Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Hector, the Black Revolution, & Me

My friend Hector Black has been in the struggle since the 1940s. A 95-year-old queer and Quaker activist, he has been an organic blueberry farmer and commune creator, but more so an activist against the death penalty, for peace, and for civil rights.  

Over the last few years, I have taken groups of students to meet him in his home in Jackson County, to ask questions, to listen to stories. 

Before he donated most of his personal papers to the Tennessee Tech archives, on each visit, we would somewhat randomly rummage through his filing cabinet for photographs, press clippings, and yes, his quite interesting FBI file. He never was 100% clear about what was what was where. That filing cabinet on his farm was just a charmed chamber of social change in the South.

World-War-2 “veteran for peace” and Harvard-educated Hector is just an aging hippy farmer with a big smile and a bigger heart. You can see in the students faces the combination of shock and goose-bump shivers. A man that looks like their great Paw Paw, talking truth about the civil rights movement and its costs. 

One time he was supported by a black activist with the last name White. So the black activist named White, marched with the white activist named Black. This just made both of them smile. For all of his rabble rousing in Georgia, he found himself in the same jail cells, shared by other activists. The Blacks were friends with the King family, so yes at one point MLK and Coretta picketed to get Hector out of the pokey.

Sometime around 1966, Hector got involved in the Vine City neighborhood of Atlanta. Vine City was like the Mississippi Delta shacks with an outhouse in the back, except in the middle of a big city, the yet-to-be born capital of the new South. Residents really suffered and struggled with poverty, with practical issues including lack of heat in the winter, lack of proper plumbing, rodents running everywhere. 

When Atlanta’s homegrown hero MLK, then a hated preacher by many, visited Vine City, he said he saw what he described as the “worst” living conditions he had ever seen, anywhere. King described Vine city as an “appalling shame.” 

According to the website Atlantastudies-dot-org: “By the 1960s, Atlanta’s poor had grown tired of the city’s careless disregard. Buoyed by the black freedom movement and building on civic league traditions in Atlanta neighborhoods, many of Atlanta’s poor – and advocates for the poor – organized to counter the worst effects of poverty and urban redevelopment. In 1963, for example, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) augmented the work of the South Atlanta Civic League, and residents demanded more streetlights and better city services. In 1965, Vine City residents formed the Vine City Improvement Association, and shortly thereafter the Vine City Council, which organized to face down exploitative slumlords and garner more parks and improved infrastructure.”

An archival SNCC document notes, “If we don’t take ourselves seriously, nothing is going to change. Neither God nor President Johnson will change things. No one’s going to free us unless we get on the move.” SNCC also broadcast, that as a result of all this, “there is a war being fought” and “Atlanta is about to explode.” 

But the community was coming to identify their real problem: parasitic landlords and the systemic evil that enables them. Their movement against this pernicious poverty and oppression included picketing, sit-ins, rent strikes, and boycotts. 

Hector was right there, as part of the Vine City Council, as one of a small number of white activists who wanted to work in the community. He was not condescending with charity or handouts, he was part of the struggle, doing solidarity work as best as he could. 

By this time in history, King’s presence and that of SCLC, was considered far too conservative and churchy. Based on archival SNCC documents, the folks in Vine City seemed entirely done with the righteous preachers; they were ready for revolutionary practice. SNCC was providing that leadership. They were suspicious of Hector.

With a van with a giant megaphone, they would harass Hector daily, trying to shame him with the nickname: “White Jesus.” This is decades before the terms like “performative wokeness” or “white savior complex” became regular parlance in the Black Lives Matter movement, directed both at public white accomplices, and with the former, celebrity activists of all races. 

When asked about all this, Hector just smiled. He laughed. He really seemed amused about all the White Jesus stuff, but he didn’t seem to care at all about how it portrayed him. If there were an iota of white fragility or defensive mansplaining to be done about it, I did not discern it. 

Over the years, Hector has come to see MLK as a true radical, but then like his friends in SNCC and the Black Power movement generally, in 1966, most were done with MLK. As a Quaker, Hector was still a pacifist, but he obviously understood why the militant blacks, in the immortal words of Malcolm X, were ready to “stop singing” and “start swinging.” I wonder if any of this sounds familiar to our times?

Because of my two-decades friendship with Hector,  we have met up in many different places: from picking blueberries in the summer sun on his gorgeous property; to hanging out with Tennessee’s rural LGBT community; to co-chairing the Interfaith Peace Project, where we support youth in our community, who do writing and art for peace; to having him speak to students about abolishing the death penalty, by sharing his story of forgiveness concerning his adopted daughter’s murderer getting life-in-prison instead of electrocution; to hiking to the waterfalls on his land, which he did in his 90s, in his Crocs, on a January King-holiday morning. 

Fast forward to today. In the last two weeks, almost overnight, a Black Lives Matter movement has emerged in my small southern conservative community, it seems out of thin air, mostly led by youth. Almost immediately and intuitively, I drew a deep breath from my inner resources of 35-years-as-an-activist and got involved, at first as an “adviser” to a youth led group of young black and white activists, to my current intuitive role as an independent agitator, with years of experience in multiple-lanes from indy media to commissioned ministry, from nonviolent resistance to radical pedagogy, and so on. 

This reflection is not the time to document all the cyber-bullying, trolling, and doxxing that our community has seen online, with multiple community Facebook groups coming unhinged with conspiracy theories, threats of violence, and racist rants. But some explanation of the context is needed. 

In an impromptu demo on Tuesday, June 2, we saw physical violence, as a heckler claiming KKK affiliation assaulted a protester after an intense verbal exchange. Add to this police intimidation and misinformation, we went to our first large Black Lives Matter rally on Saturday, June 6, feeling a little rattled.

Before and since our beautiful and successful seven-hour rally, at which Hector showed up with a friend as escort, with his walker, with his Covid 19 mask, I have been called on Facebook and Twitter: a pro-looting race-baiter, a narcissistic egotistical white savior complex slacktivist. 

The FBI joint terrorism taskforce has also visited my house uninvited, and for the trouble of their time, I provide them a bit of a sermon, captured on video, with their permission. This video’s very existence, plus my remarks, has apparently outraged some members of my community. 

All this is to say how much I love and admire Hector walking this road before us. His “white Jesus” story is ours today for white activists in this current civil rights revolution. Like Hector, we need to keep listening to our youth, queer, and black leaders, listen to the victims of police brutality and the criminal industrial complex, amplifying all their voice. 
When we are attacked from whatever side, we need no defensiveness, no fragile whitesplaining, just heavy doses of that Quaker spirit, that MLK spirit, the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer spirit. Like Hector, we need to laugh, to smile, to keep fighting for this overdue overcoming of the sin of White Supremacy. 

They used to sing, “we shall overcome someday.” Reverend Otis Moss III recently preached, “when is someday.” Maybe someday is today. But only if we, in the words of that old freedom song, keep our eyes on the prize. See you in the streets.