Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Been in the storm so long, children

"Don't say gay" photo credit: Jamie Hollin
First, let me say that the State of Tennessee is on the wrong side of history by foiling Metro Nashville's attempt to enforce non-discrimination and by even entertaining "Don't Say Gay" legislation to bar homosexuality from being mentioned in public school classrooms. Tennessee is expressing that which is ignoble about American history.

Those high school students who have shown up to protest the State of Tennessee at legislative plaza are not only on the right side of history (if progress still matters), but they are attempting to show the General Assembly the way to our future, when sexual orientation and gender identity will make no difference in employment in government or the private sector (save for those backwater, culturally-impoverished specks who are too needy of aliens to fight to value mutual respect with people different than them).

Ku Klux Klan attacks Freedom Rider
Having said that, I cannot agree with the way Civil Rights Movement history continues to be distorted to support the protesters in Legislative Plaza, at risk of minimizing the profound and rare sacrifice of the 1961 Freedom Rides. A few weeks ago Tennessean columnist Gail Kerr, who seems to take her editorial cues from opportunistic political insiders, started the strained analogy, comparing today's picketers with yesterday's Freedom Riders.

Last Saturday morning U.S. Congressman Jim Cooper seemed to echo Kerr in the Tennessean, “It reminds me of the Freedom Riders in the ’60s .... We haven’t had that kind of spunk and gumption displayed by a young person in Nashville in a long time, maybe half a century.” The Freedom Riders spunky? That is without a doubt as big an understatement, as huge a disservice as Rep. Cooper could pay them. They had the courage to brave beatings, police intimidation, arrests, imprisonment, abandonment and death threats. We usually don't associate these extreme conditions with "gumptious" picket lines in America's circumscribed freedom zones. My Democratic representative seems to be dumbing down the supreme costs of the radicalizing necessary to confront and expose the hatred behind discrimination.

That's not to say that today's non-discrimination protesters have no parallels with the Civil Rights Movement or any other social protest tradition in America before or after the 1960s. Like contemporary protesters, civil rights protesters marched in Nashville (Jefferson Street). Street protests and picket lines are an important part of any social protests, and they often require the gumption of youth.

Beaten when FBI gave the Klan 15 mins on a bus
But the scope, commitment, and discipline of the 1961 movement were much larger than today's protests. The Freedom Riders had spent months in trainings sponsored by movement halfway houses like Highlander Folk School, which coordinated meetings in Monteagle, TN and locally at Fisk University. The legendary Rosa Parks was trained at Highlander. Vanderbilt Divinity student James Lawson started organizing students across Nashville in 1959, training them in nonviolent tactics and organizing lunch-counter sit-ins in the face of humiliating and dangerous conditions. For his part, Lawson was expelled from Vanderbilt, and wrong not made right until 2006 when Vandy apologized and hired him.

So, when compared to the Civil Rights Movement, today's protests would have to be considered a first step in a long process rather than full-blown reincarnation. The Freedom Rides were not a spontaneous reaction to a single piece of legislation. They were inspired by an earlier 1947 staging designed to desegregate interstate travel. Then they were incubated and developed over years in places like Nashville by young, savvy students who committed to the discipline of nonviolent civil disobedience and who trained, drilled, and practiced as if they were conducting a war. It was that discipline that prepared Freedom Riders to endure the state-sponsored intimidation and imprisonment that I have yet to witness today's protesters face.

No doubt legislators like Stacy "Don't Say Gay" Campfield are on the wrong side of history. They are on the side of discrimination. Tennessee Republicans (and more than a few Democrats) are not much different that the pre-Civil Rights generation of Tennessee leaders who allowed or encouraged segregation. Jim Cooper's own father, former Governor Prentice Cooper, presided over a "separate-but-equal" school system that staked whites to an advantage over African Americans.
Fisk student John Lewis & other Riders
Republicans like Campfield are gearing the education system against GLBT students in the same way now. And students should be applauded and supported for protesting and attempting to change that.

But if they are going to follow the Freedom Riders, they need to be aware of the true costs: in discipline over time, in perseverance across a long arc of history, and in the risk that they may face harm and ill treatment rather than the mere inconvenience of choosing the picket line over the everyday diversions of youth. In the words of the old slave spiritual and freedom song, the riders were in the storm so long. Jim Cooper does not do these students a service by suggesting that they have attained the stature to which they may aspire. He should have called them to something even higher.

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