Friday, February 11, 2005

Lillian Smith on the Greensboro sit-in

Lillian Smith was one of the most powerful critics of segregation in her time. She was, really, way ahead of her time. I think she represents in the strongest terms the most idealistic hopes that American democracy has ever been able to put forth. I do not know what she would think of us now.

In search of something else today I came across a speech she gave in 1960. It pays tribute to the four students responsible for the original Greensboro sit-in, which was 45 years ago this month. In honor of our friends coming over from Greensboro tomorrow, here's the start of it:

I am going to talk tonight of the spiritual crisis which the South and its people are facing. We have been in ordeal a long time and have had outbursts of violence and localized crises again and again: in Little Rock, in Montgomery, Clinton, Nashville, Tallahassee, and in other spots in the South.

But what we are now facing is not localized and cannot be. It is something different, something that has not happened in this country before; it has a new quality of hope in it; it is, I believe, of tremendous moral and political significance. Somehow it is involving not only students but all of us, and there is a growing sense that what we say or fail to say, do or fail to do, will surely shape the events that lie ahead.

This hour of decision--and it is that for the south, certainly--was precipitated on February 1, by a Negro student, age eighteen, a freshman in a college in Greensboro, North Carolina. He had seen a documentary film on the life of Gandhi: he had heard about Montgomery and the non-violent protests made there; he had probably listened to Dr. Martin Luther King--certainly he knew about him; he had his memories of childhood and its racial hurts: and he had his hopes for the future. But millions of southerners, young and old, and of both races, have had similar experiences. What else was there in this young student that caused him to be capable of his moment of truth? Courage, of course; and imagination, and intelligence--and enough love to respond to Gandhi's love of mankind, and enough truth-seeking in his mind to realize the meaning of Gandhi's teaching of non-violence and compassion and their redemptive and transforming power. Was this all the young man had? No, there was more: an indefinable, unpredictable potential for creating something new and lasting, and doing it at the right time. Every leader and every hero, and many artists and scientists, possess this talent for fusing their lives with the future. And yet, I doubt that the young man knew he possessed this special quality, or even now knows it.

In some strange way, however, his thoughts and memories and hopes came together and he talked about what was on his mind with three young friends. And a short time afterward, the four of them went on their historic journey to a Greensboro ten-cent store.

From this small beginning, this almost absurd beginning, so incredibly simple and unpretentions that we Americans--used to the power of big names and money and crowds and Madison Avenue and Gallup polls--can scarcely believe in it, there started the non-violent students' protests which have caught the imagination of millions of us.

Then after she goes on to talk about the costly silence of prior generations, about the "terrible price" they paid "for a security which they believed segregation could give them," she concludes:

We, as a region, can have our moment of truth only when we begin to think of ourselves not as members of races but as persons; we can take the walls down outside only by taking the walls down within us. Then it will come. And it will be a healing time for us, and perhaps the whole world, for we are so sensitized to one another, so closely related by the common purpose of creating a future, that whatever brings wholeness to us will bring wholeness to millions of others across the world.

Perhaps, even now, our moment of truth is near; let's pray that it does not turn into an agonizing time of sin and error.

--All Souls Unitarian Church, Washington, D.C., April 21, 1960.

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