Fr. Jeremy Tobin, O. Praem., is a member of the Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, Inc. He attended the 11th annual conference from March 30 through April 3, 2016, and was asked to write a reflection about this year’s event: The 11th annual conference of the…
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Fr. Jeremy Tobin, O. Praem., is a member of the Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, Inc. He attended the 11th annual conference from March 30 through April 3, 2016, and was asked to write a reflection about this year’s event:
Fr. Jeremy Tobin, O. Praem. (left end of second row, top photo) at the 11th Annual Conference of the Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, Inc.The 11th annual conference of the Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement is more than a gathering of those who made the biggest social transformation in the history of the country. It generates a spirit of righteousness, a fire for justice in people of every age today. The same forces we encountered 60 years ago are pushing back hard against the gains we have struggled for.
The Movement now spans many generations. Many of us coming of age in the 1960s were only partially connected to the Movement, wherever we lived. Mississippi was a long way away for many in the Midwest, but we were not aware just how close Mississippi was. I remember when people would speak of “southerners” and images of white people with strange accents and unusual food and customs would come to mind, but they were unaware that their black neighbors also created “southern culture.” The country is so divided, then and now.
Sixty years later a lot of walls crumbled, and there is a level of diversity unlike any in days gone by. Yet it is still becoming. Now in the first quarter of the 21st Century, we still speak of “black firsts” in areas where it should be common place and uneventful. With that and other progress we made, they are pushing back and chipping away and finding new ways to discriminate and promote intolerance. New issues. New players. Same struggle. Same Movement.
This is why these annual conferences of the Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement are so necessary. Ancient religions teach that the power is in the story. Each successive generation telling their story of deliverance infuses power into new people to continue to pursue progress and change. The classic example is the Book of Exodus which gave power to the slaves to struggle and succeed in their liberation. It was more than the Civil War, it was the power in the minds of people to be free. They were not just victims waiting for federal troops, they were active participants in their own freedom over unbelievable obstacles. Crushing a national insurrection was only the beginning of liberation and freedom. (Yet the losers want their flag. Sorry I digress. The confederate flag has got to go).
This is why these conferences are absolutely necessary to keep telling the story of the struggle to bring down American apartheid, segregation, and change the way Americans look at and treat one another. Telling the story makes us aware just how incomplete it is. We remember Archbishop Desmond Tutu chairing the truth and reconciliation committee in South Africa when its apartheid ended. It saved his country from brutal wars of vengeance. Our first reconstruction failed for many reasons; one being never since emancipation has there been a national dialogue of truth and reconciliation. A hundred and seventy years later, we see a movement about reparations, which is a good thing. It is beginning a much needed conversation we must have to change the way America thinks of itself.
The older we get, especially to the veterans who gave their lives and made it happen, the more important these conferences are. Not only because our children are taught nothing in their schools about the Civil Right Movement, but to hear them tell their stories of struggles for justice today. It is easy for us old folks to see some youthful leader of the Black Lives Matter Movement tell some reporter about the injustices they are experiencing. They may think they are starting something new, but they are only a continuation of what our elders accomplished. No generation gap, many generations united in the ongoing struggle for justice. As Angela Davis says so wisely, “Freedom is constant struggle.”
Telling the story heals the wounds and gives strength to move forward. I read all the bios in the memorial book, and I listened to the veterans tell what they went through, and I see power and calm assurance flow from them. I see humor in tragedy. Then I see the activists today, bloodied, but unbowed. Families tore up and crying on television telling the injustice and cruelty inflicted on them by racist police. A year later these same people are on TV, the pain is still there but they tell the story, and are empowered to change the situation. They, too, stand with these veterans of the movement we honor every year.
We get to some magic number, and think about our legacy. That is a driving force that brought this organization together. I preach from the pulpit, I write whenever I can. These veterans are handing on their legacy to carry on the struggle, without a doubt.
This conference, with the partnering of students from Brown University and Tougaloo College, illustrated this in a powerful way. First, they listened, they were energized to hear 70 and 80 year olds tell how they were hauled off to Parchman, beaten by clubs, to make the people free. There was no generation gap here. It was family. Some part of the family had to start at the beginning, but they sat wide eyed wrapped in attention. Yes, it brought out how we are still a divided country. White people so clueless, but here young white people only wanted to learn more. “Why didn’t they tell us?” Yet even our Mississippi students in chorus said, as one put it, “I went to Murrah High School, and we never learned any of this.”
Each conference brings me back to those years I came of age. I remember events I had forgotten. After time, I learned that I lived in “Mississippi North”. Friends I made back then told me of the rigid police state of Jim Crow. I was a clueless white boy trying to figure out what was happening night after night on the TV news. I also listened to neighbors speak ugly racist comments about people just trying to live the way my neighbors did. O, I heard a lot of ugly stuff, but we know all about that. My new friends brought me to meetings and I observed the first rule, “Shut up, and listen.” I learned a whole lot. Friendship brings people close together, and your friends’ situation becomes yours. We had our own struggles in “Mississippi North” and we pushed the needle further toward change.
Then I came to Mississippi where so many of my friends came from and talked about. I went to reunions in places back then if we were together, they would lock us up. These conferences let me access my bank of memories, and focus me on the issues we confront today. I confess I am an optimist, yet many of my closest friends are either neutral or are pessimists, but the struggle is the life, and progress moves at its own rate. These veterans teach me that the struggle is the message, the vision is the goal, and faith assures us that we will reach it.