"Lift ev’ry voice and sing till earth and heaven ring, Ring with the harmonies of liberty…."

           — Black National Anthem

 CANNON BEACH — While freedom music rang out all weekend in the Coaster Theatre, and speakers recalled the struggles of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the celebration was tempered by a warning: Americans may be losing the democracy they fought so hard to attain.

“Let me be clear: We can celebrate civil rights,” said Quintard Taylor, American history professor from the University of Washington. “We can talk about the civil rights campaign. Let’s understand that we can celebrate the effort, but the campaign doesn’t always succeed. The struggle continues.

“Those battles of the 1960s continue to be the battles of today.”

Taylor’s warning on the first night of a three-day symposium about the civil rights movement was echoed throughout the weekend by the other speakers taking the stage: author Taylor Branch and Freedom Riders Max Pavesic and Joseph Stevenson.

Sponsored by the Cannon Beach Arts Association and Clatsop Community College, the symposium commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides that integrated public transportation in the South and the 25th anniversary of the creation of the Martin Luther King holiday.

Some of those attending the symposium said they appreciated hearing about the speakers’ experiences in the movement. Many said they were unaware of the racial struggles in Portland and Seattle detailed by Taylor. Others praised Branch’s challenge for people to – as the Freedom Riders did – do something that makes them feel uncomfortable but meaningful.

“I commend the arts association for taking on an issue as controversial as civil rights,” said Bobbie Dore Foster, executive editor of The Skanner, an African American newspaper in Portland.

“People know about it, but it’s an uncomfortable topic,” said Foster, adding that young people may have heard about the civil rights movement but don’t understand its significance.

“We need to revisit it like people revisit Lewis and Clark’s visit to Astoria,” Foster said. “It affected the whole country, and it still needs to be addressed.”

 

I shall not, I shall not be moved

I shall not, I shall not be moved

Like a tree planted by the water

I shall not be moved.

 

Following a performance of freedom songs by Marilyn Keller and the Augustana Jazz Quartet of Portland, Taylor described the racial segregation in housing, employment and schools throughout Portland and Seattle during the 1960s.

“By 1960,” Taylor said, “91 percent of all African Americans in Oregon lived in Albina (Northeast Portland), lived in the ghetto, lived in the Portland ghetto. I don’t know of many states that had this kind of concentration in the country at that particular time.”

Of those, 48 percent lived in substandard housing, Taylor added.

In Seattle, racial restrictions in housing weren’t removed until 1968, following years of protests in the streets, a citywide referendum and even a sit-in at City Hall.

Three days before the ordinance was passed, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn.

“Cities exploded all over the country,” Taylor said. “There was concern that Seattle would have a racial uprising as well, so the council decided they had better do something about this stalled legislation, they had better do something about making housing available to all people of color throughout the city.”

Blacks also faced racial barriers in employment in both cities. While Boeing grew rapidly, creating 148,000 jobs between 1965 and 1967 and gobbling up white workers so much that Seattle had full employment, the unemployment rate for blacks remained at 10 percent.

In Portland the story was much the same, Taylor said.

“As late as 1960, there were no blacks employed as sales personnel in downtown Portland. There were no virtually no blacks employed in banking enterprises in Portland, and there were few in manufacturing enterprises, despite the existence of a 9-year-old law that prevented racial discrimination in employment.”

Although the longshoreman’s union elsewhere regularly took in black members, it wasn’t until 1962 that a black person was hired to work the docks in Portland.

Schools were segregated, too: 80 percent of the black students in Seattle attended schools in the central district in 1960. At least 86 percent of black students in Portland were concentrated in five of 94 grade schools, Taylor noted.

Efforts to bus students in Seattle mostly failed to improve educational opportunities for black students, Taylor said. Portland still struggles with “racial isolation,” he added.

But Taylor noted, the civil rights campaigns in Portland and Seattle “served notice to white Pacific Northwesterners that black concerns could no longer be ignored.”

“The civil rights campaigns energized and politicized two cities that had become complacent about their racial status,” he said.

“We should also understand that that struggle is not over,” Taylor said. “We need to be as brave as the people were in the 1960s to continue that struggle until we finally reach that time when we won’t have to sing those songs that Marilyn sang tonight.”

Retired educator Pauline Bradford, who moved to Portland from the South in the 1950s and attended the symposium, said she experienced much of what Taylor discussed. She still experiences some discrimination even now.

“You think you’re going to a place that does not have that,” Bradford said about her decision to move to Portland. “But it has been a rude awakening all along.”

 

Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around

I’m gonna keep on a-walkin,’ keep on a talkin’

Marchin’ down to freedom’s land

 

Max Pavesic took his Freedom Ride on a train called The City of New Orleans, up to Jackson, Miss. He and 12 other university students, a postal worker and a teacher were arrested for “breach of peace” because they were congregating with blacks in the “whites only” waiting room and refused to leave. They were taken to the city jail and eventually to Parchman Farm, Mississippi’s notorious state prison.

“Mississippi was really a closed society,” said Pavesic, who described a population controlled by the White Citizens Council, an organization of prominent politicians and businessmen. “If they needed any dirty work, they just brought the (Ku Klux) Klan in.”

By the time Pavesic was arrested, the fever of the Freedom Rides, designed to integrate public transportation in the South, had spread throughout the country. Eventually 450 people – mostly students, both black and white – rode buses, trains and airplanes and were arrested for their efforts. Of those, 300 ended up in Parchman Farm.

He didn’t see the other prisoners, but they sang to each other.

“That’s what really kept the camaraderie going in jail,” said Pavesic, who now lives in Idaho. “Singing every night ‘We Shall Overcome’ and other songs. It was kind of the main communication for the total group … It kept our spirits up. It was a very important part of our experience.”

After spending 39 days in a 6-foot by 9-foot cell in the prison’s maximum-security section, Pavesic was released. His charge later was dropped on appeal.

During Saturday’s session on Freedom Rides, Pavesic recalled meeting civil rights leader Medgar Evers. The meeting took place in a driveway, but Evers knew his life was in danger, Pavesic said.

As he spoke to the audience, Pavesic broke down in tears. “It was a very hard time for me,” he said. Then, after a pause, he continued. “We were in the driveway, and he said, ‘It’s not safe here; let’s go inside.’

“Eighteen months later, he was assassinated.”

Joseph Stevenson, of Astoria, told his story about riding a train from Los Angeles to Houston when he was 18 and being arrested and beaten in the Harris County Jail.

“And now, 50 years later, there are a lot of young people growing up who don’t know anything about this,” Stevenson said. “In some ways, the problems that were down there that we tried to fix haven’t been fixed. There’s a lot of racism still in this country. We have a black president, and when that happened, it was quite a day for me.

“Is racism still a huge thing in this country? Of course it is, of course it is. We’re nowhere near done with that. It’s being used politically in the worst kind of way as much as it was back then.”

Before viewing a two-hour film called “Freedom Riders,” to be premiered on the Public Broadcasting Service’s “American Experience” program May 11, audience members asked questions of Pavesic and Stevenson.

Teletha Benjamin, of Portland, recalled her school days in Louisiana. As a high school senior in 1953, she and other students demonstrated against the school board, which, she said, attempted to remove black students from the school they had attended all their lives three months before graduation.

“Personally, I feel that everything has changed and nothing has changed,” Benjamin said. “I still have to have that little strain of hope that somebody’s going to pick it up and keep it going and keep battering and battering until it happens.”

 

Oh, freedom, oh, freedom, oh, freedom over me,

And before I’d be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave,

And go home to my Lord, and be free.

 

The son of a dry cleaner in Georgia, Taylor Branch set out on a quest to discover what black people knew about the human soul that whites didn’t.

Twenty-four years later, he came away with personal stories compiled into a 3,000-page trilogy on the civil rights movement and a Pulitzer for the first book, “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63.”

But more than a set of three very thick books, Branch found the courage to delve deep into a culture that, at first, felt uncomfortable and intimidating.

“We young white folks in the segregated South believed we were destined to grow up and wear neckties and use big words, but that black folks had the keys to the human heart. That, somehow, they knew things about the world that we were cut off from. And why is that?” Branch told the audience during a two-hour presentation Saturday night.

“The whole world seemed shook up by these little … small children that marched into Birmingham into the dogs and fire hoses, singing Sunday school songs and did not run and kept marching. Over 1,000 of them a day, May 2, May 3, 1963. I’m a junior in high school.

“I wanted to know where that came from, where that came from and what made it resonate so deep.”

People learn through stories, Branch said. That’s why he conducted 2,000 interviews and pieced together stories from the leaders and the “average Americans” in the civil rights movement.

“We learn through stories because the humanity of the stories is what our ideas are built on,” Branch said. “In race relations, humanity rules.”

A movement is something that starts with an inner movement, “like a little whisper,” Branch said. It requires people to leap into the unknown and reach beyond themselves. Then, they find other people who have also reached “across lines that you never believed existed.”

“So that by the time they marched from Selma into Montgomery, the movement grew so big that you could literally feel history changing in the movement. That’s what a movement is. And it did change history.”

But Branch worries that what the country gained through the civil rights movement might be lost.

“We are in the sad situation today, in which the watchword of politics has shifted from movement, on the strength of what these kids did, to spin. What’s the difference between movement and spin? Movement changed the world from the inside out, and spin is all about something that’s not going anywhere and it’s just about the nonsense of nonmotion. It’s a game.

“We’ve allowed our politics to be debased,” he said.

America is “wholly out of phase with the historical lessons that we should have learned from the civil rights era about the potential of our democracy to address significantly difficult problems,” he added.

“This is not about our past, and it’s not just about black and white. This is about our future, in the sense that this was the great crucible in the potential for democratic citizenship.

“This is a movement not about black and white and certainly not about segregation. This is a movement about democracy and what it really means and whether the citizens really control things … If we own an equal piece of this country, then it’s our job to fix it.”

 

We shall overcome, we shall overcome,

We shall overcome someday. 

Oh, deep in our hearts we do believe

We shall overcome someday.

     

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