At work, my coworkers and I have been sorting through student entries for an essay contest about breaking barriers. Students in 4th—8th grades write about their struggles and pains. Topics from siblings or parents with illnesses, to body image and bullying, to moving and struggling in school find their way onto the page.
One entry was from a young woman whose mother decided at the last minute to evacuate the family home in advance of Hurricane Katrina. The family packed clothes for a day or two, got on one of the city buses the local government used for public evacuations and stayed on the bus until it reached a destination. The ensuing days seemed very much like frontier life. After some days of living on the bus, they made it to a shelter, only to be bullied back onto the bus at gunpoint. The sheriff of the town (the essay writer didn’t specify the name of the town) was not allowing “Negroes” into the shelter. They quickly realized they were not to be given access to basics such as ice in sweltering heat. Only through her brother’s threats to other survivors did they find the source of the ice.
The person my company hired to open, log, and distribute the entries is a fresh-faced and energetic white American. Recently arrived from two years in rural Cambodia, he asked us to read the Katrina entry and tell him if we thought the writer was telling the truth. He found it hard to believe that anyone was being denied basic necessities based on race in this day and age. Weeks later (and years after the storm) an article detailing the concerns of police volunteers who had witnessed the abuses of Baton Rouge police officers after the storm circulated around the Internet.
The young man’s incredulity when faced with tales of race-based abuses reminded me of the pattern of change that was documented in the recently-released documentary Soundtrack for a Revolution.
There were a lot of familiar touch-points in the film—historical moments that I had learned about in school and points of struggle I had heard recounted in the media. The film mostly centers around the efforts organized by Martin Luther King Jr. and his team. In on-camera interviews, activists and participants in the civil rights movement remembered the songs that fired them up, kept them focused, and voiced their determination. The remembered details combined with a chronological progression of events allow for a very intimate understanding of how the movement swept across the south, attracting organizers, students, and supporters.
Were you not alive during the movement, it might be difficult to understand how the battle was fought. The differences between the various protests, boycotts, and sit-ins may blur together into a simplistic rendering of historic change. The film captured the differences in tone, mood, and abuse embedded in the various victories and losses that—taken together—became a revolution. Movement participants remembered the sheriffs of the different towns by name and demeanor; they remembered the white citizenry of the different towns by the tenor of their spite and resistance. Each town presented a particular struggle.
As the film progressed and the interviewees remembered each town, each sheriff and each conflict, a pattern emerged. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his entourage would arrive to a town. They may have been invited by a particular group of local civil rights fighters, or they may have identified that particular city as important to the movement. Upon arrival, the group would connect with the local movement, create a strategy and fight. Inevitably, the civil rights protests and demonstrations were met with local resistance and violence. As the protesters’ bodies were attacked and beaten, the violence was captured by television cameras and broadcast across the country.
It is national lore how the civil rights movement changed the very fabric of America. We are taught—if not explicitly, then tacitly—that the civil rights movement changed racist hearts and minds and created a more just society. However, the film adeptly demonstrated that in the south—where the blood was shed, where the protests raged, and where the burnings and deaths occurred—belief systems remained intact. Rather than convince segregationists that integration was the way to a stronger, better nation; the civil rights protesters offered their beaten bodies up as evidence of racist injustices. These beatings did not sway their abusers—but it did shock others, specifically those in the nation’s capital and to the north where Americans were not aware of the depth of daily oppression being played out on U.S. soil.
Again and again, as inequality and brutality were broadcast across the nation, people in positions of power became uncomfortable with what they were seeing, and began to change laws. Local segregationists were steadfast in their beliefs; they never changed their minds, but their acts of violence, as well as segregation, were outlawed by presidents and lawmakers from the north who were ashamed of the realities of the south.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott, for example, nearly bankrupted the Montgomery bus company, but they never backed down from their position. The bus company, as well as local police who harassed and arrested protesters, and local white supremacist leaders who organized misinformation and terror campaigns, never had any intention of desegregating white spaces. They were as committed to protecting white supremacy as the civil rights activists were to desegregating the nation. Change came—but not internally, but externally. It was the Supreme Court (not local segregationists) who resolved the conflict by passing a federal law to desegregate public buses.
And now, 46 years after the passing of the Civil Rights Act, segregation is outlawed while separatist hearts still beat strong. Ask the young teens at Montgomery County High School in Georgia, who attend an integrated high school but are unable to attend prom with their white friends because of segregated proms. The gains of the civil rights movement granted them a seat in the classroom with white people; however the segregationists hearts around them that remain unswayed deny them the ability to experience true desegregation.
Ask Reps. Emanuel Cleaver, James Clyburn, and John Lewis who, as congressmen, have the honor of representing their states in the U.S. house of the representatives; and who, as black men, are subjected to spitting and slurs that took them right back to those tumultuous years when they were standing up to segregationists. Clyburn states, “I led the first demonstrations in South Carolina, the sit ins… And quite frankly I heard some things today I have not heard since that day. I heard people saying things that I have not heard since March 15, 1960 when I was marching to try and get off the back of the bus.”
Changing the fabric of society, it seems, is very different from changing the hearts and minds of society. The distinction is one that’s easy to gloss over in “post-race America.” It is only because of the amazing elasticity of life that we have achieved so much and yet so little. While focusing on the mighty achievements of this nation, so many Americans—specifically those who don’t experience racism—negate the inequalities that still exist today. The contest coordinator in my office could not fathom that black people would be denied food, water, and shelter simply because they were black. Humanity, and the societies it spawns, is rife with contradictions. What lies under the surface is murky and troubling, yet the power of the human spirit to transcend negativity is astounding. I was awed by the determination, daring, focus, and unwavering commitment displayed by so many freedom fighters. It was truly educational and inspirational. Both our best and our worst are powerfully documented in Soundtrack for a Revolution.
Be well. Be love(d).
Kiini Ibura Salaam
SELF PROMOTION LOG
I’ve been enjoying steady book sales. In fact, last month one bookstore sold six books; that is the most I’ve ever had sell in a month. I am excited! I started this journey six months ago and have sold 51 books in that time. It feels good to have my books moving out in a steady stream. Invigorated by last month’s sales, I plan to recommit to engaging with new bookstores. I’m also researching small print distributors because I would love to replicate these sales on a national basis. No changes to the book acceptance/rejection log below.
Single Woman’s Manifesto
Bookstore acceptances: 5
Brownstore Books (www.brownstonebooks.com/)
Georgia Beauty (www.georgiany.com)
McNally Jackson (http://www.mcnallyjackson.com/)
Note: the book is also in the exittheapple store in Baltimore, MD (they are the lovely publishers of the book), and at a bookstore in Detroit.
Bookstore rejections: 3