Almost every year one of my family members calls and asks me if I remember what this day means and I clumsily shuffle through the mental rolodex for the appropriate occasion -- only to get it wrong. For my brother the celebration of his sobriety is as significant as his birthday and in many ways, more so. It is the day that he has designated as a beginning worth remembering.
To me this ritual seemed odd -- if not awkward the first ten years or so -- but over time I see there is something profoundly momentous about acknowledging pain and the victories of personal struggle. This week as Nashville struggles to deal with ferocious floods -- that so far have taken 10 lives -- I am am reminded of the markers of time which are currently submerged in water. For it is in the downtown area of Nashville -- where we recently celebrated the sit-in movements and the freedom rides -- that numerous lives have been lost and altered as a result of the raging waters of racism. As I recently watched Freedom Riders an excellent documentary by Stanley Nelson that chronicles the intentional disobedience of a determined and integrated group of college students in 1961 who band together on busses through the deep south to break the chains of segregation, I stared in awe.
There were the young she-ros and heros of the civil rights movement; Diane Nash, Rev. James lawson, Dr. Bernard Lafayette, Rev. Ct. Vivian and countless others. Subjecting themselves to beatings, spitting, verbal assaults and explosives these youth persevere and defy not only local authorities but U.S. Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy as well. And in the end, these "children" tweaked the conscience of the President of the United States as word across the globe spread about the continued subjugation of Blacks in a country that boasts of freedom for all.
No matter how many times we hear the stories, there is something hauntingly beautiful about the images of teenagers -- who had not even grown fully into their faces -- artfully, respectfully and willfully staging a non-violent protest that literally altered the course of history and laid the foundation for liberation movements for the next 50 years.
That many of them were first generation college students in their families and risked their lives, their educations and futures is instructive about the character and determination of these youth.
The stories and messages passed onto the subsequent generations are the lessons that remind us all that youth voice and action is potent and crucial. Stepping into the past is essential for perspective and instruction.
As former Asst. to Robert Kennedy and founder of the First Amendment Center, John Seigenthaler recounts years later -- long after being severely beaten while trying to help the young activists -- how his mind was opened by a young, strikingly beautiful 23-year-old black woman named Diane Nash who refused to comply with the urgings of the former Attorney General to cease the freedom rides. And because of her defiance -- and countless others -- a new era of desegregation began.
It is easy to overlook the bravery it took for a young African American woman to stand up to one of the most powerful men in the world when examining this event through a present day lens. And although we tend to rightfully focus on the bravery suffering and accomplishments of the heroes of this pivotal historical snapshot, what about some of the others reflected in the archival footage?
While gazing at the fresh skin and bright eyes in the images of the protagonists being beaten in Freedom Riders, you can't help but wonder what it must feel like for those who were drunk with opposition to fix their eyes on the past. Not just the Bull Connors or the more overt symbols of bigotry. But the anonymous white teenagers who spewed racial slurs and insults willingly on camera.
What do they see and feel when reflecting on the images of rage and fury? Could these be the sons and daughters of people who packed picnic baskets for lynching's just 20 years earlier? Do they secretly defend and celebrate their resistance or have they buried the past underneath an addiction, abuse or isolation? And who are the offspring of those rabid for segregation?
Some of us are related to the ghosts of the civil rights opposition whose images were shown spitting, thrashing and insulting fellow humans. These are not just anonymous, extinct extras in a Hollywood movie. These are our mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles and neighbors. Whenever there is war, there are casualties on either side.
And while we celebrate the memories and victories for fairness and equality, we must acknowledge that those who were lost in anger and retribution must be memorialized as well. For beneath the fear, wrath and hatred that inspires violence is the reminder that mercy and restoration of a better self is possible. While it is difficult to recount the ugliness, it seems as humans we do not move on without the fire of remembrance.
The next time my brother is flooded with memories and calls to ask if I know what day it is, I pledge to remember. It is the marker of his former suffering and I will celebrate this bittersweet occasion with him. For, like Nashville, it is through respectful acknowledgment of darker days that we grow and emerge into a saner, peaceful and dignified self.