Friday, November 29, 2013

"Yet Still, like Dust, We Rise"! Many Rivers To Cross Final Episode

The Final episode of the PBS Series The African Americans. Many Rivers to Cross took the viewers through several decades very quickly and the times were full of contrasts from confusion to cohesion, from powerlessness to empowerment, from war, to peace and back again.

The 1960s brought about so much change--the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by President Lyndon Johnson, started the nation down a new path, towards a new beginning. But the times were not without pain and hardship along the way. Many people paved the way, and they were men and women of true courage and conviction. And I was a young adolescent watching and asking why. Some of these people still stand out in my mind, as they became my heroes.

One of the most heartfelt heroes voices was a poor woman, from Mississippi. Working most of her life on a plantation, she came alive when the voter rights movement took hold. And she fell victim to horrific police brutality in a Mississippi jail, for only fighting for that right to vote. But the beating in jail did not silence her. In fact, she dared to tell her story to the world. This woman told her story at the Democratic Nation Convention in 1964. I was about 12 years old that summer and I sat there listening to this woman tell her story. Oh the horror! Her name was Fannie Lou Hamer and she became my hero.

She had the nation mesmerized as she told the nation about her treatment in Winona Mississippi---a vicious town with cruel law enforcement officers. But yet, they could not beat her spirit---because she told her story. And she told it to the world. For daring to register to vote, she was falsely arrested, then beaten mercilessly in a Winona Mississippi Jail. And she was told by the sheriff that they would make her wish she was dead. But as they made other prisoners beat her, they never broke her spirit. It took weeks to recover from this ordeal, but she made it to Washington, and the law enforcement policies of Winona were exposed to the nation, and to the world. As hard as they tried, they could never beat the spirit of this amazingly brave woman.

Hear this brave woman tell her story.

Fannie Lou Hamer speech at the Democratic National Convention 1964

She ended her speech with the statement of why so much had happened to her:

"All of this is on account we want to register [sic], to become first-class citizens, and if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings - in America?"
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The passing years brought about change, but it did not come easily. More violence, more terror was in store for people who dared to take a stand. And more blood was shed. With time, the movement evolved from one exclusively of race, but also of class. And in 1968, when Dr. Martin Luther King traveled to Memphis to stand with the garbage workers, his fate was sealed with an assassin's bullet as he emerged from the modest Lorraine Motel. 

And like the funeral of JFK, we were glued to the face of his beautiful wife Coretta as she and the rest of the world watched the funeral services. I was by that time in high school, and I felt so empty as once again, one who stood up for something was taken. I stared at the face of Coretta, his widow and I thought about his children, some of whom were close in age to me. They had lost a husband and father. I had lost a hero.

Coretta Scott King, attending her husband's funeral

But 1968 was not over, because two months later, yet another man of the people was to be taken. Robert F. Kennedy was killed in June 1968 in Los Angeles California. I had been impressed with this young Senator and somehow had a sense of hope, but on that summer night in June, once again, I had lost a hero.

The feeling of sadness and emptiness and loss was expressed for me that year, by one song: 

They say it is always the darkest before the dawn, and eventually the dawn did come. Those years when so much blood was shared by so many people, eventually gave way to new chances. The country somehow became a bit more tolerant and as the vote was finally extended to people some growth occurred and America took a breath and relieved itself of some of it's own misery by recognizing that there were others who were in their midst in the same country, and they too, could call the nation their own.

Other movements came and went. Some bypassed us completely. We never had chapters of the Black Panthers in my part of Arkansas. And the food programs, and health screenings that some people knew the Panthers for, were only learned about years later. Political battles were fought and won, and they were also fought and lost, but eventually change came. 

Racial stereotypes were removed from ads, and from cartoons, and the faces of color even on the TV screen became more than sporadic. We began to see ourselves in the media, and our music, once hidden as "race music" became accepted, and we found our way through the maze of 20th and 21st century society.

The most unbelievable happened in 2008 with the election of a man of color to the highest office in the land. And like all pioneers, he has had to endure indignities never offered to his white predecessors, but, like the elders and ancestors before us, he has endured. And he took the unbelievable had an encore performance---he won a second term. 

And while many of us shake our heads at the unending filibusters and extreme right efforts to render him powerless, he prevails and presides, nevertheless. 

We all know that the battle is not yet over, for it is known that a young man or young woman can be killed for playing music too loudly, or ringing a doorbell, or simply walking down the street with candy. These are the realities, but we know yet that in spite of it all, we rise.....yes, we survive, and we rise. 

Maya Angelou the poet described it so well........

Out of the huts of history's shame, I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain, I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear, I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear, I rise.

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.
    ~Maya Angelou!  "And Still I Rise"

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This post is the last of posts as part of  the African American Genealogy Blogging Circle project. This is a small group of African Ancestored Genealogists who have been watching the PBS Series: The African American. Many Rivers to Cross.  In response to each episode, the bloggers have been sharing history as they saw it, and they presented it through the lens of their own family history and personal experiences. The bloggers and their blogs.

Between the Gate Posts by Linda Durr Redd
Black and Red Journal by Terry Ligon
Finding Eliza by Kristin Cleage
Into The Light by Renate Yarborough Sanders
Mariah's Zepher by Vicki Daviss Mitchell
My Ancestor's Name by Angela Walton-Raji
Roots Revealed by Melvin J. Collier
Who is Nicka Smith by Nicka Sewell Smith

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Renate Yarborough Sanders said...

Wonderful post, Angela! The video segments were perfect additions. I hadn't heard a recording of Fanny Lou Hammer's speech, so an extra thank-you for that. :)

I plan to do one more post in response to the series, but I had to miss the fifth episode, and haven't been able to watch it, yet. (I did see Episode 6.) Once I do, I will add my final thoughts to the blogging ring.

Thanks, again, for your insightful reflections.


Unknown said...

Very moving. Thank you for sharing this.

Kristin said...

I like the way you put the music in because memories of those times are so tied to music in my mind.

Fannie Lou Hamer is one of my heroes. That speech was something I will never forget.