As I’ve watched the events in Charlottesville unfold, I’ve been struggling to process it. I first read about what was happening yesterday morning via Pantsuit Nation. A law student at UVA recounted her experience arriving on campus Friday (8/11/17) evening to a procession of white men carrying torches and chanting, “You will not replace us” and “White lives matter.” The student, identified as Elizabeth Ann, felt that she and her friend needed to document what was happening. They kept their distance and videoed the procession. The video is chilling to watch. She then recounts that there were about 10 students holding signs reading “UVA Students Against White Supremecy.” The white terrorists surrounded the students and then began to attack them. Elizabeth Ann goes on to talk about how frightened she was and despite her fear, she planned to protest the rally on Saturday. She states, “These nazi groups are emboldened when met with little opposition. We need as many protestors here tomorrow as possible; there is strength in numbers, as well as safety. I’m scared, of course I am, but I will be there tomorrow because I have a duty to be. As a white person, I know it is easier for me to occupy this space safely than persons of color. I’m going to show up for all of the people who cannot.”
History has shown us this. When we stand by and watch and do nothing, people’s civil rights, people’s lives are taken from them. We saw this during the Holocaust.
We saw this in our own country. After the Civil War, it appeared that African-Americans who were brought to this country against their will and enslaved for generations were finally going to not only gain freedom but be granted the same rights as whites (of course the rights of whites–specifically white men is a post for another time).
However, those in power (white men) were not in favor of this. The KKK was formed to push back on Reconstruction and reverse the rights African Americans were being given. They used violence to do this. Interestingly, history.com claims after Reconstruction the KKK faded away. However, anecdotal evidence disproves this. One only needs to listen to “Strange Fruit,” view historic images, or read (historic) fiction (such as Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry or To Kill a Mockingbird) to know that the KKK never truly faded away. They were ever present. The fear and violence they used kept African Americans and others from attaining civil rights.
As we moved to the mid-point of the Twentieth Century, Jim Crow Laws began to be challenged. The Brown decision overturn Plessy v. Ferguson. But yet, white adults were so threatened by six-year-old Ruby Bridges that US Marshalls had to escort her to school. Norman Rockwell’s, The Problem We All Live With was published in Look magazine in January 1964. That summer, Freedom Riders would head to Mississippi to help African Americans register to vote.
So why this history lesson? Because the events of this weekend in Charlottesville are reminiscent of events in Mississippi 53 years ago. Have we really not progressed any further in 53 years?
Reading Revolution by Deborah Wiles, Sunny recounts the experiences of Freedom Summer in Greenwood, Mississippi. Sunny recounts what happens when Raymond attends a movie at the Leflore theatre. She’s lost in the film when the white men in the theatre make their displeasure about a black person attending the show.
“I’m on the edge of my seat as Stratos tries to run over Mark with a motorboat in the cove. Then, without warning, something flies by my head and explodes into a million pieces on the floor in front of me. Crash! At first I think it’s part of the noise from the motorboat, but it’s too close to me, and it’s out of place, and I realize–it’s real” (Wiles 267).
“So many bottle bombs shatter around me, I feel like i’m inside a way, until finally the movie stops in mid-frame and the lights come on and Parnell is calling for me” (Wiles 268).
Sunny, at first, is afraid for herself, but once she’s able to see what’s happening, she fears for Raymond. She forgets about her knee that has a piece of glass in it. She worries about how Raymond will get out of the theater, she worries about the SNCC member who will come to take him home. She prays for the very same people she was afraid of in the beginning of the novel.
Later on in the novel, men stand in front of the Leflore Theatre with shotguns because they refuse to comply with other businesses in town, and they continue to sell tickets to anyone. The reader learns that white men patrol Bapist Town, where the African Americans live, with shot guns and whip antennas, signifying they are able to communicate via radio anything that is happening they don’t like or agree with, including people exercising their constitutional right to assemble.
By the end of the novel, Sunny is fully aware of the dangers of Jim Crow. It’s more than having the right to swim at a community pool, eat in the dining room of a restaurant, or see a movie. She realizes that people’s lives literally hang in the balance between white and black.
It’s no surprise that Sunny’s heart and mind change by the end of the novel. It’s no surprise because despite her grandmother and great uncle wanting to keep the status quo, Sunny is a reader. Instead of blindly following along with what her family says and does, Sunny is able to empathize with those who are seemingly different from her. She is able to say what is right and what is wrong. Ultimately, this empathy forces Sunny to take action and work for social justice. And while her actions don’t change the outcome of Freedom Summer or what happens in Greenwood, her actions do have a direct impact on the people she comes in contact with.
Isn’t that the point? Cory Booker says, “Stay faithful in things large and taking on the world, but stay faithful in those things small – because remember it’s the small things, the size of a mustard seed, that ultimately moves mountains.”
We never truly know the effect one small thing has on another. We don’t know the effect of showing up, being present, and bearing witness might have on another. Just because something doesn’t directly affect us, doesn’t mean it won’t ever directly affect us.
The reader sees Sunny apply this lesson through her actions. She seeks to make others’ lives a little better, a little easier. Her initially small action has far bigger consequences for other characters in the novel.
So what can we learn from Sunny?
Don’t we all benefit when everyone has equal rights to education, health care, jobs? Isn’t that what makes America great?
A rising tide lifts all ships.