March 22, 2013

Former civil rights activist tells students to ‘forgive and love’

By Christopher Smith
christophersmith@daltoncitizen.com

— What is an appropriate response to being demeaned, expelled from school, shoved into a jail, threatened, assaulted, sprayed down with fire hoses and bombed?

“Forgiveness and love,” says civil rights activist James Stewart.

Stewart spoke about his firsthand experiences in Birmingham, Ala., during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s to several Whitfield County Schools middle-school students at Crosspointe Christian Centre Thursday morning.

The lecture was a capstone for several students who had finished reading “While the World Watched” by Carolyn McKinstry this school year. McKinstry was scheduled to talk about her book on civil rights, but couldn’t because of “personal circumstances.” Stewart, who grew up with McKinstry in Birmingham, talked on her behalf at the church and visited several county schools after his lecture.

“When people started bombings (in 1963) … they went off in my neighborhood. You could feel it from across town,” Stewart said. “It was racial terrorism (mostly done by white people in black neighborhoods). Some bombs had nails, glass and broken wood in them to hurt people. Bombs were commonplace back then, but you never knew when it would happen.”

One famous bombing happened on Sept. 15, 1963, at Stewart’s church — 16th Street Baptist Church —  killing four young girls.

“When this bomb went off it went off with such a force it broke even the windows of the cars outside the church,” he said. “It was scary. My family was friends with some of the families that lost their girls that day.”

“That was very sad,” said Abigail Rodriguez, a student from Valley Point Middle School. “I think it must have been very hard to have so many people hate you. I don’t know why white people hated black people back then.”

Seventh-grader Madison MacKenzie of Westside Middle School agreed.

“The whole thing (Stewart’s speech) was awesome,” she said. “It was incredible to hear about his time back then — about his time in jail and all that.”

Stewart was arrested at the age of 15 for taking part in a civil rights protest on May 2, 1963, in Birmingham.

“Being in jail ... I never want that to happen again,” he said. “Jail is no fun at all. They got mug shots of us … we were fingerprinted, we were interrogated by men who intimidated us ... we could barely stand up or sleep … we had to move up against the walls … lay down on the concrete. But no one ever complained.

“A.D. King (the brother of Martin Luther King Jr.) was there in prison with us and he would sing one of the songs from the movement meeting to lift our spirits. He was singing ‘Everyone loves freedom.’ And some of us would think, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’re not free right now.’ But he sang by himself for 20 minutes, then a few people joined him ... then all of us would sing and our spirits would be lifted and we would be hopeful again … we were doing this for our children … so they could go into a movie theater … go into a restaurant and be served. Things we couldn’t do.”

Stewart said prison conditions were “unthinkable, unsanitary,” with no air conditioning, limited space, unclean toilets and uncooked grits with layers of grease and water for food.”

“I don’t think I could eat any of that,” said Rodriquez. “It sounded gross.”

It was, Stewart said. But it was not the worst part of segregation.

“At one point they (the city government of Birmingham) brought out the fire department to wash our (African-American) kids away,” he said. “The power of the fire hoses was so strong ... a powerful force. Students were expelled from school, racial tension increased as time went on and became more violent and there were threats from the Ku Klux Klan.”

Stewart said he was in a car chase with KKK members and knew several friends who were hurt by them.

That event, among others, made it easy for Stewart to hate the people who oppressed him even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 banned discrimination and allowed blacks to vote in elections.

“I was angry, but forgiveness and love are the two things (I needed),” he said. “One of my favorite things that (Martin Luther) King (Jr.) said was, ‘Let no man pull you low enough to hate him.’ When anger drives you, it’s really hard to do anything positive. We all need to learn to forgive and love. That’s what lets you have freedom.”