Renewing A Legacy, Connecting Generations: All Together Now Civil and Human Rights – by Arlene Goldbard
Dr. Eugenia Gardner, an oral historian and digital storytelling facilitator-in-training, attended the 50th Anniversary March on Washington this past Saturday. She joined thousands in honoring the civil rights pioneers who gathered fifty years ago today, on August 28, 1963, for the original March on Washington for Jobs and Justice. She has been helping StoryCenter to organize and lead a very special series of free Storied Session workshops across the U.S. All Together Now: Intergenerational Stories of Civil and Human Rights is aiming to bridge the generation gap and honor a legacy by engaging elders and young people in sharing stories of standing up for hard-won rights.
This is the first in a series of blog posts that share voices from the All Together Now civil and human rights project. To learn more about this national series of workshops, apply to take part, or find out how to sponsor a workshop, please visit our website. And check back; even if there's not a workshop in your town, you will be able to access the whole body of stories on our Cowbird.com All Together Now page. In time, people across the U.S. will be invited to post their own civil and human rights stories and link them to those created in these workshops. A few stories are up already: check them out.
"My husband and I and some friends had breakfast at our hotel before the march," Eugenia told us. "And I remember saying to them, 'This is very calm, this is very civil, whereas I know 50 years ago people literally risked their lives to attend this march.' They spent the night in cars and we were staying at a Marriott Hotel in downtown DC. Walking to the march, we passed several police officers who literally said, 'Have a good day today, enjoy yourself in DC.' And I know that is not how the people were received in DC during the last march. I walked together with 150 or 200 of my local sorority sisters. I felt the difference in how we were arriving and how we were feeling about arriving, this sense more of celebration and honor, as opposed to defiance and protest that my mother's generation described to me. At the march, I listened to Congressman John Lewis who said, 'I left a little blood on that bridge.' I've walked on that bridge and I could identify with the passionate conviction with which he spoke: that he's not tired, he's not giving up, he's not going to let the civil and the voting rights that he fought for 50 years ago be dismantled.
"I spent a lot of time as a little child handing out hot chocolate," Eugenia continued, "while my parents were participating in voter registration drives. I continued to do that work in college and through my sorority; I now participate in a lot of voter registration initiatives. The vote to me is almost sacred. I cannot imagine not voting. This last time I got up at 3 a.m. and stood in line for seven hours with my nieces and young nephews to register to vote, because I wanted them to understand the significance of our family legacy fighting for voting, what that means as an American. That is where I stand: my grandmother and my parents fought for my right to vote and I'm not going to let this Congress or this Supreme Court take away any access of those rights.
"We're still essentially fighting for the same things. So I kept arguing with myself: have we made progress? That for me is a challenging question to answer, which is part of the reason I want to participate and facilitate these workshops. I want to hear from other people their perspectives on where we are with civil and human rights. Have things gotten better?"
Eugenia will be co-facilitating workshops in Washington, DC, Montgomery, and Birmingham, Alabama, part of a national circuit from Berkeley to Boston that is still growing. (Watch our All Together Now page for updates.) One of the earliest workshops will be on Saturday, October 12, sponsored by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in Montgomery, Alabama, a nonprofit civil rights organization founded nearly 45 years ago.
One of the remarkable things we've learned from twenty years of story work is how a very specific story opens out into the universal. We also spoke with Lecia Brooks, Director of Outreach at the SPLC and also Director of the Civil Rights Memorial Museum in Montgomery. She underscored the continuity of the struggle for rights over time and across identities. "I think that the goals are the same essentially now and in '63," Lecia told us. "Remember, it was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. I don't think that that's been changed. As we've talked ad nauseum about high unemployment and the joblessness situation in this country: look at the statistics around employment figures for African Americans in 1963 and today. The change is not at all significant; we're still disproportionately represented in very high numbers in relation to unemployment for the larger population. So those things haven't changed. And if you talk about freedom, again, we're disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system and you can't look at freedom more obviously than that."
Lecia stressed how the work of preserving and extending rights is for everyone. "I'm an African American woman and I'm proud of the legacy of the modern American civil rights movement with the primary focus on the liberation of African Americans.
"The beautiful legacy is that regular ordinary everyday people did not stand up for equality or stand up for themselves and their rights before it was done here, particularly in the deep South. And so as the movement continued over time, there was a lot of support from outside the community. What started out as a grassroots movement by folks who were targeted in their particular communities, especially in the South, became this multiracial, multiethnic, interfaith effort. Historians will say that the movement started with the Brown v. Board decision in 1954; the organizing movement that was happening then primarily affected Black people in the South. But you look at 1963, by the time we got to the March on Washington, it was 80 percent African American and 20 percent white. Look at the Voting Right marches: the first attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery was about 600-700 majority Black folks that lived in the South. In the third and successful effort, by the time they reached Montgomery it was 25,000 people and it was multiracial in composition and it was an interfaith effort. It makes sense that people would then be inspired to use some of the same methods and strategies to secure a measure of equality and justice for themselves based on whatever identity group.
"I hear people talk about the highjacking of the movement, especially as it related to LGBT rights, and I'll just repeat, I think it's a proud legacy. If people can follow our example as we follow the example of Gandhi—brought to us by a gay man, a Black man, Bayard Rustin—then certainly we can gracefully extend the strategy of nonviolent resistance and protest to others who are also oppressed."
What does the legacy of fifty years ago mean to you today? Please join StoryCenter and our great partners—The Phoenix Urban League, Southern Poverty Law Center, Color of Change, the Equal Justice Society, American Friends Service Committee Denver, and CommunisPR—in this wonderful project. All together now!