Atlanta to Asheville: Where Do We Go From Here?

Coleman and Clare at MLK,Jr.'s Eternal Flame in Atlanta

Coleman and Clare at MLK,Jr.'s Eternal Flame in Atlanta

 

Soul Force Gathers at Oak Ridge

Soul Force Gathers at Oak Ridge

…and I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace.  But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.  It means that questions must be raised. And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the oil?’ You begin to ask the question, “Who owns the iron ore?” (Yes) You begin to ask the question, “Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two-thirds water? These are words that must be said.”

–Martin Luther King, Jr., “Where Do We Go From Here?” Annual Report Delivered at the 11th Convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, August 16, 1967, Atlanta, GA.

The Eternal Flame at Martin Luther King, Jr. and Corretta Scott King’s gravesite was burning bright when we arrived in Atlanta.  Just as in Birmingham, not knowing our way around didn’t seem to hinder our getting there. It was late afternoon and we wanted to spend what daylight hours we had at the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site. The map did point it out, although moving from I-85 into the city was part dead reckoning and part orienteering.  Once again, the wind was to our backs and in our sails, with our intent programmed in, as we simply let the universe pull us into the perfect parking place adjacent to Martin’s and Corretta’s grave site. It was as if they were waiting patiently at the mountain top saying, Come on up and take a look…see what we’ve done…think about what you can do.

A wheel-chair mobilized resident from the neighborhood approached to let us know that the Eternal Flame, which centered on an elevated circular pedestal surrounded by a grove of oaks, was new. “It was re-lighted just a few days ago,” he said. We had to put aside the metal barricades to sit near the Flame situated directly opposite Dr. and Mrs. King’s gravesite– a raised white marble sarcophagus. A shallow reflecting pool, with its aqua green paint peeling off a concrete bottom littered with fallen leaves, detracted from the otherwise beautiful water feature that cascades down several levels to the gravesite. As we stood for a time reflecting on the life and work of Dr. King, another passerby, Ms. Glonavary Rasheed, agreed to take our picture.  “I’m a pretty good photographer,” she told us and insisted on taking several shots from various locations about the park. Ms. Rasheed, who spent sixteen years with the I.R.S. and is now a school inspector for the U.S. Department of Education, was volunteering at a nursing home across the street.  As we talked, listened, and exchanged stories about our trip and observations on racism in both white and black America, Ms. Rasheed seemed to accept us, and our interest in her, as genuine.  Coleman asked a question that we have been keeping in mind throughout our journey: “How can historically white-led organizations best work with traditionally African-American ones on issues of common interest?”georgia-053

The most important part of the journey has been taking the time to let others tell us what they are working on in their own lives and communities; how they perceive the need on the ground; what areas of activism draw them and which do not. What do they believe will make a difference?

 

Ms. Rasheed replied, “It’s mainly the older folk who seem less able to let go of their bias and stereotypes. Acceptance and forgiveness are hard to come by. This younger generation, who’ve been exposed to mixed culture all their lives, are quite willing to work together, especially when there is a clearly stated goal.”

We realized how fortunate we were to have met her. As she talked more about her life she emphasized the importance of listening to what each other has to say and drawing comparisons about how we, as different peoples, have arrived at the same place today. “When I want my grandchildren to look like me, that’s racist, and it’s normal. When I can’t accept that same grandchild, loved and parented by a racially-mixed couple, and I assign all manner of prejudice because the child doesn’t look like me, then that’s racism and part of the social disease that America must cure in order to survive.”

 

 As a school inspector Ms. Rasheed shared many examples of young children struggling to achieve against huge odds — she told stories of racial profiling and wrongful death, heart-wrenching tales of a social and political system that just doesn’t seem to care about it’s disenfranchised citizens. “Ya’ll are gonna’ need money to keep doing this work, ya’ know,” she said as we turned to leave. “Thank you for taking the time to hear what I had to say.”

 

We left the King Memorial and took a quick look around Atlanta’s business district. Only after leaving the high-priced side of town were we able to find a cool little bistro for sandwiches before heading on to Asheville. Sil and Marcus, the two young men running the café that night, told us that their restaurant didn’t have wireless. But again we lucked out when they told us they weren’t sure (wink,wink), but the signal from next door might just bleed over into their space. We were able (wink,wink) to eat, go online and finish our Birmingham blog entry before hitting the road.

 

About an hour and a half out of Asheville, we stopped for coffee at a Flying J Travel Plaza and just about got lost in the corridors of trucks resting in the parking field. Once inside we engaged some drivers who quickly clarified that the term Reefer referred not to a particular truck run out of Mexico, but to hauling a refrigerated trailer. We told them a little about our travels, and how we had learned in Birmingham that half the homeless there were veterans.  One fella told us, “That’s something we truck drivers can relate to. A lot of us are vets, too.”

Sipping our coffee at the counter in the wee hours, we listened to their conversation as they all agreed that California, with its environmental laws and high-mountain, brake-burning weigh stations, is the worst state to make a living in as a trucker. Being a dirt-worshipping treehugger, Coleman carefully probed around the edge of the environmental issues and discovered that most of the drivers appreciated the need for regulation; they were just tired of an already tough life on the road,  a difficult economy, and being hammered for extra taxes or levies when crossing state lines. They jointly predicted a showdown somewhere in the not-to-distant future when the trgeorgia-008ucks will stop running just to prove the point of how much they (truckers) are needed. “How‘ya gonna  get food, if we don’t bring it to’ya, huh?” 

 

Our conversations in Fredonia reverberated with a similar theme: How many empty plots do you have in your neighborhood? Do you know how to set up an intensive, deep-bed garden for your family? Your neighborhood? How many ears of corn are a fair trade for how much kale? How do you judge the amount of protein you can get out of a garden? Do you know how to find clean water?

 

 We arrived back in Asheville at 2:30 a.m., March 31. Though road weary and bleary-eyed, we were pleased with this first loop of our journey connecting with regional activists and just plain folk.  After nearly each encounter we found ourselves rethinking our proposed training event with a better understanding of what is likely needed to support successful organizing in the Southeast. More on that later; but for now we continue into war tax resistance and thermonuclear weaponry.   

 

 orepa-205On April 1, Clare joined with other War Tax Resisters for the annual “Fools of Conscience” gathering in Celo, a land trust community near Burnsville, NC, and home of Rural Southern Voice for Peace.  The group gets together each year to share stories and offer support from decades of experience refusing to pay for war, and to make plans for the April 15 Tax Day Actions in Asheville. Clare was an editor of the RSVP newsletter during the early years of the Listening Project, developed by RSVP founder Herb Walters. This trip throughout the Southeast deepened Clare’s appreciation for the power of listening and the pioneering work of RSVP in honing listening techniques for community organizers and activists on the ground in diverse communities.

 

 While we travelled, Coleman fielded many phone calls as he coordinated the Asheville leg of the North Carolina Pilgrimage for Justice and Peace. Final details for the April 6 event needed to be in place before we ventured to Oak Ridge on the 4th for the annual demonstration at the Y-12 bomb factory. Once there, it was like a mini-reunion with people from all over the Southeast, including some we had recently visited on our Dixie loop. We spread good WRL orepa-235vibes all over at this year’s Stop the Bombs! protest. We met Veterans for Peace from as far as Minnesota, and a vanload of activists from Detroit making their yearly pilgrimage to the gates of hell. One thing that IS still funded is the next generation of thermonuclear weaponry to be designed & assembled in Oak Ridge.

 

 We made many good connections. Maham, a 92 year old radical from Cincinnatti, recounted his first act of resistance 74 years ago, protesting U.S. naval shipments to Europe in the build up to WWII. Maham and Coleman discussed how each generation must find ways to communicate with activists half their age. The age difference between Maham and us is roughly the same as that between us and the next generation who are now becoming leaders across the movement.

 

Coleman had the chance to portray Martin Luther King, one of a trio of puppets including Sojourner Truth and M.K. Gandhi, who all became a soul-force presence at the federal barricades on the front line at the Y-12 bomb factory. Being King for an afternoon seemed to be a fitting tribute and remembrance of having just come from Martin and Corretta’s gravesite, and after spending three days in Birmingham with Arun Gandhi. Watch this video clip from the Knoxville paper to see the spirit of the gathering.

 

We carpooled home with Laura Sorensen, an Asheville resident. Her opposition to nuclear weapons overlaps with her concern with the dangers of nuclear power plants and transport of nuclear waste. She has been active with the Asheville group Commonsense at the Nuclear Crossroads, and she recently led her son and other homeschooled teenagers in a banner drop off a highway bridge in Asheville to protest radioactive waste transported through our town.

 

Back in Asheville we met up with the Pilgrimage at Taqueria Fast, a family-owned Mexican restaurant just down the road from the Mills Manufacturing Company. This is the local defense contractor for military parachute systems and components where ICE raids last August resulted in the arrest and deportation of many workers, mostly women, and the break up of many Hispanic families. 

The Pilgrimage route, along a busy highway into Asheville, passed through Beaver Lake, a neighborhood-owned park where we encountered  “Barney Fife,” the park’s warden. Sitting astride his trusty red ATV steed, he ordered us to move our peaceful pilgrimage off of the private path and on to the narrow margin between the busy highway and the park boundary.  “It’s the first time in 23 years of walking that I have been forced off a plannedroute,” Pilgrimage organizer Gail Phares said. 

 

Gladys of Taqueria Fast! Greets Pilgrimage organizers

Gladys of Taqueria Fast! Greets Pilgrimage organizers

 The day was blustery and cold and we were behind schedule for our first vigil at the Buncombe County Sheriff’s office. At a rest stop, we piled into the back of Coleman’s truck to speed up the last mile and catch up with the press. After photos and press interviews at the Sheriff’s office, we walked to the Federal building for a second vigil where we were joined by Ada Volkmer, coordinator of the Coalición de Organizaciones Latino-Americanas COLA and representatives from  Defensa Communataria , a Latino organized group fighting deportation and ICE raids while supporting  families harmed by immigration policy. There was a good exchange among 20 people (mostly faith-based individuals) at a pot luck dinner at the First Congregational Church.  Coleman made arrangements to follow up at monthly Latino community meetings, and established connection with Witness For Peace/Mexico  staffperson, Betty Marin, who is interested in puppetista and theater arts as tool for social change. We discussed briefly how to create an exchange program to flesh out a collaborative storyline for theater about the NAFTA displacement leading up to the current situation.

In an earlier meeting with the local Chapter 99 of Veterans for Peace, we shared a report of our Southeast organizing trip and brought greetings from the numerous veterans we connected with on the road.  WRL Asheville is a co-sponsor of a visit by National Direct Action Trainer Elliott Adams of VFP on April 16. We have been working with Sarah Buchner of UNC-Asheville chapter of the new Students for a Democratic Society on the event.

 

On April 20 we’re off to Charlotte to participate in the Cliffside Climate Action to raise our voice against the Cliffside Power Plant and the mountaintop removal coal extraction process.  Stay tuned, and let us hear from you with comments and contributions.

 

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1 comment so far

  1. Cicada on

    Wish I could have been with you at Oak Ridge. Since the end of the Hiroshima Day Rallies, I have not been there for a demonstration. AS you know I have three times ridden from Asheville to Oak Ridge by Bicycle. It is important to link the environmental costs of our addiction to fossil fuels with our reliance on nuclear weaponry which is used to maintain our worldwide hegemony with which we protect our access to the oil rich regions of the world.
    We must end our addition to fossil fuels to assist in our release of control over other regions of the world.
    Cicada


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