Monday, January 14, 2013

Eugene Patterson and Pioneers for Civil Rights

"A Flower for their Graves"
“A Negro mother wept in the street Sunday morning in front of a Baptist Church in Birmingham....In her hand she held a shoe, one shoe, from the foot of her dead child. We hold that shoe with her....Every one of us in the white South holds that small shoe in his hand. … We who go on electing politicians who heat the kettles of hate. … [The bomber] feels right now that he has been a hero. He is only guilty of murder. He thinks he has pleased us. We of the white South who know better are the ones who must take a harsher judgment.”       
Eugene Patterson, "A Flower for their Graves," in the Atlantic Constitution, September 16, 1963, about the bombing of the Birmingham, Alabama, church that killed four little girls.  Read more:  

The earliest pioneers of most reform movements are often forgotten, in the shadows of those who became their charismatic leaders and public voice.  Some were well-known in their time, but most remain anonymous, their names unknown, their stories muted, their fate unknown.  

+Eugene Patterson, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist for editorial writing who just died at age 89 in St. Petersburg, Florida, is one of these pioneers. 

A southern white man from Georgia, whose only solace as a child, he once said, was "school, fishing and literature," was editor of the Atlantic Constitution in the 1960s, an early enlightened voice for civil rights. Patterson wrote with compassion about the effects of racism and the need for social justice. He is probably best known for an elegaic column he wrote after the horrific bombing of a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 by a white supremicist, a senseless, hate-motivated crime that killed four little girls.  Patterson wrote with compassion and sorrow "A Flower for their Graves."  (Quoted in part above.  See also Mitch Stacey, AP article, Yahoo News, January 12, 2013).    

Patterson carried his convictions and his high standards of journalism to the Washington Post and the St. Petersburg Times in Florida.   For Patterson, the pen was mightier than the sword.  

In the wake of Patterson's death, other forgotten pioneers also come to mind: Grassroots organizer +Fannie Lou Hammer, daughter of a dirt-poor Mississippi sharecropping family who became a voting rights activist;  +Rosa Parks, who held her seat in front of a bus, too tired to move to the back.  Young African-American college students who sat at lunch counters in whites-only sections of stores, and were defended by the likes of +Thurgood Marshall and other professors at Howard University in Washington, DC.    Unsung heroes.

Thousands of ordinary citizens like these plowed the fertile fields of injustice and planted the seeds for what would become a national Civil Rights movement.  They created the environment for the likes of +Martin Luther King, Jr.and +John Lewis, and those who became leaders. We might not know their names or remember their efforts, but change would have been impossible without them. They fed the Civil Rights movement with their minds, hearts and, yes, their bodies, some dying for the cause.  And they kept the movement going.  Foot-soldiers. Nonviolent warriors for justice.

Leaders emerge when followers rise up to support and sustain them. 

Eugene Patterson helped create an environment for change, and so did thousands of other ordinary citizens in various walks of life.  Leaders stood on their shoulders, then gave them hope. We need to remember that. We need to remember the anonymous Americans who brought change from the bottom up.  Flowers for their graves, too. 

+Fannie Lou Hammer, on why she kept up the fight to register voters and helped found the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party:
"I guess if I'd had any sense, I'd have been scared--but what was the point of being scared?  The only thing they could do was kill me, and it kinda seemed like they'd been trying to do that a little bit at a time since I could remember."  (Gerda Lerner, Black Women in White America.)

I was reminded in looking up her biography that Hammer was in part referring to her steriilzation in 1964, without her knowledge, by a white doctor as a part of the state of Mississippi's plan to reduce the number of poor blacks (Wikipedia). How could we forget this? How could such atrocities have occurred in America in our time?  Hammer thought she was having a tumor removed, but the doctor decided to do a hysterectomy as well.  A crime that the state of Mississippi had sanctioned, made legal.  Reading this sent chills up my spine, recalling the unconscionable acts that shocked me then, and still do, and these terribly tragic times in our history when the ideals of democracy lay dormant and white supremacy reigned.  We need to remember this history, so we don't repeat it.
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