Change Happens on the Margins: Moses Wright and the Dawn of the Civil Rights Movement
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
"I think that change comes about at the margins. I’ve always believed that. People in the center are not going to be the big change makers. You’ve got to put yourself at the margins and be willing to risk in order to make change."
Today, on Martin Luther King Day, we’re wrapping up a new show with Frances Kissling, a vocal leader in the public conversation about abortion for over three decades. Her belief that change comes about at the margins reminds me of Moses (Mose) Wright, a Mississippi minister and sharecropper whose personal act of bravery sowed the roots of what would become a burgeoning civil rights struggle in the South.
Wright is best-remembered as the great uncle of Emmett Till, a 14-year old boy from Chicago who was viciously beaten and murdered in Mississippi during the summer of 1955 by two white men for allegedly talking to a white woman. Wright testified in court and publicly identified the defendants, with two simple words “Dar he.” (“There he is.”) At that time, Wright assumed great personal risk by bucking social conventions codified by segregation. Newspaper accounts of the day took note of remarkable actions. His life was threatened but he did not back down.
After the trial (the two men were acquitted and later admitted to the murder), Wright left Mississippi for Chicago, vowing never to return. While his personal act of dignified bravery didn’t affect the trial’s final outcome, he demonstrated that the tacit rules of segregation could be questioned.
To commemorate Martin Luther King Day and learn more about Mose Wright’s heroism and the role of Emmett Till’s murder in galvanizing what was then a civil rights movement still in its infancy, watch this excerpt from the award-winning series, Eyes on the Prize.
Wangari Maathai in Print
Andy Dayton, Associate Web Producer
Nancy just found this poster featuring a past guest of ours on the Web site for Just Seeds, a creative collective that unites artists who “believe in the power of personal expression in concert with collective action to transform society.” They don’t appear to have the poster for sale, but you can grab a postcard of the print.
Mississippi on My Mind
Krista Tippett, Host
I spent three fascinating, moving days in Oxford, Mississippi at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) in August — the site of the first scheduled presidential debate. I was honored with an invitation to speak to the remarkable Honors College of Ole Miss by its dean Douglass Sullivan-Gonzales. Oxford was the home of William Faulkner, and it is one of the most intriguing places I have ever visited — marked by a loveliness of people as well as place. Even then, in mid-August, the Secret Service and other affiliated debate authorities had begun to tear up and rearrange that beautiful campus — building elaborate security perimeters and state of the art communications facilities for thousands of journalists. The august building in which I was to speak, the appointed site of the debate, had already been locked down and quarantined. I couldn’t help but think of all these practicalities — at public expense — as I heard John McCain’s announcement of his wish to postpone the debate yesterday. I imagine many hearts sank in Oxford.
And it’s been a wild ride for them all along. The first debate was originally planned to focus on issues of domestic policy and the economy. The Ole Miss faculty and administration created an interdisciplinary semester curriculum around these issues. They lined up an astonishing array of visiting lectures and extracurricular seminars. Then just as school began, the McCain and Obama campaigns agreed to shift the Ole Miss debate focus to foreign policy. Right now it looks like the original plan was more prescient. The university took the change in stride, moving forward with its own well-laid plans, though with some understandable frustration. I joked — but not all in jest — that by November the students at Ole Miss will be the best-informed, most well-rounded thinkers in the nation.
But there are deeper issues at play around this debate, in particular, a convergence of more fundamental national dynamics that could easily be missed in all the politicking around this ultra-politicized event. In 1962, the nation’s eyes focused on Oxford and Ole Miss, as race riots accompanied the integration of the university by a determined African-American student named James Meredith. In just a few days there, I learned that for people who live in and love Oxford even in 2008, history’s subdivisions and ephiphanies still fall on either side of this living memory: time is divided into “before Meredith” and “after Meredith.”
I remember especially one woman who stood with me at the monument to James Meredith at the center of the campus — a wonderful dean at the honors college from an old Oxford family. Her grandparents were close friends of William Faulkner and his wife, icons of a paradoxical past — at once immensely gracious and essentially cruel. She spoke of how after the riots hearts and minds changed individually and ultimately collectively. She suggested, softly, that Oxford has become something of a model for how people and communities can evolve. This is not a story so often told. She said, “We had to realize that we had been wrong — and wrong about a way of life we loved.” I was humbled to be in her presence. I have not spent much time in the Deep South in my life, though I grew up in Oklahoma, where issues of race and bigotry have not often enough met with profound public reflection. In Oxford, I saw people wrestling carefully, searchingly, self-critically, and gracefully with the unresolved American encounter with race. I was impressed.
And so hosting this historic 2008 civil debate between a white candidate for president and an African-American candidate for president means more to the people of Oxford than most of us can imagine. The current chancellor of the university was himself a student “during Meredith.” History is present at Ole Miss, and it is history that we have scarcely found ways in our common life to name and discuss even in the midst of Barack Obama’s historic candidacy. I for one will be watching the people of Oxford tomorrow, not just the candidates. I hope very much that the debate happens.
Shiraz Janjua, Associate Producer
"You gotta kill your darlings." That was one of those sayings that permeated our discussions back in film school, something our teachers would tell us during the editing of our film projects. It means you have to be willing to let go of that shot or that sequence that you invested so much time, effort, and probably money into making but, for some reason, slows down the pace of the story or isn’t as strong as our hope for it. In some weird way, it’s like that Buddhist saying, "If you ever meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha." Don’t turn the Buddha or your "darlings" into idols that bar your path to enlightenment or a perfect film.
I’m now editing an interview for a show we are so eager to put out there about the 20th-century rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel was a contemporary of Martin Luther King Jr., and equally provocative and challenging.
Sometimes we record an interview, and we have little trouble finding places to edit out. Sometimes the interview digresses from its core and we have to wrangle it back by cutting out some material. Other times, you listen to an interview, and it seems like every word is a darling. For myself, I count the interviews with Jean Vanier and Janna Levin in that category.
The other day, as we were doing our pre-edit listen of an interview with Arnold Eisen, chancellor of New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary, who was greatly influenced by the late rabbi, there were more than a few times when I thought I’d burst into tears, whether from Arnold Eisen’s own storytelling or from his reading of choice Heschel excerpts. I’ve highlighted a few in this audio excerpt:
- The first part features Arnold Eisen talking about Heschel’s advice to young people, his encouragement to them; it’s something that echoes with the self-doubt I felt for many years in my twenties.
- Following that is one for the SOF blooper reel.
- The last part is Arnold Eisen reading from Heschel’s writing. It’s gorgeous.
There’s another reading, in the interview, that comes after this one. It renders me helpless and it’s too good to spoil by throwing it out as a teaser, so you’ll just have to listen to the final show, which is a few weeks away.
Meanwhile, as I edit all this great material, I’m afraid that some of it will have to be lost for the sake of time constraints. But what do you let go, when it’s all gold? I’m having serious trouble killing my darlings.
"I Tried to Be a Good Man"
by Trent Gilliss, online editor
One of the more fabulous aspects of working at SOF is being surrounded by a crazy number of talented people from other other regional and national programs that are part of our parent company, American Public Media (if you’d like, I can try to explain the complexity of the public radio world and distributors some time). I’m overwhelmed by the wide array of topics and material being produced and, unfortunately, never get to hear.
Our colleagues next door at American RadioWorks just released a riveting documentary about the last year of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life. As a bonus, the executive editor Stephen Smith presented a live performance for his colleagues — a 35-minute pictorial narrative he had given at a commemorative event in historic Riverside Church in New York.
It’s not often that our topic area overlaps so overtly with our next-door neighbors’ material. In this case, King’s religious and moral language wasn’t ignored or minimized for the political, the historical, the newsiness of it all. It wasn’t an anecdote. Sitting in a small crowd of 50 with my colleagues, I was engaged from the first photo, an image of King preaching with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel sitting in the background.
I was overtaken by his recorded words from a sermon given at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta in 1968, shortly before his assassination. I had never heard King like that before.
King’s context was the 60s and civil rights. His legacy today is more than that. His ability is to relate to one’s personal failures and struggles and say, “It’s alright. Keep on trying.” As a husband and a father and a journalist, “I want to be a good man.”