Do you remember seeing photos of the 50th anniversary reunion of the Civil War battle at Gettysburg? Aging veterans from both sides of that war gathered to remember together the horrors of the battle and to celebrate their common homeland.
As we begin to mark the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s, I wonder if there could ever be a Gettysburg type of reunion that would bring together those who battled for equal rights and those who fought tooth and nail against them.
Unlikely. It is hard these days to find anyone who will stand up with pride and say that he or she fought against the movement for equal opportunity.
A new book by Joseph Howell, who is married to my sister Embry, brought back those times of the early 1960s vividly. His book, “Civil Rights Journey: The Story of a White Southerner Coming of Age during the Civil Rights Revolution” is a reminder to me of a question that must haunt every American who lived through the 1960s and did nothing, or very little, but sit on the sidelines as historic changes rushed by.
The question: Why didn’t I do more?
Howell asks the same question even as he describes how he led demonstrations for equal rights in Charlotte while he was a student at Davidson College in the early 1960s. Howell claims he did not do nearly enough. But as he cheerfully recalled last year to a reunion of Civil Rights workers in southwest Georgia, his son’s eighth grade social studies paper had asserted, “There were three great leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King, Junior, John Lewis, and my dad, Joseph T. Howell.”
Howell’s diary of his and Embry’s experiences during the summer of 1966 in southwest Georgia is the core of the new book. Howell recorded in detail the struggles of the rural black family with whom they lived, the door-to-door challenge of persuading blacks to buck the system by registering to vote and voting, the acquittal by an all white jury of the accused and very guilty white man, and the frustration of attending scheduled mass meetings that began hours late and had only 15 people in the audience.
While the Howells were fighting white racism that summer, they found out that racism could work both ways. Early in the summer Howell learned about internal conflicts among the Civil Rights leaders in southwest Georgia.
An inspirational fellow seminary student and leader of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Charles Sherrod, recruited the Howells and other white students to work for SNCC at its Southwest Georgia Project.
What he Howells did not know was that just as they were signing up to work for SNCC, “the idea of moving from an integrated movement to an all-black movement was being fiercely debated within SNCC.”
The advocates of “self defense” and “black self-determination” led by Stokely Carmichael won the debate over Sherrod, John Lewis and other advocates of SNCC’s original non-violent civil disobedience and integrated foundations.
“But,” Howell writes, “we did not know this before we got down there and were the first to experience what it meant.”
“What it meant” according to Howell’s diary was a summer of confusion and inept leadership taking on the monumental problems that faced an oppressed black population in the area. And it meant an adjustment of attitudes by the Howells as they worked for an organization and people who viewed whites as the enemy.
Howell’s diary records his humiliation under the SNCC leadership on the same pages he describes the humiliations of the local blacks under the oppressive white power structure.
It is a moving and well-told personal story, but, more importantly, an insider’s record of an often-overlooked part of the Civil Rights revolution.