This famous 1963 photo of the Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in by Freedom Riders in Jackson, Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement was taken by my cousin-in-law, Fred Blackwell. The photo is hanging in galleries all over the world as emblematic of the essence of peaceful protest. You can look at this picture and be disgusted by the abusive, bullying mob, and it can inflame you. But you can also look at the young people at the counter sitting non-reactively, but resolutely, for the cause of desegregation, and be awed.
M.J. O’Brien, in his book We Shall Not Be Moved, credits this photo as being one of the pivotal moments in the Civil Rights Movement, when the rest of the world (and certainly the Washington powers-that-be) became emotionally captured, in a single snapshot, by the sheer humanity of it all. The courageous vulnerability, so beautifully illustrated in the photo, triggered an empathetic admiration that moved people, giving fire to the cause, and ultimately helping it to succeed.
I read somewhere that the Freedom Riders went through a kind of training, in which they prepared for just this sort of incident. They staged and rehearsed experiences of abuse – calling each other names, dumping food and other, more disgusting substances on each other, blowing cigarette smoke into each other’s faces, even slapping and pushing each other – so that, when the time came, they could keep their retaliatory desires in check. They were committed to peace just as doggedly as they were committed to change…and they practiced, practiced, practiced.
They were committed to peace just as doggedly as they were committed to change…and they practiced, practiced, practiced.
In these current days of upheaval, I feel the need to keep those brave souls of the photo in mind. Our sit-ins may now be primarily on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and other social media, but the commitment to peace, which requires courageous vulnerability, is our best bet for invoking an empathetic army of peaceful warriors – away from our current divisiveness and back toward a unified nation, and ultimately a unified world.
For me, that means practice, practice, practice.