I was lying in my hospital bed in Boston when I got an e-mail from someone making an oblique reference to the arrest of Skip Gates. I thought the writer was mistaken and wrote back saying, “But Skip is in China.” I couldn’t believe there was anything under the sun that would lead to Skip getting arrested—unless it was in China. And even then, what could he have done? Asked an official a tough question about human rights or something?
So I did what I always do when I need to reach Skip, who, like me, lives on his BlackBerry.
“Where are you?” I asked in the subject line. Within a few minutes he answered, “Just back from China.” I breathed a sigh of relief. Then Skip briefly mentioned his trip and followed with a one-liner about “a horrendous experience with the Cambridge police.” Skip then said he would tell me about it when he saw me and ended with, “You are not going to believe what I have to tell you.”
Maybe it was the drugs I was taking, but for a while, I thought he was talking about some fabulous experience he had in China. Skip has an infectious joy and excitement about his work, and he knows how I enjoy sharing it. The last sentence caused me not to focus on “horrendous experience” because, after all, he was talking about being back from China and talking to me soon. How bad could it have been?
Well, within no time, I knew. Friends began e-mailing details of the “horrendous experience” gathered from media reports. They knew that even in my hospital bed, I would have my trusty computer by my side.
Fresh in my mind, because of research I had been doing for a book on the civil rights movement, were the “horrendous” experiences of civil rights workers in the 1960s who were trying to rid the South of racist laws and vicious practices designed to keep blacks “in their place”—as second-class citizens. With their words and their works, the young activists were all committed to non-violence—a tactic that was sorely tested by the violence inflicted on them, often for something as simple as not saying “sir” to a white policeman standing over them with a billy club. Ask Congressman John Lewis, who may have suffered more blows to his head than any person during that period. It also happened to Charles Sherrod, who was a leader in the sit-in movement in then-totally segregated Albany, Ga. in 1961. Sherrod was slapped around by a white policeman for not saying “sir” and then thrown in jail.
Or take the many times when Bob Moses was arrested after being followed by a policeman on a lonely back road in rural Amite County, Alab., a county where black people often disappeared without a trace. During a voter registration drive, the black church in Amite County would be bombed by white supremacists, and Moses’ driver was murdered. Such was the nature of white racist resistance at the time. When the policeman finally pulled over the car in which Moses was riding, he got out and asked the officer what was the trouble. That simple question got Moses arrested for resisting arrest.
As disciples of non-violence and the moral authority that came with it, neither Sherrod nor Moses nor the thousands of young freedom fighters fought back in a physical way. Even their verbal responses were polite. As a result, they were often thrown into cold, crowded jail cells and treated like the animals the white racists believed black people to be.
It was painful to recall those days as I made my way through the research. But it is even more painful (if not infuriating) to know that almost a half century later, after the victories of those non-violent heroes Down South —up North can still be called Up South in cases like Skip's.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault is a regular contributor to The Root.