May 08, 2009
Memphis, 40 Years After
This guest post was sent to us by our good friend, Peter Teague, of the Nathan Cummings Foundation.
I met Charles Jones on a Memphis streetcar. We were headed downtown, in the direction of the Lorraine Motel, 40 years and a day after Martin Luther King's assassination. I fell into conversation with this charming, white-haired southern gentleman, and quickly learned that, as a 23-year old, he'd helped form the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee with Ella Baker and Diane Nash. This was exciting. I'd read about these heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, and here I was talking to one of them!
He asked me what I was doing in Memphis, and I explained that I was there for "The Dream Reborn" conference, a gathering of 1200 young people from all over the country who were there to claim Dr. King's legacy and bring his movement into the new century. The kids, I said, are coming together around the vision of a new kind of economy, one that works for people, their communities and the environment. He was intrigued, and when he asked me where I was headed, I invited him to join me at the conference event I was already a little late for.
Mr. Jones is funny, a great storyteller and an audacious flirt. He fit right in; the young people he met loved him, the conference leaders were moved to have him with us, the funders and activists were a little awed and I think we all had the sense that something important was passing between two different generations.
We ended up asking Charles to join us for dinner, then breakfast, and then to come to the conference. In the hours we spent together, I heard about the people and the places I'd studied, stories told with a light touch and self-deprecating humor. It wasn't until I returned to New York and went back to the history that I connected it all up. As a young man Charles Jones had defied the segregation laws by organizing some of the first lunch
counter sit-ins; he twice went to jail with Dr. King as a leader of the famous Albany Movement; and he'd been one of the 436 almost unthinkably brave people who took part in the Freedom Rides in the Spring and Summer of 1961. He'd faced violent, racist mobs in Alabama, and worked with Bob Moses to register voters in McComb Mississippi, a literally death-defying act. At one point he was sentenced to 30 days on a chain gang rather than pay bail to a corrupt and unjust system.
In 1960 the student organizers of SNCC adopted a statement of principles that is as relevant today as it was then, and it bears repeating now. It reads, in part:
Nonviolence as it grows from Judaic-Christian tradition seeks a social order of justice permeated by love. Integration of human endeavor represents the crucial first step toward such a society. Through nonviolence, courage displaces fear; love transforms hate. Acceptance dissipates prejudice; hopes ends despair. Peace dominates war; faith reconciles doubt. Mutual regard cancels enmity. Justice for all overthrows injustice.
What struck me during that weekend, meeting and listening to men and women who'd led the movement to redeem our democracy in the 1960s (including former SNCC leader and now Congressman John Lewis, the Reverend Joseph Lowery and Harry Belafonte), was a victory I've never heard mentioned; they've managed to live lives that embody these principles. Charles Jones is now 70, and to be with him is to know kindness, generosity, affection and deep intelligence. The young people he met lit up when he gave them a hug, and he didn't hesitate to acknowledge the beautiful ways in which they are claiming their inheritance. He cried and we cried when people in their teens and twenties said in a myriad ways, "we're not going to defeat hatred and violence with hatred and violence. Only with love."
After Charles left the conference, Van Jones, the lead activist and organizer, told the crowd about the blessing that had been conferred by a hero of the movement of the 1960s on this new movement - "last night he said he'd had a good feeling about us, and this morning he said, 'we know, don't we. We know. This is it.'" In many ways we've been in the wilderness in the 40 years since Dr. King was killed - lost, bewildered, disappointed, fractured - but Memphis taught me that the dream lives, and that the love
and courage of Dr. King's generation has found its way intact to a new generation.