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  • Spirituality and ResistanceHow We Wake Up to Racism
  • Jan Willis (bio)

resistance, spirituality

Because I composed this during Black History Month, I wish to begin by inviting you to listen to a marvelous, young performance artist named Joshua Bennett as he offers a piece he wrote to celebrate this month called, "Say it, Sing it."1 Last month, on the third Monday of January, we celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the only federal holiday we observe in the U.S. that is dedicated to a citizen who never held government office. This is quite special. If he had lived, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have been ninety-one years old today, and one wonders what he would make of these times and of the current state of American governance and values. The older I get, the more I am reminded of Bob Dylan's lyrics in "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again," when he asks plaintively, "What price do I have to pay to get out of—going through all these things twice?"2 As I lived through the Civil Rights campaign in Birmingham and now witness the #BlackLivesMatter and #SayHerName movements, I wonder how many times—in my lifetime—we will be forced to go through these things again.

I was raised in a coal-mining camp just outside Birmingham, Alabama, during the Jim Crow Era. Everything in my world, outside of my immediate family and neighborhood, was segregated and tightly controlled by racists and white [End Page 85] supremacist Ku Klux Klan members. Though I entered first grade in 1954, the year of the Brown v. Board of Education decision that supposedly struck down the totally bogus "separate but equal" statutes in U.S. law, this only meant for us black kids that the Alabama Supreme Court went into overdrive to keep the new federal statute from being implemented.3 Some eleven years later, I graduated from an all-black county high school, to which I had been bussed every day, even though there was a perfectly good high school for "whites only" in that same mining camp.

But there were "up" sides to this story as well. First, though I was, like all blacks during those years, forced to experience and endure the indignities of segregated schools and amenities—think, for example, of the signs posted above water fountains marked "white" and "colored"—I was also given a stellar dual-education. In addition to English literature we memorized the poems of black literature, and in addition to the American national anthem, we proudly sang "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," often referred to as the "Black National Anthem."4 The biggest "up" side for me, however, was undoubtedly the fact that—in a year that has become famous for many of us, namely, 1963—as a fifteen-year-old tenth-grader, I had the great opportunity to march with Dr. King during all the days of the Birmingham Campaign.5 It was a marvelous time, an exhilarating time. And [End Page 86] though some of us children were afraid of the dogs and the hoses (I am reminded of the saying, "Courage is fear that has said its prayers"), we nevertheless marched because we felt we had to.6 We marched with pride because we thought we were morally right in doing so, and because we thought we would eventually triumph. And, eventually, we did, because the very next year, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.

If you know your civil rights history, you also know that the Birmingham Campaign wasn't all that happened in 1963. For example, in August that year, Dr. King delivered his famed "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington. Sadly, the next month back in Birmingham, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church killed four little black girls. The bombing occurred for us blacks in one continuous arc of time, as vengeful and hate-filled men seething with anger after the Birmingham Campaign and after the city council had agreed to open some public accommodations to blacks following the marches...


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