My eight-year-old daughter and I watch, heads together, as a young John Lewis walks across the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. We are visiting the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and we have sat down at the large lunch counter interactive to explore key moments in the struggle for Civil Rights.
Lewis, now a U.S. Congressman from Georgia, along with Hosea Williams, an organizer of the march and one of Martin Luther King’s most trusted advisors, are at the head of a long column of people setting out from Selma, Alabama, to march for the African Americans in Alabama who were denied the right to vote. The unarmed and non-violent protestors walk calmly over the bridge, straight towards a wall of state troopers and local police.
There is a standoff, after which the police advance toward the protestors, who stand stock-still. At the front of the line are Lewis, dressed in a smart trench coat, and Williams. The police walk up, jab Lewis in the stomach with a nightstick, and then knock him down, along with a number of others. Williams manages to outrun the officers, but Lewis’ skull is fractured. The officers proceed to beat the protestors—even those on the ground. When officers on horseback enter the fray, people on the ground are trampled.
More than 50 were hospitalized later that day, March 7, 1965, known today as “Bloody Sunday,” and John Lewis was beaten within an inch of his life, as he told me in an interview in 1999. These images helped galvanize support for the Voting Rights Act, and their raw depiction of human violence is the worst I have ever seen.
That’s when I tell my eight-year-old daughter that her grandparents played a small role in the movement. In 1965, my parents, John and Ardath Mason, had worked to change a racist system that did not reflect their values, mostly educating churchgoers in Wilmington, Delaware, about the Civil Rights Movement. When King called for people to join the march in Selma after Bloody Sunday, my father responded. He and other local clergy set off, and the local press covered their departure.
My mother still tells the story of what happened next (though I have not yet told my daughter). “The phone rang at 2:30 in the morning. The man at the other end of the line said, ‘Thousands of people are praying that your husband and your children will be killed.’”
I was as young as 3 or 4 years old when I first heard the story, and I still remember the way my stomach clenched in fear.
As a folklorist, I am trained to think of family stories as a way to explore themes like “where have I come from?” and “where am I going?” Over the last year, I have been shocked by the racially charged language and violent acts that have racked our nation.
My parents’ story showed me the value of knowing my principles and acting in accordance with them. For my parents, this meant educating local people about the Civil Rights struggle and, when the time came, engaging in direct action to support the Movement. For me, this has meant carrying their work forward by exploring and representing people in the African Diaspora—their struggles and successes, calamity and creativity—through research, writing, exhibitions, public programming and film—most recently helping to produce Freedom Sounds, a three-day festival last September to mark the opening of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture.
It’s these stories that need to be told now more than ever. My parents did not need to get involved in the struggle for Civil Rights, but they chose to address what they understood as the major issue of their time. They were young and idealistic, willing to put themselves in harm’s way to help create a more perfect union where each person could live “free and equal in the laws of her country and in the eyes of God,” as President Barack Obama said at the opening of the new museum.
As the President pointed out, these stories are complicated, and messy, and full of contradictions. But they are our stories, fundamentally American stories, and they deserve to be told—and heard.
Even so, these practices are often met with resistance. My parents’ struggle brought that painful insight to light: the world is not always a safe place. There are people who are so deeply committed to their prejudice and privilege that they are willing to hurt others in order to sustain it. At a very young age, my parents’ story awakened me to a hard but common truth: There are bigots in the world, and at least some of them want you dead.
Like so many, Martin Luther King, John Lewis, Hosea Williams, and thousands of others were part of a social movement that used direct action to make change. Direct action has been used for centuries to raise awareness, change attitudes and call for specific changes.
In 1773, the Sons of Liberty defiantly resisted unjust taxation without representation at the Boston Tea Party, destroying 342 chests of imported tea. In 1913, suffragettes crashed President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, holding an illegal march in Washington, D.C., to call for the right to vote. In 1886, the Knights of Labor organized street protests to call for an eight-hour work day, and strikes over the years have been a primary driver of increased worker safety. It’s this direct action that highlights tensions, which already exist and provokes engagement on difficult issues, as King captured in his famous letter from Birmingham jail:
Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path? You are quite right in calling, for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.
As I talked with my daughter about the issues of racial discrimination and the small role that her grandparents played in the important story of Civil Rights, she looked off into the distance for a quiet moment. Then with surprising maturity, she said, “Change isn’t always easy, is it?”