Sean King, a professor and leader in the modern movement for racial justice, said in a Facebook post:
“If you EVER wondered who you would be or what you would do if you lived during the Civil Rights Movement, stop. You are living in that time, RIGHT NOW.”
I have definitely wondered that. Who would I be if I had been born then? I needed to get some advice for how to move forward today, as the civil rights movement continues.
I found Jane Adams of Carbondale, Illinois, on the website Civil Rights Movement Veterans.
The site is a magical treasure trove of our country’s wisdom. Each person on the site and there are hundreds has written a letter, a testimonial about their time fighting in the civil rights movement. Jane Adams was at the very top of the list on the front page of the site.
Jane participated in the Freedom Summer of 1964 and ’65.
Jane was a white teenager who saw injustice, didn’t like it, and tried to help. I’m not a teenager, but I am white. I’m in that boat, too, so her story stuck out to me.
Her parents were back-to-the-land folks from Chicago. Her dad bought a farm in the 1950s and worked for the unemployment office in Carbondale a part of Illinois that’s closer to Kentucky than Chicago. Despite her parents’ more Bohemian origins (at least by the standards of Southern Illinois), she was mostly raised on a farm there, one of the only homes to have running water at the time it was built.
The Freedom Summer was a tactical moment in the civil rights movement that recruited hundreds of white students from the North to come to Mississippi for a summer, and Jane was part of that group.
Jane’s story was fascinating to me for many reasons.
First, here is an excerpt of what she said about her time in Mississippi on the Civil Rights Movement Veteran website:
“I went to Mississippi with Freedom Summer and was assigned to Harmony Community in Leake County, working on Federal Programs. …
The work changed my life. It was far more important to me than anything I a naive youngster contributed. As Bernice Reagon said, ‘I was reborn in the Civil Rights Movement.’ I learned, more than anything, that people make history. I saw heroism that I could never have imagined, and a sense of hope that infused people who had lived all their lives with the degradation of white supremacy. I also saw what is probably the most important kind of leadership that at the level of communities, where people have to confront and deal with the people who make their day-to-day lives possible.”
I was intrigued, so I called Jane to learn more.
As it turns out, she had a lot to say about growing up, her civil rights work and the work of today’s civil rights leaders.
She told me that her summer in Mississippi was a violent summer. Three participants were killed. But that was part of the deal.
“We were shipped in. We all knew, if a white person got beat up, a white person from a good family with connections to legislators, that had a lot more impact than a black field hand who didn’t know anyone connected to power,” she said. “We were brought down because we could awaken the consciousness of a nation … hopefully and get Congress to act.”
“As Bernice Reagon said, ‘I was reborn in the Civil Rights Movement.'”
I asked Jane what she thought of all that’s happening today with Black Lives Matter and with just “the world today” in general.
I was expecting some encouraging, hopeful quotes. But what I got instead was a challenge.
She challenged me, and anyone interested in participating in social change, to watch out for what she called “the politics of grievance” a fight for political change based solely upon the hardships a group has faced and to always find something to fight for, even when you’re fighting against so much.
“There was a positive thing that people were fighting for,” she said, “that people were willing to risk their lives for. Fighting for the right to vote, the right to hold jobs, the right to go to school … the right to be treated like an equal person.”
Jane reminded me there’s a wonderful banality to the dream of equality.
Humans just want to be treated like humans. Black lives should matter. It’s almost boring because it’s so obvious it’s often not shiny, but it is important.
The last story Jane told me really captured the delightful banality of living in a just world:
While wandering around a protest in Ferguson, Missouri, she says a young guy asked her husband to take a photo. Jane’s husband did, and that was that. She told me it was a normal, everyday moment, but for Jane, a white person in a predominantly black crowd, it was really significant.
For her, it was a moment where everyone, in a crowd supposedly fraught with racial tensions, was just treating each other as humans. Unremarkable humans.
“We got giddy over it!” she remembers. “Like ‘Wow, this is what we fought for. This is what we put our lives on the line for. To be in a place where we could just be.’ That’s what we were fighting for.”
Jane reminded me that I can’t just be mad if I really want to inspire others and even myself.
Instead, I have to find something worth fighting FOR, not just against. Yeah, it’s kind of obvious, but it also cracked my mind open in the best way.
I hope that y’all can find someone to talk to when America’s path to justice gets bumpy (tragically bumpy), like it has lately. For me the Civil Rights Movement Veterans website was the perfect place to start finding inspiration about how to take steps forward.