Birmingham to Fredonia: Civil Strife to Simple LIfe

While nonviolence empowers the weakest of individuals to stand up for justice and rights…nonviolent action requires the same discipline, the same planning and the same training as military action.

–Arun Gandhi, In M.K. Gandhi’s Own Words: Nonviolent Action Manual, 2001, M.K. Gandhi
Institute for Nonviolence

Birmingham is one of the cities where the history of nonviolence in the U.S. South is particularly poignant. It was the courage of Black children marching out from the 16th Street Baptist Church, eventually to be bombed by racist extremists, to face fire hoses and police dogs in 1963 that awakened a nation’s conscience and led to solidarity demonstrations across the country and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “Mighty Times: The Children’s March”, a video available from the Southern Poverty Law Center, tells the story.

Such disciplined courage must be practiced and developed and applied strategically on the ground, sometimes with stubborn persistence. JimDouglass knows that, both in theory and practice. He led the retreat group out into the streets of Birmingham where he has joined others for a decade or more in a public witness for justice and peace. It was a beautiful afternoon, and passersby either ignored us or waved in support. No dogs or fire hoses challenged our stand. What will it take this time to reawaken America to the oppression and injustice that still haunts our society?
In a nearby pub, Clare and Coleman listened over a cold brew to some of the hopes, concerns and frustrations of many of the younger activists who had joined in the vigil.  From troubles in relating to parents, to how to get to a job opportunity in Alaska; whether or not to continue in school or work for a while; what to do with themselves and how best to serve a higher purpose – -these young “20 somethings” all wanted to know what we older folks thought might be good paths to follow in these troubled times. Even though we recognized many of these same questions from when we were their ages, the best answers at this time seemed to be to explore and experiment as much as they could, and suggesting that it’s never as desperate as it seems. Many of our new young friends wanted to come to Asheville so we agreed to stay in touch and provide space if needed. With some advance notice, we’ll try to hook them up with a service project or maybe, simply give them good directions into the wilderness for camping, rest, and relaxation — time to chill out!

We shared dinner later that evening with Veterans for Peace member and friend David Waters, a long-time war tax resister and Birmingham carpenter. Over a good meal at the Garage Cafe, a Birmingham landmark, we discussed how nonviolence can be effectively applied in a violent world. David has been reading Ward Churchill‘s Pacfism as Pathology, and Peter GelderoosHow Non-Violence Protects the State.
“I’m not a pacifist,” David told us. “I would come to a workshop where there was a discussion of nonviolence if I felt that my opinion wasn’t considered antagonistic, but relevant and realistic.” Having been in numerous situations through military and police work where violence has been directed at him many times, we could understand Dave’s feelings.
Arun Gandhi himself had earlier presented the question of defending oneself in the face of life threatening violence. “Until we live in a perfect world”, he said, ”we will have to be prepared to accept some smaller amounts of violence to avoid greater harm to ourselves or to the world at large. If a mad gunman comes to the door of this hall while we’re meeting here, to shoot us, it’s too late to simply say please, we’re nonviolent, don’t kill us.” Everywhere we turn, our retreat time with Arun Gandhi continues to resonate and have impact.
As we continued along our Dixie loop, listening and observing, we tried to apply our understanding of Gandhi’s lessons as we stopped and met locals – working hard not to let our built-in bias shade our opinions of new people we met. In the Waffle House in Anniston, a serious military town, a young woman busy at the grille broke through my own assumptions about the mindset of local folk. “What can I get for ‘ya’ll, baby?” she asked as we poured over the menu. Later she pointed to the large “Jail Bush For Lies and Deception Leading Us to War” button Clare wore on her lapel. “I like that button, baby,” she said as she rang up the order. “That’s a button I’d wear.” Her co-worker agreed. So we left the Anniston, Alabama, Waffle House with our server pinning the “Jail Bush” button on her uniform blouse as she turned to the next customer – add one more silent vote for the cause.
In Anniston, we were reminded of the disciplined courage of those Freedom Riders who brought nonviolent action into the face of vicious violence in that city with the integration of interstate public transit. When the Greyhound bus they rode arrived, it was set afire with them still aboard. Being burned and beaten for asserting their right to ride together through the deep South is a scar seared white hot on the nation’s conscience and on the lives of those who fought for that freedom. At a gas station off the Interstate, a curious piece of graffiti on the wall of the men’s bathroom, which was built into the side of the carwash, reminded us again how deeply racial prejudice is embedded and how it cuts across community norms. An offer advertising a service read: “N E 1 NEED BJ? Got comfortable place? U can have this sweet 18yr’ol ass. WHITES ONLY”
We filled up and continued our adventure.
We enjoyed the slow, redbud brightened, back roads of rural Alabama, already punctuated with dogwoods and lush green in an early burst of spring. Passing a church sign warning us that, “Stop, Drop and Roll doesn’t work in Hell!” and then a local Volunteer Firefighter’s halloween “haunted chicken house,” we finally made it to the country cross road of Fredonia, one of those southern communities where generations of farmers have lived with the land and one another in an ever changing relationship of power and cooperation. Friends Jim Allen and Judy Collins, along with Jack Cumbee and his partner Kathy gave us a warm welcome as we arrived on Sunday afternoon. Both couples are working hard to reclaim the revoked town charter and to resist industrial development which threatens their way of life.
Clare and Judy caught up on life since their last visit, while Judy’s daughter Carrie tended to Christa, her beautiful daughter. Clare recounted our travels and the proposed training event we’re planning, Coleman pitched in to cut and stack firewood with Jim, preparing for a cold snap forecast for that night.
Judy and Jim live in a large house built by Jack’s father from stones found on the old Plantation, which once was over a thousand acres of land worked by slaves. Jack, a retired professor and Kathy, a former Hospice worker, are both long-time human rights advocates. With 100 prized chickens and much of their land planted with food and herbs, they are focused now on the farm and preparing for hard times as “peak oil” is fully realized. They also point to the dynamics of the coming intersect of energy, economy, and the environment – precipitating the global collapse that modern-day Cassandras already predict. They’ll be better prepared than most because of their ties to the land and the fact that they have one of the only hand-pumped wells in the county. “How’s the water going to get to you when the electrical grid collapses?” they asked.
“I’ve worked thirty years for peace and justice, civil rights and native rights, Jack said. “I haven’t slowed them down one bit.”

Jim is on the board of the Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Network and speaks often on climate change and food security. Judy, whose activism and
relationship building in the South is legendary, was preparing for a Wild Edible Lunch on the land presented by her friend, Janice Key-Walding, known as “The Wild Southern Herbalist.”

Esther Brown, director of Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty, also lives on the old Plantation. She came by to talk with us and encourage our work. Her persistent dedication for decades in the harsh political climate of rural Alabama is a testimony of southern activism at its best. We were reminded of OREPA directer Ralph Hutchinson’s comment that “In the South, where the work is most needed, it is the hardest to do.”

Catch up with our Atlanta report next posting.


3 comments so far

  1. People Power Granny on

    Great blog! I know so many of the people you visited and places you went this spring. Would love to join you when the opportunity arises again!

  2. cathy scott on

    I have just finished reading all entries. I feel inspired and humbled. thanks for writing all this up. and thank you, a deep ‘thank you’ for making this journey, for visiting these folks and telling us about it all.
    so many thoughts and ideas; so many different ways of embodying core beliefs about relating to one another, about how to use resources respectfully, about how to use one’s talents and passion in service.
    thank you once more.

  3. Kathy Cumbee on

    We so enjoyed your visit. Hope all your travels go well…..

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