|Air Date: July 23, 1996||Program 9630|
RANDEL OSBURN: President Kennedy started lobbying for the Civil Rights Bill and, of course, was assassinated. Lyndon Johnson passed it in 1964. It did not happen out of the goodness of the heart of the administration, nor Congress, that was in session. It happened because we kept the pressure of protest going, going, going.
KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, sharing the US civil rights movement with the world.
STELLA SABIITI: I was impressed by the people we met, the leaders, especially the older generation. They don't have any hate. They tell you all the bad things that were done against them and their people. They don't have any hate at all in their hearts.
PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It's produced by the Stanley Foundation. I'm Keith Porter.
This summer a group of nine human rights activists from Tanzania, Uganda, and Eritrea came to the United States to learn more about the US civil rights movement. Nathan Twinomugisha is director of the Legal Aid Project of the Uganda Law Society.
NATHAN TWINOMUGISHA: I am with human rights activists. Where human rights are concerned, I'm concerned. Back in Uganda we look at America as an example of where human rights are respected, and it's the country that we look to. When they told me that I would be involved in this program, I was very happy. I hoped that I would see a situation where things are working, where human rights are respected, and where society has moved forward. So I can take something I learned here back to my country and make it better.
PORTER: This tour group was organized by the US human rights organization, Freedom House, and was funded in part by the US Information Agency. The men and women from East Africa visited Birmingham, Montgomery, and Atlanta.
Muna Tesfai is a law student in Eritrea and works with the national association of Eritrean youth.
MUNA TESFAI: I'm really impressed by what I've seen in Birmingham, Montgomery, and here in Atlanta too. I'm really impressed by the activities which have been carried by Dr. King and all the achievements they did and happy that I've been here to the states. It's a new experience for me.
NATIONAL PARK SERVICE GUIDE: Welcome to the Martin Luther King National Historic Site. The National Park Service developed this center to commemorate Dr. King's memory. What it is is a full movement of the civil rights movement. It starts by segregation and goes up to his death.
PORTER: Across the street from the National Park Service's historic site in Atlanta is the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. This is the site were Dr. King is laid to rest.
TONY GOMEZ: We've had most recently the President of Greece and the Ambassador of Japan. They'll come; and out of paying respect to Dr. King, they will lay a wreath at the tomb. We allow them to come here to the tomb. There's a bridge that goes across, and they will come to the tomb and lay a wreath at the tomb or say a moment of silent prayer.
On January 15 we celebrated Dr. King's birthday, and President Clinton was our keynote speaker. That was also the day of the national holiday honoring Dr. King. On that day President Clinton came, and he laid a wreath at the tomb as well. From time to time we will have ceremonies here.
PORTER: Inside, the group heard more from Tony Gomez, the center's Director of Special Projects.
GOMEZ: Some people come and you'll see them cry outside of the crypt just because it meant a lot to them. They knew of Dr. King and the work that he stood for. When you think of the nonviolent resistance, when you go to Birmingham and see those dogs and those hoses that were turned on people, just because they wanted to be treated fairly, just because they wanted equal rights and [then] to be treated so meanly.
I know oftentimes my friends will tell me, "I can't watch this movie or that movie." There was a movie called Mississippi Burning, and it talked about the buses burning. I think they have the bus in Birmingham that's burned out. It graphically depicted what happened. People really get moved and touched by those things happening.
I find it interesting and special that people like you want to come and find out, because you have your own concerns. And to find out how it relates with what we do here at the center is very important, and we appreciate that.
SABIITI: I have just seen a quotation there, somebody saying that when Martin Luther King, Jr., told you that you're somebody, that you're a person, then you feel proud. You believe it. You feel that you are someone. For me, today, that is the best thing I've seen.
PORTER: Stella Sabiiti is executive director of the Center for Conflict Resolution in Uganda.
SABIITI: It's very relevant in my work, because that's what I'm trying to do.
OSBURN: They determined that public accommodations should be the first one to put the real emphasis on; because if you can't even sit at a lunch counter, there isn't a whole lot of reason to talk about having the right to vote.
PORTER: Randel Osburn is administrator of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization founded by Martin Luther King, Jr., and other pastors during the civil rights movement. The group from Africa was especially eager to hear this first-hand account of the movement's history.
OSBURN: You had to start where the most people were affected directly. The drama of that was the city and movement that we later were to be involved in. I as a student in school, as most of those sit-in movements were done by high school and college students. The rest is history. We forced the system to change.
We sat at lunch counters and literally waited for people to come and put cigarettes in our hair and cigars down our backs. It was a feeling of anticipation, because you knew that was going to happen. After that, somebody would, almost invariably, strike you. You would get beaten up and then you'd get carried to jail for being beaten up. (laughter) Strange phenomenon.
My most challenging and memorable occasion of that—because when you are as young as I was, it was really almost just like another beating that your mother or father gave you—growing up in the South where you really took beatings. So people ask, "How would you sustain all those beatings?" Although my mother never tried to kill me, at that age I thought she was trying to. So the beatings really did not, in my earlier years, have the devastating effect on me that people would normally think.
The one thing that was the most frightening and devastating incident to me was when we got ready to integrate the swimming pools. Usually when we would appear at a place, the whites would be in the swimming pool and the very thought of being in that water with a black body was just absolutely profane. So when they would see us coming with swimming trunks on, they would get out of the water like they were running for their lives. (laughter) Because they didn't want to be in the water when my black body hit it. They didn't know I couldn't swim, so it wouldn't matter a whole lot.
But when we got to the pool that day, there was nobody in it. It seemed a little strange, but we went along and said, "Well, they just decided that they were going to let us have it." I wanted to go on the diving board and hit the water, get in the water. The water had been filled with acid. The acid began to eat our bodies. Jumping in that water and going under and feeling acid just eating your body all over was clearly the most horrific single incident... I've sustained some bad beatings, but that always still comes back to my mind as the thing.
I developed a mental block, obviously, against swimming from then on. (laughter) I still, physically, know how. But the very thought of that dive to the water...the thought...there's like a flashback that leaves a lasting impression.
We later grew the movement to desegregate all public accommodations, and translated it really into a legislative demand. President Kennedy started lobbying for the Civil Rights Bill and, of course, was assassinated. Lyndon Johnson passed it in 1964. It did not happen out of the goodness of the heart of the administration, nor Congress, that was in session. It happened because we kept the pressure of protest going, going, going.
In Birmingham we had filled up the jails. We had 2,200 young people in jails around Jefferson County. They began to ship young people out to other towns that had jails. At first they received them, because they said, "We will pay you for feeding them and keeping them." The little town said, "Send them on," because they were all united against stopping us.
But after the first six days when the jails were full and all the food had run out and the money that Birmingham was paying them ran out, they acted just as the police department did. They were working overtime and being given racism. After the second payday, they were given more racism. By the fourth payday they were mad, because they saw the mayor; chief of police, Bull Connor; and police commissioner all still doing well. They were working around the clock and not getting overtime. They really began to get indifferent toward the whole idea of standing up there and beating us around the clock.
In short, black people had disrupted downtown Birmingham, so much so in terms of economic flow of capital that whites would not come downtown. They wouldn't serve us at the lunch counters. Whites wouldn't come down, because they didn't want to confront us. In short, the downtown became a ghost town. Again, thank God for the business community, Chamber of Commerce. Somebody talked to somebody, and the next thing we knew they were flying in from Washington. Nicholas Kastenbach was sent in to negotiate a settlement. Of course, history records it that the administration sent him to resolve it, but what history leaves out is that the white folks in Birmingham said, "Send somebody in. Do anything. Just get us from this economic crisis that is happening." The essence that I really try to stress to people who were not close to the movement is that every movement Martin Luther King led successfully had economic pressure at its core.
MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. (recording): We the negro citizens have decided not to ride the buses in Montgomery until we receive some justice and until we get a hearing, even if it takes a year.
OSBURN: He knew that the only thing America would really respond to was economic pressure.
PORTER: Using economic pressure to change society was a message the group also heard at Atlanta's city hall. In the early 1970s Maynard Jackson, the first African-American mayor of Atlanta, wanted to make sure that female- and minority-owned businesses got a chance to work on the city's biggest project—construction of Hartsfield International Airport.
MICHAEL SULLIVAN: There was, of course, hesitation. Actually it was stronger than hesitation. There was out and out disagreement over that happening. Mayor Jackson, at that time, stood and said that he would rather let the grass grow up over that project than to allow it to move forward without the inclusion of the minority and female business community.
For the affirmative action programs that we have around the country today, that equates to the first shot of the revolutionary war for the independence of our country, in terms of significance. Because that was the shot heard around this country.
PORTER: This is Michael Sullivan, director of the city's Office of Contract Compliance.
SULLIVAN: It was a strong stance on the part of a governmental entity. To say, "Hey, this is not only what we want; this is what we're going to have." That has evolved, of course, into where we are today. Where we are today is that it's pretty much understood by those who are doing business with the city that we are a city that does business with all segments of our community, and don't even think about doing business with us unless you are prepared to do so.
There are still those who from time to time try us and test our metal, as you might say. We have prevailed thus far, and we are looking forward to continuing to prevail.
JAMES WALKER: I'm not that old. I'm 27. (laughter) When I was growing up I don't recall it being as bad as it is portrayed in the Eyes on the Prize videos.
PORTER: Also in the Atlanta Contract Compliance Office, James Walker gave the group a different perspective.
WALKER: I've heard some horrible stories. My parents have experienced horrible times here. But from my standpoint, it has taken a turn toward a more economic type of discrimination. In my opinion, it's probably more prevalent now than back in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Why? Probably because it's more hidden now. It's more dangerous now as opposed to being called a speck or a nigger out in public. They will get behind closed doors and mess with your contracts, livelihoods, to where you can not feed your family or exclude you out of the contracts that your forefathers brought to the city.
So, where is it going? I really would like to believe that it's going to get better. But with all the attacks now on EEO programs or affirmative action programs in this state and throughout the country, I really believe it is going to have to get worse before it gets any better.
SULLIVAN: Anyone who thinks that we don't need those efforts is foolish and is casting the future of this country to the wind, in my opinion.
PORTER: Again, this is Michael Sullivan.
SULLIVAN: The only way we are going to continue to grow and to succeed is by making sure that we bring along all segments of our community as we move forward. That is the debate that's going on, and that is the challenge we face. I think the election this year is going to be a vote on our consciousness, personally. I hope our consciousness will speak loudly and speak clearly that we haven't arrived yet.
PORTER: We're talking in this edition of Common Ground with a group of nine human rights activists from East Africa as they study the US civil rights movement on a trip through the American South.
Printed transcripts and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide range of programs meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.
Stella, when you saw these civil rights sites and met some of the leaders, what has impressed you the most about what you have seen? Is there any image or thing you heard, or person you saw, or place that you visited that sort of stands out the most as far as the US civil rights movement goes?
SABIITI: Yes. I was impressed by the people we met, the leaders, and especially the older generation. They don't have any hate. They tell you all the bad things that were done against them and their people. They don't have any hate at all in their hearts. That was very, very impressive. I think the world, especially the countries that are in conflict, should get to be informed about this.
LYNN WALKER HUNTLEY: When I was a kid I would walk down the street and if I saw a white alcoholic lying on the street, destitute and homeless, I would not walk by and say, "My, hasn't the white middle-class failed that person. White people really should do something about that person." I am a child of a minister; I do like to preach. I was brought up to believe, "My, look at that poor human being. Haven't we failed him?"
PORTER: This is Lynn Walker Huntley, she's a former NAACP lawyer and Justice Department official. Huntley now heads the Comparative Race Relations Initiative at the Southern Education Foundation.
HUNTLEY: Today the rhetoric in our society is, if it's a black person that's hurting, it must be the black community's fault and only the black community can solve it. Well, I am here to say I had white teachers who taught me good things in school. So white teachers can help. There are all kinds of people of diverse races in this society that have something to offer. If we can't get past the point of feeling that everything that is a black problem is only going to be solved by the black community, we will not make it; because we don't own the means of production in this society, not yet, not enough to solve our employment problem. We don't control the economic power of this country. We are not even the major kingpins in the illicit activities in this country. (laughter) It's not an excuse, but it's an explanation. I think we need to do more, but I don't agree with those who say that we are our primary worst enemy. The worst enemy is these evils of lack of caring, of apathy, of selfishness, and of greed that are driving this society and are keeping poor people—who happen to be disproportionally at the bottom and who are disproportionally black—out of the opportunity structures. That is my speech for the day.
PORTER: After Huntley spoke with the group from Africa, she told me what she hopes meetings like this achieve.
HUNTLEY: I think that any American knows that this is a society that is complex and suffering from many different types of social ills. Some of those ills are reflective of problems that one can find worldwide. So when people from abroad come here and ask us about our circumstances, with great pride we can point to areas of strength and achievement. But I think we need to be open to hearing and sharing also our failings and learning from the experience of others about strategies to try to address those failings.
The way I try to disabuse people of the notion that we have got it all figured out is to give them sufficient factual information and context to form their own judgments about whether or not we have gotten it all solved. If they were, for example, to travel around Atlanta, they would see many very poor, fractured communities and would wonder how have they gotten that problem solved. When they walked down the city streets, they are going to see homeless people and wonder, surely they haven't gotten the problem solved.
There is no way of hiding society's ills. Therefore, the way of disabusing people of a notion is to be forthright and candid with them and give them some basis for assessing the strategies and how effective they are to try to address some of those problems.
ABDALLAH SAFFARI: Since the time when I was young, I read books such as the Native Son and The Black Boy on the plight of blacks in the southern part of America in particular. And you say, in general, I hear of all those prominent guys who were involved in the civil rights movement, particularly Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. When I came over here, it was my pleasure, really, to be at these sites of Montgomery and Birmingham and now here in Atlanta. What I have seen is a living testimony of this great man and the successes we share... Dr. Martin Luther King stood for and significant achievements which the black under his leadership have obtained.
PORTER: This is Abdallah Saffari, he's a member of the Tanganyika Law Society in Tanzania. I asked Abdallah what has most impressed him in this trip through the US South.
SAFFARI: Certainly the place where Dr. King was born and where he has been buried. Particularly the last sermon he gave. Most people are much more conversant with the speech, "I Have a Dream" of his vision of the future of America as a society with no discrimination. But I had never heard of this last sermon. Of course, it was very moving. You wished to cry. His speech, just before being assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, was exceptionally outstanding.
PORTER: Do you remember anything of what he said?
SAFFARI: Yes. In his last sermon he said he didn't want people to remember him as a Nobel Prize winner or for his achievements. He wanted to be remembered as to what he has done for the population—whether he has done a lot in making those who don't have clothes to have clothes, those who don't have enough food to have sufficient food, those who have not been able to go to school to have an education. In his last speech before he was gunned down, where the assassinator was, he said he didn't care if he was going to be shot down, because what he stood for was right and he knew that he would go to this next world, which, unfortunately, he would never be able to go without us.
PORTER: In his last speech he said, "I have seen the promised land."
SAFFARI: Yes. Exactly.
PORTER: "And I may not get there with you, but I've seen the promised land."
SAFFARI: Yes. That's it.
MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. (recording): I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land. So, I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
SABIITI: I know in Africa we also have our own heroes, but we don't do anything about them or anything for them. We hear through stories that so and so was a great person, he or she did that, but that's all. Only very few people get to know about that person. There is something we can learn here.
PORTER: This again, is Stella Sabiiti from Uganda.
SABIITI: I'd like to take something from this tour, and that is to try to look for such courageous people from my own society. Then we would build something modest. I mean, we can't have something so big right now. But to try and do some research and document some of this evidence, talk to some of the old people, the people who have experience, who talked or saw these people, who talked with them, who remember the stories. I think we need to do this for our own people as well.
PORTER: When you visited the civil rights sites or saw the award-winning video series Eyes on the Prize, when you see those pictures of what happened in the United States during the heyday, at least, of the US civil rights movement and you see African Americans who are being oppressed, beaten, attacked by dogs, when you look at them, do you see Americans or do you see Africans being attacked?
CHRISTINE ACHICNG: When I look at those pictures, I see Africans being attacked. I see discrimination really against them as Africans not as Americans. Part of them have not become part of them as Americans. Much as they were free people or free slaves that have been freed, but they have not really become part of the whole society as Americans. So I think they were fighting to become Americans. That is what the whole movement was all about.
PORTER: This is Christine Achicng, director of the Prisons Project at the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative in Uganda. I asked the same question of Muna Tesfai from Eritrea.
TESFAI: Africans. I've seen them as Africans being oppressed. Therefore, as part of me... to resemble me in any way. I feel that, really. I feel it badly too.
CHARLES SEMGALAWE: I am very much impressed by what I have already seen and what our friends in America are doing.
PORTER: Finally, we hear from Charles Semgalawe, a member of the Tanganyika and East Africa Law Societies.
SEMGALAWE: The thing in which I have learned is that always, always struggle must continue. So, therefore, it's not a question of solving one problem and being satisfied and sit down and relax. It's a question of looking at the society. What is the problem? Let's be serious and try to solve it. This is what is happening, actually, what I see. What Dr. Martin Luther King has started is still going on today. He was talking about human rights, and they're still talking about human rights. So the question of human rights will not come to an end from what I have seen so far. This will encourage me to put more effort in whatever I am doing. Because it is not a question whereby I can come to an end. It's an ongoing process that will give me the vigor to continue what I am currently doing at home.
PORTER: For Common Ground, I'm Keith Porter. Cassettes and transcripts of this program are available. The transcripts are free and cassettes cost $5.00. To order the tape or the transcript or if you'd like to share your thoughts about the program, please write to us at the Stanley Foundation, 216 Sycamore Street, Suite 500, Muscatine, Iowa, 52761. Be sure to refer to program number 9630. To order by credit card, you can call us 319-264-1500.
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