Stories are the linchpins of history. They cement humanity together. They also, paradoxically, blend into and resist one another, telling a history that is both tangible and illusive, impossible to pin down to one definitive experience. And so, as I consider the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights initiatives in Selma, and as I ponder the lives of those who engineered and contributed to the history of resistance, communal uplift, and liberation, it seems appropriate to learn from people who may not be featured in primary resources dedicated to mining the role racial inequity plays in American history. Their agency is not confined to an anniversary; nor does their age, class, gender, or identity hinder their agency. These individuals and communities speak for themselves even as they march alongside others, support their families, organize, and rail against injustice.
And so I think of Lynda Blackmon Lowery. By the age of fifteen, Lowery had been jailed nine times for participating in peaceful acts of civil disobedience in a bid to secure fair voting rights for African Americans. Three words uttered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. changed her life. In her memoir, Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom: My Story of the Selma Voting Rights March, Lowery recalls, "He was talking about nonviolence and how you could persuade people to do things your way with steady, loving confrontation. I'll never forget those words — 'steady, loving confrontation' — and the way he said them." She admits, "We children didn't really understand what he was talking about, but we wanted to do what he was saying" (p. 70).
Fast forward to 2015. It is the day before the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. federal holiday. Lowery sits in front of an audience assembled at the New York Historical Society and shares insights from her book to an audience made up largely of children from different races. Was she scared when white men gripped leashes that were strained to the limit by dogs ready to attack? Yes. And yet, though she suffered a head wound and facial injuries during that time, she continued to join other marches. Lowery wanted to keep on marching so she could "show George Wallace how he had hurt [her]." Defiance permeates her story. When released from a "sweatbox," a windowless cell, Lowery and her friends were told to sign their names in the arrest catalog. They identified themselves as Mickey Mouse, Mini Mouse, and Pluto ("Youngest Participant in 1965 Selma March" Associated Press, 18 January 2015).
Today, other young adults follow in the footsteps of Lowery by cultivating a mindset of defiance in the midst of adversity. Jennifer Fowler is an African American high school senior at McCluer North High in the Ferguson-Florissant School District. When an officer shot Michael Brown, and as protestors grieved and aired their disbelief, anger, and frustration, Jennifer watched news reports unfold on television depicting African Americans in Ferguson as a violent mob. She knew she could not be silent or silenced. Though she was scared, Jennifer "wanted to know what was real. And she wanted to tell the story herself" (Kristen Hare, "In St. Louis, high school journalists are telling their own stories about Ferguson," Poynter, 21 November, 2014). As the editor-in-chief of her high school newspaper, Jennifer assembled a number of articles that provided a rich and complex picture of the Ferguson community.
Injustice finds no solace in denial
As I read an issue of the McCluer North High newspaper, I was reminded that the forces of history that render the lives of so many young black people invisible cannot blunt their voices, nor are their voices muted by the silences of history. Injustice finds no solace in denial. When writing their articles, the journalists of this high school newspaper did not deny the perspectives of the individuals and communities who expressed their opinions about racial injustice. The truths of many must be spoken. And so rather than treat her peers, colleagues, mentors, and community members as a monolithic group, Jennifer embraces their complex humanity when she maintains that "Ferguson means something different for everybody." To this end, the names of students and their class year are identified as they share their views about racial inequities in Ferguson and America. Resisting the notion that young people only want to talk about issues related to their age group, another student writer and the other editor-in-chief of the high school newspaper, Brendon Woods, documents the story of Charles and Kizzie Davis, who invested $35,000 of their savings to open up a burger joint, and on the inaugural day of their business they learned of the Michael Brown's death. The title of his piece, "Making a Comeback," speaks to the resiliency of those who would not allow injustice to defeat them.