‘The arc of history is long…but it bends toward justice,‘ Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1968.
Last week, Josh grabbed my hand and drew me toward a street stand selling retro memorabilia where he’d found a mint condition copy of the June 28th 1968 Life Magazine issue that was showcased for its feature on ‘The New Rock Music’. However, it wasn’t this article that had captured Josh’s attention. It was a separate feature on Resurrection City, the shanty town that formed in the wake of Dr. King’s final call during his lifetime for those living in poverty in the US to rise up and make their plight visible. King’s ‘I Have a Dream‘ speech’ was a compelling vision that gave voice and hope to so many. “I remember being there as a little boy,” Josh said. “I was saying to my Mom, ‘I want to see!’ And this black man swung me up on his shoulders so I could see Rev. Ralph David Abernathy speaking.”
It seemed that many felt they were sitting on the shoulders of a giant that day as, so soon after Dr. King’s assassination, thousands of people from across the country made the trek to Washington to set up camp opposite the White House in a Gandhian form of non-violent protest.
Resurrection City was, in the words of journalist, John Neary, ‘the home of the busted, not the boomers.’ Its 600 shanties covered 15 waterlogged acres next to the Lincoln Memorial and Reflecting Pool as a shambolic village sprawled out across the mud caused from eight inches of rain falling in six weeks reducing the 5,000 people who had made the pilgrimage and set up camp in a roughshod plywood and fabric shanty town to 500 people by the end of the second month. Neary went on to describe the scenes:
‘They came, a gaudy pauper’s army, from every state, on foot, in auto caravan the likes of which the country hadn’t seen since the dust bowl Okie days. In buses and by plane they came, some for thrills and a taste of life on the wrong side of town, but most of them to slam down a clenched fist on the federal desk and demand an end to poverty and violence, to demand a meaningful job for every employable person, an end to the hunger and malnutrition that scarred their lives. They wanted help, freedom, their human rights, dignity, a future, a chance for their kids, a modicum of happiness, all the things they didn’t have and so many other people did have in this nation of unprecedented plenty.’
When Solidarity Day dawned, so too did some victories on the back of Resurrection City. These victories included a Housing Bill passed by Congress; an extra $25 million for poverty relief; food stamps extended to a further 330 counties and welfare standards made as a national responsibility rather than a state responsibility.
A day after reading this Life Magazine article, I flew to Atlanta after attending a reception hosted in New York hosted by the Landesa Foundation which focuses on giving women in developing countries access to land. Women produce 50% of the world’s food, but earn only 10% of the world’s income and own only 1% of property – and even when they do own property, access is often negotiated by men thus keeping women dependent rather than allowing them to make their own decisions and enjoy their own economic independence.
From the heady electric energy of Times Square where I left the Landesa gathering, I arrived into a dusky night in Atlanta as I waited at the airport for my transport. It was as if a hush had fallen over the place, where the majority of faces were black and where I felt a distinct sense of being in a different world, shaped by different forces. I was in Atlanta to meet key people from corporations and foundations who were supporting the establishment of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights.
The vision for the Center is for it to be a world class cultural institution for the understanding of history in its civil and human rights dimensions in order to contribute to achieving a just and equitable world. The center will be a place inspired by those courageous and fearless individuals who gave their lives in the struggle for justice, to encourage the discussion and study of human and civil rights movements domestically and abroad and serve as a center for conflict resolution.
The process of imagining the center into existence began when the then Mayor of Atlanta, Shirley Franklin, commissioned a feasibility study to determine the viability of such a center and the steps required to ensure its success. Shirley Franklin led the effort to successfully raise the funds to build the center and to pay Marchase College the exhibit rights to exclusively display the papers from the 50,000 item collection. She also engaged 5,000 students as her youth committee and personally met with 2,000 of them to ensure they were active participants in the formation and thinking about such a center.
After a ‘ground breaking’ ceremony was conducted, a luncheon was held at the ballroom in the Atlanta Aquarium. The CEO of this new center, Doug Shipman, and Executive Vice President, Deborah L Richardson, were joined by Atlanta Mayor, Kasim Reed, Shirley Franklin and a host of other government officials, civic leaders and celebrities to celebrate this announcement of a phased construction and funding plan for this facility that will be debt free when it opens in 2014. Fundraising has now shifted to securing the dynamic programming to highlight the contributions of current and future struggles for freedom worldwide.
Jill Savitt, appointed as Human Rights Exhibition Coordinator, has a brief to establish relevance between the historical and contemporary human rights issues presented through the Center’s educational exhibitions. Speaking at this luncheon, Savitt reminded us all of what is happening right now in Darfur where African farmers and others, all Muslims, are being systematically displaced and murdered at the hands of the Janjaweed. The genocide in Darfur has claimed 400,000 lives and displaced over 2,500,000 people. More than five thousand people die every month. Syria too was on the minds of many of us where the violence and loss of life continues unabated. Let’s hope that, with the world’s powers calling for the establishment of a transitional government in Syria, the worsening violence, which has so far killed an estimated 14,000 people, will be brought to an end.
During the lunch we learned that when the first conversations were being held with potential partners and sponsors regarding raising the funds to build the center, a group of women came forward and said ‘What about us? We want to play our role too, as women in the community.’ And so the ‘Women’s Solidarity Society‘ was formed and by the time of this luncheon they had raised $600,000, with a target of a million dollars. To paraphrase the anthropologist, Margaret Mead, when a small group of committed citizens decide to help change the world they are unstoppable.
In the sensaround environment of the Atlanta Aquarium, the venue for the luncheon, Beluga whales swam near me. I was transfixed by these magical creatures — like white creamy unicorns minus the horns — swimming in their watery world. The sense of them so close added to the profound sense of connectedness I felt in the room – an invocation of humanity and of the more-than-human world.
Bernice King, daughter of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, stepped up to the podium to honor her father and her mother, and to particularly herald the work of so many women in committing their lives to the cause of human rights, peace and freedom. She placed a copy of an autobiography of her mother in a time capsule that had been created to preserve key documents and fresh hopes of a new generation. Into the capsule went a small collection of King’s papers and speeches as well as the messages of hope from many of us in the room who were invited to write our own hope cards. Just as moving was a performance by the Atlanta based poet and playwright, Pearl Cleage who read an extraordinary poem she had written for the occasion.
From Atlanta I flew to Washington and I was present on a day when the Supreme Court voted to uphold the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s health care law. At a reception that night at the home of Congresswoman, Carolyn Maloney, she shared with us the excitement that so many at the White House had felt when the decision was announced. And she spoke of this decision being a step forward for women who would benefit significantly, as many women bore responsibility for the health of their families and their children.
So, I returned home to New York after a shape-shifting week, one that brought civil and human rights, legislation and regulation, into sharp focus. In the hazy heat of the city I watched a little boy try to fly his kite in the park across from where I live. A little girl was watching him nearby, standing with her own parents. He went over to her and placed the kite in her hand, holding the kite with her to show her how to fly it. As the kite flew up the girl let out a whoop and the boy let go of her hand as she ran to fly with the kite.
‘We will surely get to our destination if we join hands.’
Aung San Suu Kyi