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Writings from the Porch 

August 15, 2017

Civil Rights and Southern Heritage

In a recent conversation an important point came to my mind: The Civil Rights Movement (1954–1968) is a vital part of Southern heritage. That’s the energy I have repeatedly referred to in my recent blog posts. And it’s true. Martin Luther King Jr. was a Southerner. The actions of the Civil Rights Movement—just like the Civil War—primarily took place in the American South. Did it end racism? No. But it did cause tremendous change in the laws (hence “Civil Rights”) and the enforcement thereof (a part which is admittedly still a work in progress—all over the U.S.) And the Movement, while primarily led by African-American Southerners, included people of all races and from all regions.

There is a wall at the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, with a list of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for this cause—the majority of whom were Southerners. The Civil Rights Movement began and ended with violence, but every achievement—every achievement—came from civil disobedience and the refusal to meet violence with violence. Now those changes are being severely tested—again in relation to legislation and government intervention. And again there are rallying calls for violence, and I’m specifically referring to those calls coming from the left. Why? Because those were the same calls the Civil Rights Movement had to quell in order to achieve progress.

I’ve spent a good portion of my life studying both the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. Born into a family with Southern roots dating back to the early 18th century, I have direct lineage to Civil War veterans on both sides of the conflict, though all Southerners (a great-great-great grandfather from the mountains of East Tennessee enlisted in the Union army at the age of 54. He died and is buried at the prison camp in Andersonville, Georgia.)  I was raised in a Southern household that supported the Movement, and I was mentored on the subject by civil rights activist Will Campbell, both through his writings and visits to his farm. When I was born in 1960, Will—though known as a “renegade Baptist preacher” —was a communicant at the Episcopal Church where my dad was the rector. They became tight friends, and Dad became part of the greater circle that made the Movement happen. What I mean by the greater circle is that he didn’t march with a sign, but he lived his life demonstrating the ideals being expressed by the Movement—and he reflected those ideals at the voting booth (and at times, as I wrote about here, put himself in the line of fire). That greater circle is how the doors to legal segregation were opened—not through violence.

Late in his life, Will Campbell, in frustration, told me that the Movement accomplished much with respect to civil rights, but it did little to change the hearts of people. I will not dispute his point. But Will—and my father and hundreds of thousands of others in their generation—were born into households and communities where bigotry and racism were the norm. Yet many changed those personal views in the years following WWII. And those that changed raised children who did not come of age in households where bigotry was the norm—though we saw plenty of it in the world around us. Now our children are adults or becoming adults, and the awareness continues to spread. So, too, does the perspective of those folks who held on to their bigotry and hatred—and passed it along to their progeny.

But the momentum of MLK, Will Campbell, and the whole Movement is still alive, and the energy is still available to be tapped. After all, it’s an ancient energy, always available for those who seek it. Some will say, correctly, that the Movement was led by Christians and based on Christian principles. Although I am not a practicing Christian I have no problem with this assertion. But what I would add is that the primary Christian principle to which they refer is love, and Christians did not invent nor do they own the concept of love. Love transcends religion. The Civil Rights Movement was founded on and bound together by love. Being a Christian was not required. Being willing to hold onto love as you were beaten and imprisoned often was required.

And the battles the strategists designed and the tacticians deployed were ultimately won non-violently. But as the song goes, “The battle is over, but the war goes on.”

As we grapple with what to do about claims of Southern “history” and “heritage” and the undeniable specter of white supremacy and white nationalism—racism, bigotry, and hate—that are leading the charge, we have leaders still in our midst who have experienced the painful but pacifist driven victories of the recent past. And we have the strength and energy of those who have come and gone before us—if we seek it.

There is more to Southern heritage than the Civil War.  There is also the Civil Rights Movement.

Voter registration drive in Mississippi, 1964