Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Clearest view of fight for civil rights lies outside the comfort zone

From Saturday's Briefing:

Cooper was 4 when I first read to him the picture book Rosa by Nikki Giovanni. He’s been a student of the civil rights movement ever since.

He devours books on the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln. He can name heroes of the 1950s and ’60s and discuss key court cases and legislation with clarity.

He has watched countless movies and documentaries. He has read historical fiction.

We have stood near the Woolworth lunch counter, instrumental in the desegregation movement in Greensboro, N.C., and now housed at the National Museum of American History. We have stood on the National Mall, imaging what the grounds were like during the March on Washington of 1963.

Yet nothing compares to experience — at least as close as you can get 50 years after the fact.

Cooper joined other teens plus some parents and ministers on a civil rights bus tour last weekend. The group traveled to Jackson and Oxford, Miss., and Memphis, Tenn. They toured museums and worshipped together. They watched documentaries. They visited with the Rev. Ed King.

King is a veteran of the civil rights movement, an instrumental force in helping African-Americans register to vote in the 1960s, and a colleague of the late Medgar Evers. And he has stories — often harrowing stories — to tell.

It was after the visit with King that Cooper sent me this text: “I never knew how horribly they treated African-Americans and whites that did not agree with them.”

My first reaction: goosebumps and tears.

My second reaction: How could he not know, after all of his research?

My third reaction: This is why we can’t shelter our children too long. This is why we have to allow our children to experience life outside our comfort zones.

No amount of reading, watching television or even standing inside the Lincoln Memorial compares to talking with someone who lived through and struggled through those pivotal years in our history.

After Cooper returned home, he explained more. He described how authorities abused people who were demanding voting rights. How King and his colleagues were tortured. How King, a white man, was willing to stand up for African-Americans, even when it wasn’t socially acceptable.

Even with all these years of research, “It means more to talk to the person and know what they felt,” Cooper says. “It makes me think more about the people who were treated badly.”

Cooper’s weekend away encapsulates my own struggles with raising children in an affluent community.

We live among children who know very little about struggling. All of their needs are met. They’ve never experienced poverty. They are fortunate.

They are living the way all children should live.

Yet there are children nearby and all over the country who don’t have the luxury of being pushed out of their comfort zones — because there is no comfort zone at all. They live with racism and poverty, with poor education options, with crime, with unemployment, with inadequate health care.

They are living the way no child should live.

I do not want my own children to feel guilty for their relatively easy way of life, but I do want them to appreciate their way of life. I’m not certain they can fully appreciate it until they experience something different.

Cooper, already a well of empathy, needed to look into the eyes of a man who was tortured to fully understand the inhumanity of unchecked power. Now that my 13-year-old son is armed with both research and the voice of a survivor, I have a feeling there’s no limit to what his compassion can fuel.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@gmail.com.

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