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The Artists’ Side: All Together Now Civil and Human Rights – by Arlene Goldbard

STORYCENTER Blog

We are pleased to present posts by StoryCenter staff, storytellers, colleagues from partnering organizations, and thought leaders in Storywork and related fields.

The Artists’ Side: All Together Now Civil and Human Rights – by Arlene Goldbard

Ary Smith

“The March on Washington: I remember my parents being very afraid for me to go. You know, thinking something was going to happen. I was kind of afraid too, but I knew that I had to do this, that it didn't matter whether I lived or died. I was going to go peaceably. I wasn't trying to fight. I wasn't going to get arrested, but I wanted to be there.”

Edythe Boone is talking. She is a visual artist, a long-time community muralist who moved from her roots in Harlem to the San Francisco Bay Area nearly forty years ago. She plans to take part in Saturday’s Storied Session workshop in Berkeley, part of our All Together Now series of free civil and human rights Storied Sessions, bringing generations together to learn from each other what it means to stand for our rights. To apply to take part in the workshops happening across the country, or to find out how to sponsor a workshop, please visit our website. Whether or not there's a workshop in your town, you will be able to access the growing collection of stories on our Cowbird.com All Together Now page and eventually, to add your own story.

In this seventh in our series of StoryCenter blog posts that share voices relating to All Together Now, we touch on the important role artists played in the civil rights movement of 50 years ago, continuing today. The work of enlivening the spirits of those who struggle for justice is manifested in song, image, story, movement—in every mode of creative work human beings have devised to mark and honor what we wish to remember.

“I was very radical—very angry I would say—as a black child, seeing the difference in how people were treated,” Edythe told us. “Later, I lived in Harlem on 113th Street and Lexington Avenue, near the Malcolm X restaurant and place of study. I used to go to 125th Street and take my kids and just listen to speakers tell us the new version. I’d see police officers standing around intimidating us, but I just stood there. I had to listen because I knew that what was happening to African American people was very unfair. People didn’t have enough to sustain their families from one week to the next.

“It's not humanly possible with all the resources in this world that we should allow that, and it's still happening today. Thank God that we have people of other races that can see it too. I know that good outdoes bad, and that peacefully and intelligently we can reach the people that believe in no war, in everybody being healthy, in good education for everyone no matter what color you are, no matter what size you are, no matter what sexual orientation you have—that we can all come together and say, ‘It's okay.’”

From childhood, Edythe translated her understanding into art. “I always knew I wanted to be an artist, I knew that. At that time there wasn't any money for supplies or anything. You had to use the back of a brown paper bag or find things in the street.” She was one of the creators of the San Francisco Women’s Building mural “MaestraPeace,” of the Berkeley People’s Park mural “Let a Thousand Parks Bloom,” and the “We Remember” AIDS mural in San Francisco’s Balmy Alley. Filmmaker Mo Morris, a friend of StoryCenter, is making a film about Edythe’s life and work. You can read more about it and see excerpts at the film’s website.

We announced this All Together Now series on the 50th anniversary of the August 28, 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Justice. Inspired by those brave activists, African Americans, Native Americans, women, Asians, Latinos, gays and lesbians, people with disabilities, immigrants, and others have stood up for themselves and their communities.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Free Southern Theater (FST), which started in Mississippi as an outgrowth of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). You can read some of the primary documents at the Civil Rights Movement Veterans website.

The FST anniversary is being celebrated with a series of events at Tulane University bringing together founders, scholars, and other artists inspired by the FST to reflect on its legacy and move forward.

Back in 1964, FST founders Doris Derby, Gilbert Moses, and John O'Neal published a manifesto as “three young people working in the southern movement in Mississippi.” They described the context in which their theater was born: “The segregated Mississippi public school system restricts the learning process, rather than nourishes it. School textbooks are controlled, discussion of controversial topics are forbidden, teachers have no choice in school programming and are under constant supervision and pressure. It is apparent that since the Negro school system was fundamentally built to keep Negroes out of white schools, competent teachers and honest education programs are, perhaps, not even its tertiary concern.”

They ended with an inspiring call: “It is necessary that an education program coincide with and augment the program of the freedom movement. A theater can be unique not only as a means of education, but also can create the opportunity for the human dimension that the present caste system is calculated to deny—the development of human dignity. Theater demonstrates that reality can be transformed, and that within this transformation the Negro plays the leading role.

If the present cry is 'turn homeward,' we ask artists, dancers, actors, directors, and playwrights, and anyone who would think to combine theater with social awareness, to come to Jackson, Mississippi, to help release the laughter over this dusty, tear-drenched clay; to help shape the space around the expectations of America.”

Edythe Boone’s story unfolded in this same tear-drenched time, leading to an equal commitment to art that undermines an entrenched caste system. “My mother was a maid. I would go down and help her sometimes. Thank God that my mother's employer loved me and took an interest in me, and that's how I was able as a child to reach over to the other side. And when I say, ‘other side,’ I'm talking about white people. I grew up in Harlem, New York. I always knew that I wanted to be an artist, that I loved drawing. I did it as a child, but I had no direction. Nobody was trying to help me get to that place, to learn line, colors, how to see things better. I am interested in intergenerational people coming together, elders and youth. I think that both parties have something to offer each other. I feel that everybody—seniors, youth, friends, aunties, grandmothers—we all need mentors. We all need that approval, that somebody cares enough to say, 'Let me go and help you.'”

All Together Now is asking for your stories now: stories about human rights, and stories about bridging generation gaps to stand together. This is your opportunity. This All Together Now project is StoryCenter’s gift to young people and elders across the nation. There is still time to apply to take part in a free workshop. What does it mean to you today: the legacy of fifty years ago, and all of the people who have stood for their civil and human rights since? How does your own story connect?

Please join StoryCenter and our great partners—national partners The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human RightsSouthern Poverty Law CenterColor of ChangeEqual Justice SocietyInternational Museum of WomenCowbird, and CommunisPR; and local partners Alternate RootsAmerican Friends Service Committee, DenverHistory ColoradoColoradans for Immigrants RightsGreater Phoenix Urban LeagueDC Public LibraryPainted Bride Art CenterRosa Parks MuseumWarm Cookies of the RevolutionAustin Coming TogetherKennedy Heights Arts CenterDominican UniversityIntertribal Friendship HouseCalifornia Foundation for Independent Living Centers' Youth Organizing! Disabled and Proud, Youth Media ProjectElizabeth City Alumnae Chapter Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, AARP Pasquotank County Chapter, Elizabeth City Pasquotank County Community Relations Commission, Elizabeth City Cornerstone Missionary Baptist Church, Delta Iota Chapter of Omega Psi Phi, and Elizabeth City Hope Group—in this wonderful project. All together now!