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Clio's Temple

Inside Agitators

Memory does play tricks on us. It is now fashionable for those of us who grew up in the Deep South to muse about the changes our region has witnessed in the last half-century. Sometimes we replace honest recollection with nostalgia. Such is often the case with regard to the civil rights era, particularly the years 1961-1968. These were years of bitter confrontation and not all of it was the work of extremists. That's one of the disconcerting things about memory.

Today is the forty-eighth anniversary of "Bloody Sunday" (one of many such dates commemorated with that sobriquet): the date on which an attempted march down U.S. Highway 80 in Selma, Alabama, was met with force by local police and state troopers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. U.S. Representative John Lewis was one of those who got his head bloodied in that confrontation; it's the sort of thing that makes a lasting impression.

I grew up in the Methodist Church and one custom in late winter or early spring was that our church had a revival. In 1965, the guest evangelist for the revival was a pastor of a Methodist church in Selma. He was a learned man. His father had been a judge, which indicates that he wasn't from the lower orders of Southern society. What I remember most vividly is that he was vitriolic in his denunciations of the demonstrators who had flocked to Selma that winter. As my grandfather was fond of saying, the demonstrations were the work  of "outside agitators". That was a common Southern criticism of civil rights activists in the early 1960s. To a certain extent, that was true: Martin Luther King and John Lewis were Georgians, Andrew Young was from New Orleans. Presumably they were there for the purpose of stirring up discontent among the peaceable black citizens of Selma.

The complaints about outside agitators was, in truth, a way of deflecting concern about something that should have concerned many of us: the fact that citizens were still being denied the right to vote 100 years after the Civil War. If those of a liberal bent sometimes forget that the 2nd Amendment is part of the Constitution, those of more conservative sentiments may forget that the 15th Amendment is as well.

None of this is intended to point fingers at persons living or dead. As citizens of a free nation, we all have the right to make mistakes. It was a mistake to blame outsiders for the agitation caused by persons whose Southern lineage was as impeccable as our own. With the perfect clarity of hindsight, what we can and should remember is that it's never easy to accept a challenge to a longstanding way of life. It may take years or lifetimes to come to terms with wrenching changes. But, as Thomas Jefferson and others remind us, the world belongs to the living. Spending a lifetime trying to hold on to what will someday pass away is a waste of the too-few years we are given. As Kenny Rogers once put it, "the secret to surviving is knowing what the throw away and knowing what to keep." It's a task that each generation must learn anew.

2 Comments to Inside Agitators:

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Mary Beth on Sunday, March 17, 2013 5:33 PM
Hey Steve. Excellent post. I agree that as a society or an individual, refusing to change or progress when the time comes only leads to stagnation and "rot."
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