Here's Something: Comparing civil rights movements then, now

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A few weeks ago, as the country marked the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, I gained a deeper realization that the civil rights leaders and protesters of the 1950s and 1960s were true American heroes.

That “greatest generation” of civil rights fighters were just as brave, just as disciplined and just as dedicated in their non-violent struggle to overthrow segregation as the American soldiers who fought to topple totalitarianism during World War II.

Sometimes it takes the anniversary of a tragedy – in this case, the murder of King by a white supremacist fearful of civil rights gains being made by King and his followers – to educate a new generation to the realities of what happened long ago and how those events provided a foundation for today’s society.

Of course, thanks to a culture and educational system that has never forgotten the civil rights movement and the importance it played in forming a more perfect American union, I’ve always admired King’s tireless and self-sacrificing advocacy on behalf of his fellow blacks.

But my knowledge of and respect of that time in American society was taken to a new level thanks to in-depth coverage on PBS and elsewhere in early April. The historical recollections transported me to the mid-20th century, when blacks were fighting hard for equality. I’m thankful for the filmmakers whose work informs younger Americans like me, who don’t have firsthand memories of that time.

The anniversary of King’s murder coincided with an important occasion in my family’s history – my mother’s 80th birthday. My mom is a spry and go-getting octogenarian, far from the stereotype of a retiring, feeble old lady. She’s a retired junior high school English teacher, world traveler, writer, reader and quilter. An equally eager observer of political news, she’s seen it all, watching America evolve and change through her eight decades. While I mostly have a perspective gained through reading or viewing historical footage, she has a perspective formed by direct experience. She remembers World War II and everything that’s happened since, including the civil rights movement.

We had a great birthday celebration in late March with her and her siblings, and I was thinking of them while watching documentaries about King. I did some quick mental math and realized she was just a little younger than I am now when the civil rights movement was blossoming. I resolved to ask her and her siblings, all of whom grew up in working-class Brockton, Massachusetts, and lived through the tumultuous times then and a second iteration of mass protests now, what they think, 50 years later, of the King-led movement and how it compares with the anti-gun, pro-women and anti-Trump protests of today.

For the next two weeks – since their comments won’t fit into one column – I’ll relay their exact words so we can hear from members of a generation with personal memories of King’s movement to provide perspective on current movements. In a world that seems to dismiss and disregard the wisdom and perspective of its elders, I think it’ll be interesting to hear my mom’s, aunt’s and two uncles’ take on American protests then and now.

We’ll start with my mother Nancy’s perspective, since she’s the oldest elder and the birthday girl, and next week we’ll hear from her sister, Linda, and two brothers, John and Phil. OK, lead us off, Ma:

“I respected the leadership of the civil rights movement. Dr. King, Whitney Young, Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young struck me as educated men of character. Their level of discourse was measured and literary. And I knew enough of the situation of black people that I trusted these men to lead their just cause. They were also Christian men. That made a difference to me.

“Contrast that with my lack of knowing who is leading the LGBT or Black Lives Matter groups. These movements seem amorphous. Where are they going? I have no reliable evidence of whether LGBT claims to mistreatment are real or reasonable or correctable. The poor choice of slogan – ‘Black Lives Matter’ – tends to elicit an automatic defense: ‘All Lives Matter.’ The title, “civil rights,” was less contentious – convincing in itself.

“About guns, I just want to break into the discussion and ask what happened when we banned alcohol. My grandfather became an alcoholic during Prohibition. What has happened in society despite strong laws against heroin? It seems not to make a difference – it is available. What has happened in gun-free zones? Murders and terror. Laws do not come with any guarantee. The movement against guns doesn’t appear to acknowledge those facts.”

John Balentine, a former managing editor for Sun Media Group, lives in Windham.

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