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Catch wave of change:

Youngstown activist issues 'call to action'

 

By MIKE McKINNEY

Review Staff Writer

EAST LIVERPOOL -- The packed audience in the Kent State University-East Liverpool Campus library stood at the speaker's invitation, put their arms around each other's shoulders and sung or hummed along to an old Pete Seger folk song, "Just My Hands."

The words speak of one person's hands, eyes or mouth not being able to change the world but say, "If two plus two and 50 make a million, then we'll see that day come 'round."

It was a fitting conclusion to a lecture Tuesday evening by social activist Staughton Lynd, a Harvard-educated attorney and author now living in Youngstown.

Lynd has spent a lifetime working to advance changes in society from the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements of the 1960's, through improving conditions for industrial workers in the 1970's and 1980's, to fighting for prisoners' rights today.

It was also fitting that the evening was put into perspective at the end by local activist Alonzo Spencer. He expressed his belief that America today is at a crossroads, and said that the path we take "will determine how we live our lives for the next 10 to 15 years."

Tuesday's lecture was intended, in Lynd's words, to convey not a history, but a "feeling" of the 60's. It was also a call to action for the audience, to become involved in what he called a "sea change" in American history in terms of social activism that he said is supposed to occur once a generation.

Referring to recent events, Lynd said the conservative 50's were followed by the radical 60's, which were then followed again by conservative years in the 70's and 80's.

Lynd said he has been waiting for the next wave of activism, which may coincide with a current "revival" of interest in the 60's. "Maybe it means that you folks are getting ready to make your move," he said. Lynd hopes to see a renewal of 60's-style activism in the next three years, a movement which he said might be called "millennium militants."

Lynd moved to the middle of the crowd and spoke softly, but with deep passion, in a series of vignettes about the times and his experiences. He talked of working in the South as a coordinator of "Freedom High Schools"--summer schools for African-American children taught in the basements of churches and other buildings. At the time, Lynd was a professor at Spelman College in Atlanta, a school for African-American women (where incidentally, one of his students was Alice Walker, author of "The Color Purple").

This was during the summer of 1964 and the height of a voter-registration and education drive by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, an effort that had been ongoing since 1961. It was a time of sit-ins and demonstrations, Lynd said, with often violent reactions by local police and citizens, particularly Ku Klux Klan members. The violence was particularly bad that summer in Mississippi, with beatings, jailings and bodies of African-Americans found in creeks and "nobody batting an eye," Lynd said.

Many white students were invited down from the North to take part in the effort, and Lynd said they stayed with African-American families during their time in the South.

The violence reached a climax with the disappearance, which was later found to be the murder, of three white students in Philadelphia, Miss.

The disappearance happened on a Sunday, and on Monday, the coordinating committee in Atlanta held a long discussion about whether or not to continue, Lynd said. At the session, which he said included everyone locking arms to pray and sing a version of Kum-Bayh-Yah ("We've got people missing, Lord," Lynd said one of the verses went), everyone present decided that the program must continue. "We were caught up in something larger than us," he said. "We did it together."

Lynd spoke of the contradictions of being white and being involved in the civil rights movement, ranging from negative perceptions of making a name for oneself working among African-Americans and then going back up North to live and work, to the attention drawn to the movement by the murder of the three white students. But he emphasized that African-Americans did most of the work, and a number of besides Dr. Martin Luther King, began "stepping forward" into more significant leadership roles in the summer of 1964.

But probably his most moving observation on the civil rights movement came later in the lecture, when Lynd said that in the fall of 1964, African-American children throughout Mississippi went back to school, wearing buttons which said "SNCC--One Man, One Vote." That was the "bravest thing" to occur during that time, he said.

Lynd was also heavily involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement, he said, which he said grew partly out of the civil rights movement and the belief that African-Americans were being drafted in disproportionate numbers to fight a war that was not their concern.

In June 1965, Lynd said he was a member of something called the "Assembly of Unrepresented People," based on the premise that the U.S. government was waging war in Vietnam without getting the people's approval for it.

He said the group staged a demonstration against the war on the steps of the Pentagon, a handful of protesters "surrounded by 10 times our number of military police, all of them eight feet tall," which he called a "serious political challenge."

When asked by one of the MP's what the group was doing there, Lynd said he replied, "You don't understand, we're just the first of thousands."

Two years later, Lynd said his predictions came true at a mass demonstration at the Pentagon in the fall of 1967.

Lynd took some time to decry some of the violence that occurred in the 60's, saying it grew out of frustration when changes in policy were not made quickly. "We in the 60's wanted to re-make the whole world within 12 months," he said. "Anything less was unacceptable."

These feelings of frustration led some people away from the early 60's goals and into violence, he said.

Still, Lynd said despite the deaths and the violence in the South, and at Kent State and Jackson State in Mississippi in 1970, "any rational sense of history" would say that the protest movements were "tremendously successful."

He pointed to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as evidence of that success. He also credited the movement with ending the Vietnam War, calling those who protested and resisted the draft "brave young people" whose spirit was carried from America to "the American soldier in Vietnam," where he said "working class" draftee soldiers began acts of disobedience against the war effort.

Lynd concluded his remarks by asking for questions and comments from the audience. The discussion went on for about 40 minutes, ranging from the state of activism and race relations today to how people can make a difference in society.

Lynd said he believed there is still a willingness to help others and the desire to work for change present in society today. However, there are still ugly moments, Lynd said, including recently in Austintown, where an African-American family moved because of the schools. He said one morning, the family's daughter was going to school when she found a dark-skinned baby doll in front of their house with a noose around its neck. He said the family moved back to central Youngstown shortly thereafter, where the wife was quoted as saying, "At least you know what to expect."

In response to a question about how people could help today, Lynd suggested visiting prisoners, because he said Jesus Christ spoke both of setting the prisoners free and ministering to those in prison.

At the beginning of the lecture, Lynd had recognized local environmental activist Alonzo Spencer, his wife Rosalie and friend and fellow activist Richard Wolf as people who are also engaged in a long-term "struggle" in their continuing efforts against Von Roll Waste Technologies Industries.

Near the end of the lecture, Lynd asked Spencer to share his thoughts. This led to comments which seemed to put the entire evening into perspective.

"I head an organization (Save Our County) of largely white people," Spencer said. He said they have protested together, and been arrested and jailed together. "I would trust any of them with my life," he said, "as they would me."

He said it was "imperative" for that very point to be reached in race relations in America. Spencer sounded a hopeful note by saying, "And it will."

But Spencer then continued to speak of his belief that the U.S. is reaching a critical point on several fronts. "We're at a crossroads in the next two to three years, where we have to take a path on many issues, gun control, for example," he said. "The path we choose will determine how we live our lives for the next 10 to 15 years."

A path that, in the mood of Tuesday evening's lecture crowd, will lead to more Americans joining arms, singing, growing in numbers and truly making some changes come 'round.

The lecture was a part of Kent's series, "Experiencing Democracy: The Cost of Freedom." Other lectures scheduled are for 7 p.m. April 12, on reflections of the May 1970 Kent State shootings, and 7 p.m. April 18, on voices of the Holocaust.

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