Greensboro: Red Red Roses and “Dixie” Dialog

Isabell's Roses

Isabell's Roses

War taxes us all. We are all made to pay for it in so many ways. Paraphrasing Marine Major General Smedley D. Butler from his 1935 classic, War is a Racket, “…it is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious…It is the only one international in scope… the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.”

After a weekend of discussion on ways and means of living up to the vision, If you don’t believe in war, then don’t pay for it, we had much to discuss and reflect upon as we traveled on to our next stop—Greensboro, North Carolina.

Just as when we sped north on the west side of the Appalachians towards Harrisonburg, Va., we were equally drawn into the history of the land as we traveled on the eastern side of these oldest of mountains towards Greensboro, North Carolina, and further South. Moving through rolling hills and forested Piedmont, passing through Lynchburg and Appomattox, Virginia, where General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant in 1865, we were reminded that this land we sometimes call Dixie, has many different associations, to many different people – many of them difficult to acknowledge.

We used the word Dixie in our first post to define a region—the Deep South. Used in this context, Dixie is a folk term referring to a geographic region in which we live and travel. Technically this is the region located south of the Mason-Dixon line between Pennsylvania and Maryland. Dixie is a familiar word in our Southern lexicon and heritage. Not completely unexpected, some of our northern and western colleagues challenged us as to how a progressive organization such as War Resisters League could use this term. What about the slavery; the terrorism of the KKK; and the racial apartheid that divides our region?

We acknowledge that the word carries painful associations with our nation’s historical and persistent oppression based on class and race. As Southerners we have absorbed the regional manifestation of this country’s endemic racism. We see the challenge as another opportunity to confront racism in all its insidious forms. As we travel and write, we have tried to encourage open discourse and debate concerning the appropriateness of continued use of this emotionally-charged word.

When the word Dixie is seen only as a reference to the continued injustice of a tragic segment of Southern history, and is made taboo and politically incorrect, it is stripped of its full poignancy. Dixie can hold deeper and more positive meanings for many people who have lived and worked here for generations.  To identify the South only by the lush diversity of its lands, it’s peoples, and the brighter aspects of its heritage, without seeing it’s darker side, is an incomplete understanding of the region, and leaves us living half a lesson. Understanding the collective pain this word carries for African-Americans and finding ways to mediate this impasse, is part and parcel of the difficult work of nonviolent social change.
At a time of great need and horrible injustice, the rest of the country came to her side and helped to lift Dixie out of her unique personal hell in our struggle towards freedom for all. That’s not to be forgotten. When we asked people on this trip, What does the word Dixie mean to you? the answers were colorful, predictable, and surprising all at the same time.

At the Carolina Country Kitchen in Greensboro, we met Tre, an industrious young Black woman who served our breakfast.  She told us she had lived in the South until age seven, but was raised in Boston. Every summer she visited her grandmother in North Carolina and has recently returned here to raise her daughter. To Tre, Dixie means:… going to the A&P on Sunday afternoons and buying clothes at K-Mart that night; blue grass music, summer weddings, sweet potato pie and picking strawberries; warm nights sitting and swinging on Grannie’s porch, smelling the sweet lilacs, and snapping green beans until my fingers bleed.

Our conversation was abruptly interrupted by a phone call from her 17-year old daughter who thought a strange man was stalking her as she walked to school.  Tre is a single mom. It was a telling scene as she balanced our breakfast dishes in one hand, and while holding the phone in the other, she tried to calm her daughter.

This memory of Dixie contrasts with the experience of four students from N.C. A&T College who chose to sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter an politely request to be served.greenboro-first-day< Within four days, 300 others had joined them. Enduring racist taunting, ridicule, and risk of personal harm, these brave warriors held the high ground for what is now an internationally-recognized turning point in the history of the civil rights struggle. The historic Greensboro Woolworth store is gutted now, awaiting completion of the International Civil Rights Museum.

Later during the day, after our exchange with Tre, we interviewed a group of African-American students on the UNC-Greensboro campus. One outspoken woman addressed the Dixie question in a way that may have expressed the feelings of the majority of Blacks: The word brings to mind all the painful associations of segregation, racist attitudes, cotton fields, oppression, lynchings, and the Klan. Another woman said that she rarely hears the word, but when she does it means all of the South. Two older African-American women who we spoke with later in this loop had different versions of the same sentiment. One physically recoiled at the word, and the other told us that she was still uncomfortable with the idea of “traveling in Dixie,” but could live with the term if used in the context of “reforming Dixie.”

Building bridges between the different cultures and ways people experience the South requires deep listening through layers of hurt and misunderstanding. But, disregarding part of a culture because of its negative connotation, in this case the word by which many know this region, without acknowledging its alternate and positive meanings, leaves WRL at a disadvantage in our work to engage the entire South in an authentic and comprehensive way. 
Our next interview was with Steve Sumerford, who used to run the War Resisters League’s Southeast office in Durham, N.C. in the mid to late 70’s. Steve is now the assistant director of the Greensboro Public Library system. Among other interests, Steve works with WRL Southeast representative

Steve Sumerford and Clare Hanrahan sharing ideas

Steve Sumerford and Clare Hanrahan sharing ideas

Isabel Moore on the board of the Fund 4 Democratic Communities (F4DC). Of all the lessons he has learned in decades of working to sustain a progressive agenda, he emphasized the need for alliance building and more specific skills training to help communities and organizers to see outside their “silos.” We’ve heard this sentiment from numerous people. Sometimes it’s referred to as “issue bubbles.”

 “Alliance building is still an abstract concept for most of the population,” Steve said, “We need to give up time from our own issue to assist with the work of others.” Steve has seen more continuity between Justice and Environmental groups, but says he sees fewer and fewer Peace groups to link up with. This is consistent with the overall drop-off of the anti-war movement since the post-911 surge of activity.  His work with the F4DC supports community-based initiatives and institutions that foster authentic democracy to make communities better places to live. The F4DC makes grants, provides direct technical assistance, and conducts research. It is based at a collective community space in Greensboro called the HIVE (History. Information. Vision. Exchange.)

We pulled up to the HIVE just as Tim Hutchinson, keys in hand, was locking up.

Jordan and Tim explain the workings of the HIVE

Jordan and Tim explain the workings of the HIVE

When we explained our interest, he reversed course and gladly showed us the facilities and discussed the work that is shared in the collective. The Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), NCOSH, the Transportation Advocacy Center, the Fund 4 Democratic Communities, Food Not Bombs, and a Holistic Health provider all have offices there, and many people came and went as we talked. At the HIVE they are walking the walk of building alliances among communities and between “silos.” When we discovered that Issabel lived just around the corner, we paid her a surprise visit. She had just finished a 15-page paper and was buried deep inside a 20-page production. We quickly reaffirmed our commitment to get together after her schoolwork was finished, so with big hugs all around and a beautiful red rose from her yard, we hit the road again.

Isabel and Coleman in Greensboro

Isabel and Coleman in Greensboro

Next stops: Raleigh/ Durham/ Chapel Hill/ Carrboro and Silk Hope. Stay tuned….


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