is powerful to see the lunch counter standing on the same tile in the same room where a revolution began. It is sobering to admit I would not have the courage—courage like that of the Greensboro Four and so many others who risked their lives for equality—to cross those tiles to sit at that counter myself.

I stand in awe.

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