Almost every year, one of my family members calls and asks me if I remember what this day means, and I clumsily shuffle through the mental Rolodex for the appropriate occasion, only to get it wrong.
For my brother, the celebration of his sobriety is as significant as his birthday. It is also the day he has designated as a beginning worth remembering. This ritual seemed odd — if not awkward the first 10 years or so — but over time I began to understand what is profound and momentous about acknowledging pain and the victories in personal struggle.
About two weeks ago, Nashville celebrated the 50th anniversary of major civil rights protests that took place here. And I watched in awe the documentary Freedom Riders, an excellent film by Stanley Nelson that chronicles the intentional disobedience of a determined and integrated group of college students in 1961 who banded together on buses and drove through the deep South to break the chains of segregation.
Subjecting themselves to beatings, spitting, verbal assaults and explosives, these young people persevered and defied not only local authorities, but U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy as well. And in the end, these “children” tweaked the conscience of the president as word spread across the globe about the continued subjugation of blacks in a country that boasted of freedom for all.
No matter how many times we hear the stories, there is something haunting and beautiful about the images of teenagers — who had not even grown fully into their faces — artfully, respectfully and willfully staging a non-violent protest that literally altered the course of history and laid the foundation for liberation movements for the next 50 years.
That many of them were first-generation college students and risked their lives, educations and futures instructs us of their character and determination. The stories and messages passed on to the subsequent generations are the lessons that remind us all that youth’s voice and action is potent and can be crucial.
Although we tend to rightfully focus on the suffering and accomplishments of the heroes of this pivotal historical snapshot, what about some of the others reflected in the archival footage?
While gazing at the fresh skin and bright eyes in the images of the protagonists being beaten in Freedom Riders, you can’t help but wonder what it must feel like for those who were drunk with opposition to fix their eyes on the past. Not just the Bull Connors or the more overt symbols of bigotry, but the anonymous white teenagers who spewed racial slurs and insults willingly on camera.
What do they see and feel when they reflect on the images of rage and fury? Could these be the sons and daughters of people who packed picnic baskets for lynchings just 20 years earlier? Do they secretly defend and celebrate their resistance, or have they buried the past underneath an addiction, abuse or isolation? And who are the offspring of those rabid for segregation?
Some of us are related to the ghosts of civil rights opposition, those whose contorted visages were shown spitting, thrashing and insulting fellow humans. These are not just anonymous, extinct extras in a Hollywood movie. These are our mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles and neighbors.
There are casualties on both sides of every war. While we celebrate the memories and victories for fairness and equality, we must acknowledge that those who were lost in anger and retribution must be memorialized as well. Beneath the fear, wrath and hatred that inspire violence is the reminder that mercy and restoration of a better self is possible. While it is difficult to recount the ugliness, it seems as humans we do not move on without the fire of remembrance.
Around the same time, there was another celebration in Nashville: This one marked the 20th anniversary of Germany’s reunification and the 50th anniversary of the Nashville sit-ins. A group of dissident German artists from the former East Germany gathered with those involved in the sit-ins to discuss the parallels between the Berlin Wall and “whites-only” segregation. Although the challenges for each of these movements appear different on the surface, repression is at the root of both. For each there are memories of violence, bloodshed and ultimately transformation.
The next time my brother calls to ask if I know what day it is, I pledge to remember that it is the day he has chosen to acknowledge his former suffering and celebrate this bittersweet occasion with him. It is through acknowledgement of darker days that he has grown and emerged into a sane, peaceful and dignified self.
Secours is a writer/filmmaker/speaker and co-host of “Freestyle” on WFSK-88.1FM. Visit her at www.mollysecours.com