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The Table Video

Todd Allen

Eyes Forward, Looking Back: Learning Love and Humility from the Civil Rights Movement

Professor of Communication Studies & Visual Arts, Grove City College
June 15, 2017

In 1957, a group of African American clergymen formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization intended to advance the cause of civil rights. Taking as their motto a rather bold declaration-“to redeem the soul of America”- they believed that the way to transform society could be found in the Judeo-Christian ethic of love and the practice of nonviolent direct action. Looking back, it is clear to see how this philosophy changed the conditions of their time. What is perhaps less clear, is how these principles can be applied to the present historical moment. A hallmark of the civil rights movement is that it is the story of ordinary people who did extra-ordinary things. This talk will introduce us to some of these people and their stories as together we explore a way forward together.

Dr. Todd Allen is a Professor in the Department of Communication Studies & Visual Arts at Grove City College. Prior to his time at Grove City, he had been employed at Geneva College for 23 years as an Admissions Counselor, Assistant to the President for Multicultural Development, and Professor. He received his B.A. in Communication from Geneva College in 1991, an M.A. in Rhetorical Studies from the University of Akron in 1995, and a PhD in Rhetorical Studies from Duquesne University in 2009. In 2006 he founded The Common Ground Project, a community based non-profit dedicated to promoting an understanding of the Civil Rights Movement. For the past fifteen years, in partnership with the PNC Foundation, Dr. Allen has led the “Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights” bus tour, an educational tour which visits many of the key southern sites of the Civil Rights Movement. The tour was featured in a 2006 documentary produced by WQED-Pittsburgh. For his scholarship he has been the recipient of numerous awards including: Fellowship at the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History (Yale University, 2010), The New Pittsburgh Courier 50 Men of Excellence (2009), NEH Fellowship (Harvard University, 2008), Minority Opinion Magazine Achiever Award (2007), Pittsburgh Magazine 40 under 40 (2005), the YWCA of Greater Pittsburgh Racial Justice Award (2005), and the Geneva College Excellence in Teaching Award (2005-06). Dr. Allen was a contributor to a recently released book titled Black Scholars in White Space: New Vistas in African American Studies from the Christian Academy. Dr. Allen was also named to the Urban Heroes Class of 2015 sponsored by the Center for Urban Biblical Ministry (Pittsburgh, PA) with his story highlighted in Urban Heroes: Ordinary Pittsburgh Residents Who Do Extraordinary Things-Volume 3. Todd and his wife Lonette have been married for 23 years and are the proud parents of a high school senior, Bryce.


Thank you very much. If you don’t mind, and even if you do mind, I’m going to sit. [crowd laughs] Lunch was very filling. As I reflected on what to share with you today, I’m going to come from this theme, eyes forward, looking back, what we can learn about the Civil Rights Movement applying to today. As I think about the question for this conference, how should Christians follow Jesus in today’s political context? I can’t help but be drawn to the history of the Civil Rights Movement as one example, one case study of Christians engaging the political context of their time. I grew up learning about the history of the Civil Rights Movement, both at home as well as in school. And you know, as I’ve shared with people, when you grow up in a certain place you think that’s what all of the world is like. And so it was only when I went to college that I was shocked at the blessing that I had in being taught this history of the movement. And not everyone shared that same experience. One of those people who helped form my thinking is that lady who’s sitting in the pew of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, that’s Paulette Potter. She was that high school history teacher that I had. And about 15 years ago I started a non-profit called the Common Ground Project whose mission is to take people to historic sites of the movement and meet some of the veterans of the movement that we have sitting with us today. And one of those people who inspired me to do that was this teacher. And I tell people 15 years later, I’m glad sometimes that you don’t know, what you don’t know. Because had I known how hard it was to put together these tours I might not have done it. Thinking about the state of Civil Rights Movement teaching and education, I’m drawn to a speaker that we’re gonna hear shortly, Doctor Terrence Roberts. He says, “If dialogue is to begin, “we need to have an informed historical perspective.” And I think so often what we see in the contentious discussions presently around issues of race and racism, is a lot of people lacking that informed historical perspective. Often time when people think of the movement they have this tendency to misremember. One of those misrememberings that I hear often, especially when it’s applied to conversations about Black Lives Matter, is why can’t it be more like the Civil Rights Movement of the 50’s and 60’s? And people pretend as though, when that movement was at its height in the 50’s and 60’s that everyone thought King and SNCC and the students sitting in in Little Rock or Birmingham were on the side of right and on the side of justice. And nothing could have been further from the truth. The Southern Poverty Law Center released a study a couple of years ago titled The State of Civil Rights Movement Teaching. And in that they give states a report card, and I won’t get into all of the details of how that was calculated. Say if California received a letter grade of B, my home state of Pennsylvania received a D grade. But what they found is that most states lacked significantly in what they teach. And that there’s a great disparity between what is taught even within those states that are doing well. What they often discovered is that there were two… Two words, two people, four words that the movement history often boiled down to. And I’m sure you know them. Rosa Parks and again this is not to be dismissive of Mrs. Parks. But there’s a rich history of her life-long activism that often gets ignored when we just focus on her sitting on a seat in Montgomery. And of course the other name that we know, Martin Luther King. And even there, when we claim sometimes to honor his legacy we in fact dishonor when we don’t think about his life of activism. And those four words, you know them, I have a dream. Often times what then this amounts to is this narrative. Rosa sat, Martin marched, Barack ran, we’ve overcome. And unfortunately that is what has been taught. But I think there are some deeper lessons that we can learn from this movement. As Evan had mentioned, I did some work looking at the memory and the link between one’s Christian faith and memory. Particularly in the city of Selma, Alabama. This is a 12 stone memorial, that oughta ring a bell for you, on which are inscribed the words from Joshua. When your children shall ask you in the future what do these stones mean? This is an opportunity for you to tell them that story. But as a lot of the movement veterans tell me and remind me, you can’t tell what you don’t know. Three lessons that are important for me to gather from this movement, are number one, the movement is a story of ordinary people who did extraordinary things. King often spoke of the ground crew of the movement. Those masses that you often saw in sit ins, and in church services, and in marches whose names history books will never record. But those are he said, the true heroes and sheroes of the movement. One of those ordinary people who did an extraordinary thing is the woman in this picture, Joanne Bland. 11 years old at the time of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery campaign. Was on that bridge on Bloody Sunday when the beating occurred. What makes this picture so powerful for me, its several years old now, but that young man standing with her is my son when he was 11 years old. And you can’t see but he has in his hand a stone. And Joanne is telling him what those stones of Selma, what those stones of the movement mean. The Little Rock Nine. You’re going to be blessed with the opportunity to hear from one who’s in our midst, who was part of this campaign. I love this image particularly of Minnijean that you see there saluting. And she said for her, her smile was her form of resistance. The four college students from North Carolina A&T in Greensboro who, by sitting down were really standing up for justice and helped launched a sit in movement all across this country. And those young children in Birmingham who helped inspire a movement. If you were here this morning you were blessed to hear from Carolyn McKinstry who was one of those young people who as John Lewis said, found a way to get in the way. And in the process transformed not only Birmingham but transformed the nation. The second lesson that I draw from the movement is that its a story of faith in action. I think sometimes we misremember King and we misremember the role of faith. And with King quite often we describe him either as a preacher or a civil rights activist. And as a lot of people have suggested, that’s really a false dichotomy. That King was was a Christian living out the implications of the gospel. And so there was no difference in what he preached about and spoke about on Sunday from the marching that he did Monday through the rest of the week. When asked one time, who are some of the greatest thinkers on King? One of his contemporaries without hesitation said, Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John. [crowd laughing] Civil Rights Movement was a call to justice. I asked Reverend C.T. Vivian, this is him standing with the notorious Sheriff Clark in Selma. I asked Reverend C.T. Vivian one time if he ever regretted not pastoring a church. And he said “No, “some people are called to the ministry to pastor churches, “some people are called to to missions. “I was called to the ministry “for the purpose of the movement.” He said, “Because what you have to remember is.” He says, “The way we looked at the movement was, “it was a battle to see whose God was God.” Because the segregationists went to church too. They were pastors and deacons in their churches too. But we believed God was on the side of the oppressed. As Cornel West says, “Never forget, “justice is what love looks like in public.” And so we’ve heard several times about those two greatest commands. And that’s what the movement was about. Lifting up, love of God, love of neighbor to bring about justice. This is one of my favorite images from the Voting Rights Museum, the former Voting Rights Museum in Selma, Alabama. That on a nice clear day it really reminds me of Hebrews 12:1. That we’re surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses. In the background on that image you can see the Edmund Pettus Bridge where that beating that I mentioned occurred on March 7th of 1965. In the foreground are names of persons who were engaged in the movement. And as I said on a nice sunny day, it looks as though some of those names are resting, literally on those clouds. A third lesson that the movement has taught me is that the Civil Rights Movement was a story of sacrifice. And often for some unto the point of death. Lives being taken by hate. But as we heard, if you listen to that sermon of Doctor King that, death did not have have the final say. That these acts of crucifixion became moments of resurrection. I was just talking with a course, a class last week, about the life and legacy of Emmett Till. Placing in the context not only of lynching history, but of current conversations around Black Lives Matter. That young boy from Chicago who in 1955 was brutally murdered, but who many feel his death was a catalyst for what we now call the movement. We’ve heard as well through Carolyn, the story of her four friends. Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, and Cynthia Wesley. Who were murdered at 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963. But there are also other voices. Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, Mickey Schwerner, in Mississippi. Seeking to open up the closed society not only of the state of Mississippi, but the closed society of this country. And for trying to help people gain their full citizenship rights, were brutally murdered. Jimmie Lee Jackson, a name whose often omitted from narratives of the Selma to Montgomery march, but many say there would not have been a Selam to Montgomery march were it not for Jimmie Lee Jackson. Whose death at the hands of law enforcement in nearby Marion in Perry County served as a catalyst. People were so outraged that they said, we will march the 54 55 miles from Selma to Montgomery and lay his body on the steps of the capitol to George Wallace. Now while they did not carry his body those 54 miles they carried his spirit and his memory those 54 miles. And as a result of what was done on that highway, secured the right to vote. Part of that struggle was this woman from Detroit, Viola Liuzzo. Housewife, mother, didn’t know a soul in Selma. But she knew injustice when she saw it. And when she sat at home on that Sunday evening, and they broke into the evening movie and she saw broadcasts of the beating on that bridge in Selma, she said to herself, I’ve got to go to Selma. There is injustice there. And for going and for participating in that campaign, again was brutally murdered at the end of that march. But I’m reminded, as has been said their deaths were not in vain. Because greater love has no one than this, that they laid down their life for a friend. I’m reminded too when I think about the movement, that freedom is a constant struggle. People ask me often, why you keep talking about the past? The past is the past. And I remind them that the past is very present indeed. I love this woman and was blessed to meet her before her passing. This is Amelia Boynton Robinson, that’s my teacher in the background photo-bombing there, by the way. This is Amelia Boynton Robinson, she was 104 years old when she passed away last year. Matriarch of the voting rights struggle in Selma, Alabama. In Selma every year, around the beating of Bloody Sunday and the march, they have an even called Jubilee. A time of remembrance and reflection. But a time of renewal to work forward. And they’re always honoring the veterans of the movement at that time. And I was blessed to be there a few years ago when they honored Doctor Boynton Robinson for probably the umpteenth time. But they made a mistake. They let her get near the microphone. And everyone that evening had been saying how much we honor you, we love you, we stand on your shoulders. And she got up as only a woman with such pride and southern etiquette could do and said, “I thank you all for the honor that you give me. “And I’ve heard before plenty of times how you stand “on my shoulders. “But what I want to tell you now is, “Get off my shoulders and do your own work.” [crowd laughing] So I think about the work that is before us, and again as I said, the past for me has a very direct connection to the present. When I saw those placards in 1968 of I am a man, a very basic sort of claim. In fact I have the T-shirt that says that and I get some weird looks when I go to Walmart wearing it. Like isn’t that obvious? But I say to them, [crowd laughing] this is the same for response. Just minus the hashtag, Black Lives Matter. So whether we’re talking about from Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin to Sandra Bland. This history as I said is very very relevant. As I near the close of my remarks I wanna share just a little story with you. That young woman in the picture there is Kelsey. I don’t know who that young guy is, but that’s Kelsey. I have never met Kelsey, but I met Kelsey’s mom Erin.

As I said for the last 15 years I’ve taken people from all over this country on journeys to the south to learn our history. And when I say our, I mean our American story. And so about two years ago I was traveling in a college group with Erin. And we went to Greensboro as our first stop and if you’ve ever been to the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro you’ll understand the power of this. Its at the former Woolworth’s where those four colleges students sat in.

And when you walk into that first exhibit, you are surrounded by lynching photography and other examples of hate that took place during this time. And I’ve watched a lot of emotional reactions to that exhibit. I’ve seen people avoid the exhibit altogether. But that day I had never seen this. I looked across the room and Erin immediately just crumpled to the floor. And I looked over at her professors, thinking is someone gonna go over there and see what’s going on? And they looked away.

And so I took a step over to Erin and it took a while to get her off the floor. But I eventually did. Took her to a side room. And it took probably another half hour to 45 minutes for her to stop crying. And I again had never seen anyone that moved by that exhibit. When Erin was finally able to form words she told me, now this was March of 2014, she told me just a few weeks prior in February of 2014, that her daughter Kelsey had committed suicide by hanging herself. And so when she saw those images it took her back to Kelsey’s death.

Now why did Kelsey commit suicide? Bullying. Here’s what happened. Where Kelsey had grown up, was pretty much an all white neighborhood. Until a family down the street adopted a couple of African American children. And people who had been Kelsey’s friends, and close with her, began to talk about niggers in our neighborhood. And began to hurl all sorts of slurs and abusive language about these people and how they’re bringing down our community. These are some of those people who went to church. Kelsey said to her friends, “Well if you don’t like them, “I guess you don’t like me. “Because I’m partially African American as well.” And they looked at her and said, “No you’re not.” And she’s like, “Yes, I am.”

And once that was confirmed for them, they began to hurl those slurs at her. People who had been her friends had turned their back on her. To the point where she felt that she was all alone. And that the only way to go forward was to end her life. And when Erin shared that story with me then I couldn’t stop crying. And I don’t know if you’ve ever been to one of those moments where you’re trying to console somebody and then you fall apart.

But when I finally pulled myself together, I said to Erin, I said well, again I’m not trying to capitalize on the pain of your story. But as people think about this thing we call the Civil Rights Movement they often want to think of it in terms of the past, and past history. Would you mind if whenever I’m out talking about this movement, I take some time to share Kelsey’s story? And she strongly encouraged me to do that. We’re reminded, by my good friend Doctor McKinstry, that for many years we have seen the effects of hate on our world. But now its time to prove what love will do. The time has come to stop watching and to begin the healing.

As I look at the journey that each of us in this room are on I wanna remind you of those three lessons of the movement. Because they’re just not lessons from the past. They’re lessons we can apply right here in this present historical moment. Each one of us in this room, when guided by our faith, and having a willingness to sacrifice knowing that we’re ordinary people, we can still do extraordinary things. And work to build a world that moves us closer to that beloved community that Doctor King talked about. That beloved community that we owe to young people like Kelsey. God Bless you.