When I say object left: That means a bottle, brick, rock or other object has been thrown from your left. When I say object right: That means a bottle, brick, rock or other object has been thrown from your right. Be prepared to take cover.” God, I thought. This is real.
Earlier that Jan. 24, 1987 morning, we met at the Martin Luther King Center For Nonviolent Social Change in downtown Atlanta to board buses to march into Cumming, Georgia – a small city where the KKK held rallies to galvanize the “white power” movement.
Along the hour-long ride, armed National Guardsmen could be seen standing on every single bridge over I75 from downtown Atlanta to Cumming. They stood guard to protect the many school buses filled with marchers. To protect us. It was a poignant reminder that violence could await us at our destination.
I attended the march with a group of co-workers from Cohn & Wolfe, an Atlanta-based public relations company. We were among a wave of 15,000 to 20,000 people of all colors and backgrounds.
The night before the march, my dad tried to dissuade me from going. He was afraid of violence. “I’ve never seen hate,” I said. “Not like you have seen.”
In the 1920s when my dad was small, my gramps would often attend black churches. He loved gospel music and asked his pastor if he could invite a black choir to sing at his church, located on the outskirts of Birmingham, Ala. The KKK got wind of it and sent a message to him during a church service no less. One Sunday, the sermon was interrupted. The Klan had arrived. The church went silent. One by one members of the KKK marched into the church in a single file line. They each walked up to the pew where my grandparents, dad and his sleeping little brother sat and stopped. Each one dressed in full, hateful KKK regalia, silently stared at my gramps through holes in white hoods, turned and walked out.
“I need to see it and know it’s real and stand up,” I told him.
Once we disembarked from the buses, we lined up and linked arms, five or six people to a row. And when I looked and saw the number of people ahead of me and behind our row, I thought of Moses’ march out of Egypt. It was crazy – this mass of humanity. That this many people would come here today, lifted my heart.
After our safety speech, we began the march on a country road that led into little downtown Cumming. Shortly before we made it into downtown both sides of the road were filled with National Guardsmen in full riot gear. They stood side-by-side, blocking the people standing behind them. Some of those people were actually welcoming. Many were not. Hate was there, all right. Some of it draped in white gowns and stupid pointy hats.
“Go home Niggers,” they shouted. It was unbelievable. Despicable. But through it all we sang: “We shall overcome. We shall overcome. We shall overcome . . . some day. Oh deep in my heart. I do believe. We shall overcome someday.”
At one point I locked eyes with a young man. I’m thinking he was 15 or 16 years old. He yelled “nigger lover” as I passed. I looked him in the eye as I walked by and imagined I saw a glimmer of shame.
Thankfully, I don’t recall any major violence that day; although during a previous march weeks before that was not the case.
“Lightening makes no sound until it strikes,” said Martin Luther King.
It struck once again last weekend — a bolt of hate in white shirts and kaki pants brandishing lit torches reminiscent of the KKK of old. Violently and boldly it struck, screaming from the shadows in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Driving home from Greenville, S.C. Saturday, my daughter said: “How can these people call themselves Americans? We fought and many died in a world war to fight Nazis and all that they stood for! How can they call out grateful Americans who were brave enough to stand up to these Neo-Nazis and white supremacists. I am heartbroken at the violence, injuries and deaths that occurred. Especially for 32-year-old Heather Heyer, a counter protestor at the white supremacists rally, killed when a car plowed through a group of counter protestors. In news reports, Heyer’s mother said this of her: “She died doing what was right. My heart is broken, but I am forever proud of her.”
Albert Einstein greatly admired Pablo Casals, winner of the United Nations Medal of Peace in 1971. He observed that Casals clearly understood the byproduct of silence. “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil but by those who stand by and do nothing,” said Einstein.
As Heather Heyer’s death and the injuries of others in Charlottesville demonstrate, speaking out can be a dangerous business – deadly in fact.
May God give us the courage to stand up and speak out in the face of dangerous people and groups who devalue fellow human beings because of a different skin color, religion or culture.