Be the Challenger II: Yes, Virginia, You Can Be a White Civil Rights Activist

“I was a typical young Southerner, born and raised in LA—Lower Alabama.” Meet Bob Zellner.

I got to do just that, last October, when Bob and his activist wife Pamela joined my Common Power Team NC canvassing group. Over big plates of BBQ, I got to ask Bob questions about events I’d read about in his book, The Wrong Side of Murder Creek. Like the time Bob was beaten badly on the steps of the town hall of McComb, Mississippi, in a march led by Black high school students. But in the New York Times article, they called Bob “the leader” of the march–because he was the only White guy there.

You could call Bob the White counterpart of Representative John Lewis; they grew up quite close to each other in Alabama, both poor, both country–but on either side of the color line. Which explains why Bob started life from a KKK-supporting family, before becoming the first White field secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s.

In Bob’s interview by Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries (History Professor at The Ohio State University, and, incidentally, brother of Congressman Hakeem Jeffries), you can hear him explain how, “That was the way you got accepted in SNCC–you go to the dangerous places and do what the people were doing.”

Bob’s a folksy guy; like a lot of Southerners, he’s not into drama. Just tells it like it was–and is. His mission today, he says, and for the rest of his life, is to tell young people: “You can be White, and you can be a Civil Rights activist, and you can survive.”

Come to think–that’s a pretty good message right there. Reading Bob’s story, not to mention rubbing shoulders with him, reminded me how ordinary these extraordinary “ACTIVISTS” can be. Maybe a teensy bit braver than I am…

I hope you listen to Bob or check out his book. Pass it on!

Be the Challenger: How Muhammad Ali and NASA Reeled Me Back In

I’m not going to spend time talking about why I’ve stepped away from this blog for the past year. I’d rather talk about what brought me back.

Since Sandy Hook, since Trayvon, since Charlottesville, since [fill in your own moment of “whatthefuckishappeningtous”], I’ve been looking for people and ideas and groups which provide myself with hope and purpose. Along with my family; some dear friends; some small-but-mighty organizations within my community; music; nature, and writing, I found Common Power, and its educational branch, The Institute for Common Power, both of which I have written about.

For the last three years, I’ve gone deeper into action to protect and extend democracy, mostly through phone-banking and donations, but also writing letters to elected officials, and, last October, canvassing in my home state, North Carolina.

This is VA, not NC, but you get the idea–this kind of thing (photo by Charles Douglas, CP)

But canvassing requires travel, and phone-banking (besides being NO FUN) feels pretty limited. I was looking for other ways to plug in, when I tuned into Common Power’s 24-hour Teach-in for Truth in Education in Florida, and heard Dr. Yohuru Williams.

Dr. Williams is a History professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN, and founder of their Racial Justice Initiative. It was his part of that 24 hours of teaching that got me back to Wing’s World. He talked about two “challengers,” starting with NASA’s Challenger Space Shuttle, which exploded live on TV in 1986 (which many of us remember all too well).

R.I.P. (photo courtesy Wikipedia)

Dr. Williams reminded us how Ronald Reagan went on TV to tell American children the tragedy:

“We don’t hide our space program. We don’t keep secrets and cover things up. We do it all up front and in public. That’s the way democracy is, and we wouldn’t change it for a minute.”

His message: Ron DeSantis, anti-“woke” Republicans–are you LISTENING? Democracy means FACING UP TO BAD STUFF. Like, you know…U.S. History.

Dr. Williams closed by talking about Muhammad Ali, of whom actor/director Ed Begley Jr. said, “Ali’s secret was that he was always the challenger.”

Ali in 1976, filming The Greatest (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

And this historian/activist then looked at the camera and asked us listeners to find ways to continue to be the challenger. To do more than what we’ve been doing to help our country be its best self.

And I thought: okay. At the very least, something I can do is to expand Dr. Williams’ message.

So in the next few weeks, I’ll be highlighting some of the talks from that incredible 24 hours. I’ll be sharing, amplifying, extolling the messages I’m absorbing about how to help our country. And if just a few of you reading this decide to do the same, consider yourselves challengers too.

Limbo: Trying Not to Go Low

Have you noticed how long it’s been since I last blogged? Me neither. All I’ve noticed is that I haven’t felt like it. My last post, exactly one month ago, was a re-post of my friend’s, about the Say Their Names memorial in our little village.

photo courtesy Iris Graville

Now I’ve just returned home from a ceremony honoring those signs and moving them to their next home, as they were not constructed to withstand fall and winter weather. And I’m finally feeling moved to write again…about the limbo I’ve been in.

Limbo. Two definitions come to mind,* neither of them Biblical:

1) “an uncertain period of awaiting a decision or resolution; an intermediate state or condition”

2) “a West Indian dance in which the dancer bends backward to pass under a horizontal bar that is progressively lowered to a position just above the ground”

(*both definitions from Google)

Things that seem stuck in limbo:

–since the COVID shutdown, millions of people’s education, jobs, projects, plans–hell, our lives.

–the forward movement toward racial justice that many of us deeply want to believe in , as the forces against change gather for counter-attack, and as weariness or fear threaten to overwhelm action.

–somewhere in all of that–me. And, very possibly, you.

I don’t want to go into the details of my own personal limbo, which has to do with my two creative passions, writing and music. I want to write about avoiding the “how low can you go?” part of limbo.

Here’s what I am doing to “stay high” in this uncertain period:

  1. Working on the main source of mood-overwhelm: continuing self-education about the prospects for racial justice AND participating in Get-Out-the-Vote campaigns in several key states.
  2. Finding assurance and inspiration in certain voices. Right now, my main Muse is Michelle Obama, via her wonderful podcast.
  3. Sharing good food with near & dear people, and good Zooms with far & dear.

    Like picking blackberries with my sons and turning them into…

    …pie! (The berries, not the sons.)

  4. Reading good books–like Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass–and writing often in my journal.
  5. Worshipping regularly in the Church of the Great Outdoors.

    Amen! (Photo by Suzanne Strom)

How about y’all? How are you avoiding the lows of your own limbo? Please share inspiration here.