When your heritage represents our pain

This imagine of kids playing  together in 1950s Detroit should help us remember that we are one.

This iconic photograph of children playing in Detroit should remind us all that we are one. The flag that divides us should not fly on public property.

First a painful truth: the Confederate flag flies all around the South. I’ve seen it in Jackson, Miss. and in Selma, Birmingham and Montgomery, where black people — and the white people who helped them — were beaten and murdered for trying to fulfill their humanity and gain equal protection under the law.

Here in Georgia we see the flag on porches, at places of business and on the license plate of a car that seems to be following you way too closely.

Now the debate about the flag is focused on South Carolina, where a 21-year-old man pictured with the Confederate flag killed nine people in a Charleston church two weeks ago and admitted he did so because he hated African-Americans. The pastor of that church, Clementa Pinckney, was among those slaughtered. He served in the South Carolina state legislature, the very body that will take up the flag issue next week.
The Civil War may have ended 150 years ago, but this battle over the Confederate Flag rages on. For me, the flag represents oppression and hatred. I get a sick feeling in my stomach whenever i encounter it. My mind goes back to a time when black people were killed just for being black.

Earlier this week I asked Rev. C.T. Vivian about the Confederate flag and the burning of black churches throughout the South in recent weeks. Vivian, who turns 90 this month, fought for voting rights in Selma. As a young pastor and divinity student in Nashville, he took part in the Nashville Student Movement and the Freedom Rides in the early 1960s. In 2013, President Barack Obama awarded Vivian with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

“The flag is representing the death, the murder and the misuse of black life before and after slavery. That’s why they talk about heritage,” said Vivian. “Well I would not want to be a part of heritage that talks about hate as a basic part of my lifestyle. They have to understand the hanging and the killing and the beating of black people by Christians and the Klan was a basic part of a good deal of what the white church did in the south. Racism was a part of the lives of the Southern Baptists.”

As Dr. Vivian noted, the flag is deeply engrained in Southern culture.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw the flag outside of my workplace. It was 1989 and I’d moved from St. Petersburg, Fla. to take a reporting job in Atlanta. When I walked into the newsroom, I asked why the Confederate flag was flying outside my new workplace. It’s part of the Georgia state flag, a colleague said.

And here I thought I was moving to “the city too busy to hate.” The black Mecca. The cradle of the Civil Rights Movement. Welcome to Georgia, where every other neighborhood has “Plantation” in its name and there is an entire museum dedicated to revisionist history.

It would be years before the Confederate emblem was removed from Georgia’s state flag. It was a bruising battle that ultimately came down to economics and image.  In the South, you see, one of the justifications for slavery is that it was an economic institution.

The Rev. Joseph Lowery often speaks about how Southern culture and ideals come into play with current day issues, such as the need to appoint more black judges in Georgia.  Much of the resistance stems from the refusal of some state legislators to let go of the past, he contends.

“They are still fighting the Civil War,” said Lowery, who in 2009 was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work in civil and human rights.

So display the Confederate flag if you choose. But do so with the knowledge of the hurt and pain it brings to many Americans who helped build this country.

But it should no longer be displayed on public property.

Let’s honor the nine men and women who died at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Take down that flag.

Beside every strong man is a even stronger woman

For a history geek like me, one of the perks of living in Atlanta is learning more about civil rights icons such as the Rev. Joseph Lowery and his life partner, Mrs. Evelyn Lowery.

Early Thursday morning, Evelyn Gibson Lowery, the daughter and wife of Methodist ministers, went home to be with the Lord. She was 88 years old.

To say Mrs. Lowery was fearless, would be an understatement. Men like the Rev. Lowery, legendary for speaking truth to power, couldn’t have done what they did without strong, supportive wives.  These women — such as the late Coretta Scott King, the late Octavia Vivian and Mrs. Juanita Abernathy — were leaders in their own right.

On Sept. 15, Mrs. Lowery was by her husband’s side at 16th Street Baptist Church, at a service to mark the 50th anniversary of the bombing there. A few days later, she suffered a stroke. A native of Topeka, Kansas, Mrs. Lowery met her husband on a blind date while a student at Atlanta’s Clark College.

Like the wives of other civil rights leaders, she was by her husband’s side as often as possible while raising their children and tending to the home front.

When her husband was president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Mrs. Lowery founded the SCLC Women, an organization dedicated to human rights and strengthening families.  

Several years ago, I attended a banquet where the group honored Memphis sanitation workers, who went on strike for better wages and working conditions. In April 1968, the strike brought Dr. King to Memphis, where he stood in solidarity with the workers. While standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, Dr. King was assassinated.

At the SCLC Women’s banquet where the surviving sanitation workers were honored, people marched through the room carrying protest signs that read “I Am a Man,” one of the slogans of the Memphis movement.

While accepting an award from the SCLC Women, actor Forest Whitaker expressed awe at being in the presence of people such as the sanitation workers and  Rev. and Mrs. Lowery, who sacrificed much in the struggle for human dignity and equality.

I first met the Lowerys at a friend’s wedding nearly 10 years ago.  Rev. Lowery was officiating with his usual brand of humor. After the ceremony, he and Mrs. Lowery took time to greet us and other guests. Last year, Mrs. Lowery graciously welcomed me into their southwest Atlanta home for an interview with her husband, who will be 92 in a few days. She ushered me into the den where Rev. Lowery was resting in a green leather chair.

Earlier that day he’d spoken at a news conference about the lack of African-American judges in Georgia. Later, he was planning to attend a banquet where a Latino organization was giving him an award.

Just behind where he was sitting, was a picture of President Barack Obama, who asked Rev. Lowery to give the benediction at his first inauguration. In his typical style, Rev. Lowery began seriously — reciting the words of the Negro National Anthem. He ended with words that lightened the crowd’s mood.

“Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around; when yellow will be mellow; when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right. Let all those who do justice and love mercy say amen.”

In a statement released Thursday, Rev. Lowery spoke with affection about the woman who’d shared his life for nearly 70 years.  She felt no pain at the end of her life, Rev. Lowery said. And what a life she lived — one filled with family, love and service.