Last week, I got caught up in reading various internet articles, facebook posts and magazine articles on the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman tragedy. One of the things that made me sad was the wide racial divisions that came in view over the way the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman tragedy was interpreted. When I read some of the comments that readers gave to several of the articles and of the various comments to several of the facebook posts, I am sad that many of those comments dismess how this tragedy affects the African American community and opens painful wounds based on their own experiences. I think there is legitimate reasons to debate on whether George Zimmerman deserves to be acquitted on the evidence or not. There are good arguments for and against his acquittal. But I don’t think it’s right to make derogatory comments about Trayvon Martin and I don’t think it’s right to dismiss the concerns that the wider African American community have about racial profiling when so many of them have suffered from it. Many of these abrasive comments serve to widen the racial divisions and misunderstandings in our nation, when we need more temperate voices to try to bridge those misunderstandings and help each other understand more. In many of these debates, people seem to be talking past each other rather than listening to each other and they seems more intent on proving themselves as being right and preaching to the choir. That’s not a national dialogue, that’s two monologues going past each other. There are many whites who are sincerely trying to listen and understand what African Americans are worried about concerning the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman tragedy, and history has shown that there have been white people who have tried to bridge the racial divide of this nation. Here are some white individuals who have participated in the civil rights struggle and have acted as bridges of better understanding between different people.
Peter Norman was the third athlete who was standing at the podium in the 1968 Olympics when Tommy Smith and John Carlos gave the black power salute after winning medals in the 200 m race. Norman knew before the ceremony that Smith and Carlos would give the salute and supported them by donning a badge on the podium in support of their cause, the Olympic Project for Human Rights. Norman was sympathetic to his compatriots fight for human rights because of Norman’s own support of the native Aboriginal rights in Australia and his opposition of Australia’s ‘White Australia’ policy. Shortly after the Mexico Games, Norman said, “I believe every man is born equal and should be treated that way.”
Due to Norman’s support of Tommy Smith and John Carlos, Australia’s Olympic authorities reprimanded him and the Australian media ostracised him. The Australian Olympic track team did not send Peter Norman to the 1972 Olympics in spite of the fact that Norman ran qualifying times for the 100 meter and 200 meter races. Norman struggled through several years of depression and alcoholism, but never regretted his support of Smith and Carlos. Peter Norman, Tommy Smith and John Carlos became close friends, and Smith and Carlos gave eulogies and were pall-bearers at Norman’s funeral after Norman died of a heart attack in October 3, 2006. Matt Norman, the nephew of Peter Norman, recently created a documentary called Salute about Peter Norman.
Anne Braden was a Southerner who fought for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s. Anne and her husband Carl Braden, a left-wing trades unionist, began their work for civil rights early in 1950 when they wrote for the interracial wing of the labor movement through the FE (Farm and Equipment Workers) Union, representing Louisville’s International Harvester employees. In 1950, Anne Braden spearheaded a hospital desegregation drive in Kentucky. In 1951, she led a delegation of southern white women organized by the Civil Rights Congress to Mississippi to protest the execution of Willie McGee, an African American man convicted of the rape of a white woman. In 1954 Anne and Carl Braden on October 1954, Anne and Carl Braden and five other whites were charged with sedition after the Bradens purchased a home in a white neighborhood for an African American family, the Wades. Blacklisted from local employment, the Bradens took jobs as field organizers for the Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF), a small, New Orleans-based civil rights organization and they wrote for SCEF’s monthly newspaper, The Southern Patriot. A recent documentary called Anne Braden: Southern Patriot chronicles the life of this extraordinary woman.
Jonathan Daniels was an Episcopal seminarian who participated in the civil rights movement and was killed for protecting an African American woman. In March 1965, Daniels answered the call of Dr. Martin Luther King, who asked that students and clergy come to Selma, Alabama, to take part in a march to the state capital in Montgomery. Daniels stayed with a local African-American family, the West family. During the next months, Daniels tried integrating the local Episcopal church by taking groups of young African-Americans to the church. He helped assemble a list of federal, state, and local agencies that could provide assistance to needy African American families. He also tutored children, helped poor locals apply for aid, and worked to register voters. Daniels was killed when he saw Tom L. Coleman, an unpaid special deputy, aim his shotgun at African American civil rights protester Ruby Sales. Daniels pushed Sales down to the ground and caught the full blast of the gun. Every year, on August 20 in Hayneville, Alabama, a pilgrimage that attracts to over 100 participants is held to honor Jonathan Daniels and the other martyrs of Alabama that were slain during the civil rights movement of the 1960’s.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel participated in the Selma civil rights march with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and was a strong supporter of civil rights of African Americans due to his experience during the Holocaust. His writing were a strong influence on Dr. King and several of the Christian civil rights supporters. At the Vatican Council II, as representative of American Jews, Heschel persuaded the Roman Catholic Church to eliminate or modify passages in its liturgy that demeaned the Jews, or expected their conversion to Christianity.
Reverand Will D. Campbell was a maverick Baptist preacher who participated in the civil rights campaigns in the 1950s and 1960s and preached to poor whites and African Americans, reaching to both civil rights workers and Klu Klux Klan members to try to reach reconciliation and a change in racial perceptions. Campbell was the only white man admitted to the founding meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957. He helped steer nine black students — the “Little Rock Nine” — through an angry white mob as they attempted to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. In 1960, he worked to mobilize sympathetic whites to support the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins civil rights campaign. In 1961, he accompanied Freedom Riders and faced violence by white mobs in Anniston, Birmingham, and Montgomery, Ala. In 1963, he joined participated in the civil rights campaign in Birmingham, one of the country’s most segregated cities.
Dr. John Carlos talks about his respect for Peter Norman
Filmmaker Mimi Pickering and biographer Catherine Fosl, director of the University of Louisville’s Anne Braden Institute for Social Justice Research, discuss the new documentary, Anne Braden: Southern Patriot
A youtube video of the Jonathan Daniels Pilgrimage
A youtube tribute to Reverand Will D. Campbell