I didn’t know it at the time, but the day I met Malika Sanders was a day my life changed. It was 1999, and she was attending a World Jam that I was helping to host in California. Then 26-years-old, Malika was an African-American woman from Selma, Alabama who had grown up immersed in the struggle for civil rights. Selma, the birthplace of the voting rights movement, had plenty of racism that had not died out with the 1960s. Malika’s own Selma High School, like most other public schools in the state, practiced a kind of “tracking” that grouped certain people into more advanced academic classes and towards college preparation, and other students into more mundane classes and towards low-paying service-sector careers. At the age of 16, Malika had documented that these “tracks” were generally along race lines, seemingly without regard for academic performance. African-American students were not being prepared for college or for professional careers, they were more often being steered towards a life of menial employment.
So Malika had organized a school walk-out. Hundreds of students participated, shutting down the school for a week, drawing state-wide media attention, and eventually getting a law passed that made race-based tracking or “ability grouping” (as it was sometimes euphemistically called) illegal in Alabama’s public schools. She went on to direct 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement, an organization that provided organizing education, self esteem building, community, and support primarily to young African-Americans in the south.
When first we met, I embraced Malika with a quick hug. She then told me that she had never before hugged a white person. I congratulated her on surviving it, and welcomed her to the Jam. She smiled with a look that expressed warmth, and that also told me that being here, and talking to me, was something of a stretch for her. I was soon to find out why, and also to appreciate the depth of the courage it took for her to show up at an event organized in part by a white person. As she would share at the Jam:
“I grew up in a blatant and openly polarized town in which many European-Americans held fast to the ‘Old South’ where slavery/segregation was merely seen as a God-ordained way of life. Actually hate ran through the bodies of many in Selma, as smoothly as the blood that filled their veins. This hate was necessary to maintain the beliefs that under-girded the economic, political, and social power structure of the south for centuries.”
As I learned about the kind of experiences with which Malika had grown up, I felt a bit intimidated. At that point in my life I had never spent substantial time with African-American people, nor in the South, and I feared that I could accidentally say or do something that would offend her. With all that she had experienced, how could she not carry some degree of bitterness? And what if it came out at me?
A part of me wanted to avoid Malika, fearing that if we spent enough time together, I would sooner or later make some mistake, or say some foolish thing, and she would write me off as another ignorant racist. Yet she had a unique combination of fierce eloquence and friendly politeness that intrigued me – and beyond her personality, I felt a real warmth and human depth that drew me towards her. I decided to take a risk, and reach out with honesty.
Some time around the third day of the Jam, I asked Malika if we could spend a little time together. She said that sounded fine, even though the look on her face indicated that she had no idea what was in store for her, and that she was at least a little bit nervous at the idea. I began our chat by telling her how much I respected her work, and how glad I was to have some time to get to know her. And then I shared that I needed to be honest, I found myself feeling a bit intimidated. “It’s partly,” I told her, “that you are doing such important work and I have huge respect for you. And it’s partly that I am white, I grew up in a relatively privileged environment, and am afraid that I could say or do something I don’t mean to, that could offend you.” I told her that I was painfully aware of my own ignorance around race issues, and that I found myself being careful and self-conscious for fear that I might mess up. And underneath all that, I wanted to reach out and build a relationship on real ground.
Malika’s response surprised me. Rather than being condescending, or judgmental, as I might have feared, she responded with warmth. “Your honesty is so refreshing,” she told me. “Where I come from, white folks usually don’t talk about race except to criticize or distance from black folks. I don’t need you to be perfect, but I do appreciate your sincerity. And it lets me wonder,” she continued, “if we might be able to become friends.”
As our conversation continued, it became clear to me that Malika was a deeply thoughtful, principled, and kind young woman. She was coming from a community where there existed a vast divide along lines of race and class (and the two usually went together). And though she shared that she had never had a true white friend, she was interested in changing that. As she told me:
“I grew up believing that any group of people who had endured the dehumanizing effects of slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, rape, and the constant evils perpetrated on us were justified in the hatred of whatever was at the root of that evil. I also saw how hatred could destroy the very body, spirit, and mind of those who held on to its powerful energy. So I realized that it was important to focus my energies on love for all communities, my own as well as those who tried to destroy me, if I was to ever give world peace and justice a chance.”
As we shared more of our stories, our struggles, our families, our work, and our dreams, I could see that Malika and I had, actually, a great deal in common. We both directed organizations that supported young leaders, were responsible for raising hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, managing staff, and balancing budgets – all while trying to live a sane and sustainable life. We were both horrified by the injustices of our world, and committed to working for possibilities, not just against problems. And we both felt that somehow, our meeting might have some real significance to our own evolutions and perhaps also to work that we might yet do together.
My wife Michele, who was directing YES! with me at the time, also felt a bond with Malika. Within six months, the two of us were on our way to Selma, AL, to stay with Malika and to participate in some of her organization’s work. The three of us wound up deciding to create together an event that would challenge the roots of fear and ignorance that so often fed racism.
So it was that in the summer of 2000, Michele and I worked with Malika and her organization, 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement, to organize a week-long summer camp. We brought together fifteen white youth from the north and fifteen African-American youth from the south for a week in Selma. Our intent was to build bridges of connection and partnership across historical lines of separation, and to shine the light of consciousness and love into the painful area of racism. The challenges before us, however, were larger than I had imagined.
Shortly after our first evening session closed, as the facilitators were meeting to plan the next day, a verbal fight involving a majority of the camp participants erupted in the hall and we were called in to mediate. I arrived just as a fifteen-year-old white student was screaming at a cluster of African-American students that he was not responsible for racism, and that racism didn’t even exist any more, while his counterparts shouted back that white people enjoyed the benefits of privilege earned through centuries of slavery and violence, and “if there’s justice in the afterlife, white people will burn in hell!” I said something about the need to create new patterns of partnership so that there could be healing and forgiveness, and a sixteen-year-old African-American girl shot back: “If a woman is being raped over and over, you don’t tell her to forgive the rapist. You give her a gun or train her to fight back. If racism was in the past, we could talk about forgiveness. But the simple fact that you think it’s over is the whole point. Your people perpetuate it, and our people are dying! You can go live a happy new paradigm in your nice safe suburbs. But me, I’m fighting for my people!”
Four hours later, some time around three in the morning, half the camp was still gathered in the hallway. Arms were still crossed, and tears were rolling down more than a few cheeks. The conversation was intense, painful, and brutally honest. Malika and I traded a look that said, “What the heck are we going to do?”
We stumbled our way through that night, and through that week, step by step figuring out how to bring people together across what I now saw was a chasm. It was very hot, and the air conditioning system at the camp site was broken. In the end, ironically enough, it was water fights that seemed to present something of a breakthrough opportunity. Camp participants would go from heated discussions about race, reparations, responsibility and social justice, to chasing each other through the halls squirting each other and squealing with delight any time they got hit.
By the end of the week, participants were repeatedly saying that they had never felt so close to someone of a different race, and that they had learned and grown tremendously. I knew good work had taken place, but I was overwhelmed by the immensity of the work that still needed to be done. The African-American camp participants who came from Selma, AL, shared some facts with us towards the end of the camp. Selma is a city of 50,000 people that is 60% black, and I was told that the black population at that time had an average per capita income of just over $6,000. The white population owned the majority of the businesses, lived in all the “nice” neighborhoods, and totally controlled the political landscape. Selma didn’t have any recycling whatsoever, but it did have an overwhelming smell, 24 hours a day, emanating from the local paper plant (which, by the way, spews dioxin into the air at illegal levels). It was a city simmering with racial tensions.
After the camp, I went on to learn more. The mayor of Selma, Joe Smitherman, had at that time been in power for 36 years. Elected as an outright segregationist, in his second year in office he watched approvingly as police on the Edmund Pettus bridge beat demonstrators who sought to embark on the 1965 voting rights march. That march became a profound symbol of the struggles and victories of the movement, as 20,000 civil rights activists led by Dr. King eventually completed the march with national guard support, leading to the signing of the National Voting Rights Act. But in Selma itself, birthplace of the voting rights movement, democracy was a long time in coming. Mayor Smitherman stayed in power through massive voter intimidation and voter fraud. In election after election, violence and the threat of violence would keep many black voters away from the polls, while others were bribed. In two cases, Smitherman actually lost on election day, only to amass a stunning (and obviously fraudulent but nevertheless binding) victory when the absentee vote came in.
Throughout his stay in office, Joe Smitherman ruled a Selma that was governed of, by, and for the white population. He fought bitterly against virtually every piece of civil rights legislation he could. In 1990, he told Time Magazine that Selma’s first black Superintendent was “just an overpaid nigger from New Orleans.” In 2000, he said Selma should not have a black mayor because“blacks cannot run cities. They don’t know how to stay inside a budget.”
At times, as I heard the stories of racism and political fraud in Selma, I found myself in a state of disbelief. I knew this stuff had gone on decades ago, but was it really still taking place in the United States in the 21st century? As I talked to more and more people about what I was learning, I noticed an alarming pattern. Most black people I talked to, including folks in places like California, Oklahoma, and New York (not to mention Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia), seemed not the least bit surprised. Some white people shared my surprise, and others, especially those who had spent significant time in the South or in any inner city community, did not. It began to occur to me that I lived in a context far closer to Apartheid than I had ever imagined. It was not as overt or as bloody as South Africa in the 1980s, but it was a social context in which segregation, and the holding of political and economic power, were profoundly divided along lines of race. And sometimes, even the law could be bent to maintain a status quo that saw in 2000 an average net wealth of $88,000 for white Americans, and closer to $6,000 for blacks and Latinos. A context in which African-American boys were statistically more likely to grow up spending time in jail than in college, and in which the same crime would lead to massive sentencing disparities along lines of race. It was also a context in which most white folks could go on about our lives, barely noticing the presence of racism and discrimination, unless someone or something brought it into our consciousness. So many of us hold dear the dream of a nation in which we are judged not by the color of our skin, but by the content of our character. Yet if we are to bring that dream into reality, we still have much farther to go than most white folks, including me, have ever realized.
Is prejudice just a result of the wealth/race divide? Do we tend to fear or judge people who look different, talk different, or are of a different socioeconomic class than us? Or is prejudice also sometimes a tool that maintains the status quo – a force that keeps us not only separated, but also that maintains an underclass willing to do the most menial of jobs for the lowest pay, and that somehow helps to make that reality more palatable to the privileged? Either way, prejudice, and racism, are powerful forces, and in Selma, I found them in full (and fairly naked) view. Something had to be done.
September 12, 2000, was to be election day in Selma. As the day approached, Mayor Smitherman’s campaign began to follow its usual course of action. There were bomb threats, voter intimidation, absentee ballots cast “by” people who were deceased, bribes, and more. Staff members for the amply funded Smitherman campaign went door-to-door in the black neighborhoods, telling families that they might not want to vote on election day, because it “could get violent out there, and we’d hate to see anything happen to you.” But though scared, there were people in Selma who were sick and tired of it. They’d had enough. They knew what they had to do to get Smitherman out of office: Generate a massive voter turnout in the black community. So the “Joe Gotta Go” campaign was born, with 21st Century playing a major role in mobilizing the youth vote.
On August 28, with the election just a couple weeks away, two “Joe Gotta Go” organizers had their cars set on fire right in front of their office. Frightened, and feeling the racial tensions rising towards a boiling point, they contacted organizations across the country to ask for help. Malika reached out to me to ask for YES!’s support. She made it clear that Selma was profoundly divided along racial lines, and that not since 1965 had the black people of Selma had white people standing and working with them. She said that a white presence joining their campaign would make it clear that this was not just as an issue of race, but more of an issue of human rights and democracy, and could help to change the dynamic in the community. I had been deeply impacted by all that I had learned about and from the people of Selma. I didn’t know how the election would play out, or if we could make a difference, but I called for an urgent staff meeting at which I passed on the request. Three white YES! staff members volunteered, and we flew them from California to Selma to help organize volunteer efforts and get out the vote.
Brahm Ahmadi, Jessica Simkovic, and Levana Saxon worked shoulder to shoulder with more than 100 volunteers that poured in from colleges and civil rights organizations throughout the south. Together, volunteers worked night and day on the effort. They went door-to-door in black neighborhoods, promising that they and other monitors would be at the polling places to insure public safety. They helped to organize street demonstrations, and on election day, went from house to house throughout the city, offering rides to anyone who had not yet visited their polling place that day.
An enormous effort was mounted on both sides. Joe Smitherman and his allies tried everything they could think of to swing the election, and so much of what they did was illegal that the Justice Department officials who monitored the activities in Selma described the city’s handling of the election as the worst case of election fraud they had ever seen.
In the end, Selma saw an African-American voter turnout rate of nearly 90%. Inspired, Malika wrote afterwards: “YES! was part of an effort that produced what was probably the highest voter turnout among the young (anywhere) in the last decade — triple the national average at the time. For the first time in my life, I saw people coming from pool halls, juke joints, crack houses, mansions, offices and everywhere to the polls.”
Joe Smitherman suffered a resounding defeat to James Perkins, a 47-year-old African-American. The key battleground of the voting rights movement had finally taken a major step towards democracy, 35 years later. Finally admitting defeat late on the night of the election, on CNN , Smitherman bitterly said that his opponent won in part by bringing in “people from California…”. When I saw this man, who had become to so many a symbol of bigotry and discrimination, blaming Californians for a part of his defeat, I couldn’t keep from smiling. I knew the Californians to whom he was referring. We had been a small part of history.
That night, at 11 PM, Selma had its first traffic jam ever, with thousands of people pouring into the streets to sing, dance, hug, laugh and cry together. One of the YES! volunteers said it was “like the Berlin wall had come down. I have never seen such glorious joy radiating from a crowd in my life.” Aside from our three volunteers, the people celebrating in the streets were pretty well 100% black. But their presence seemed, at some symbolic level, to be of real significance to many people, some of whom commented that it was “unbelievable” to see white people standing with them in the struggle. It’s painful to me that that’s the experience these folks have had of the white community, but it was a great privilege that our team could do something different and be an ally in the struggle.
Now many years later, I consider Malika one of my dear friends. For me, a pivotal moment in our friendship was the day she and her community asked for help. For her, it was pivotal that we responded. For both of us, it was the experience of taking risks, and working together, that built trust. So even though I can sometimes say ignorant things or do things that reveal unconsciousness about race dynamics, we can talk about what happens. I don’t need to “walk on eggshells”, and if I mess up in some way, Malika helps me learn. My wife and I have also been there to support her and her work along the way, including raising funds to enable 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement to host hurricane Katrina evacuees in 2005, and flying to Selma to help her surrounding the birth of two of her children.
A deep bond of love has opened between us — a bond that is inclusive of, yet in some ways also transcendent of, race. I am so grateful that I had the courage, back in 1999, to reach out to Malika and share my fears as well as my desire to connect beyond them. I am so grateful she was willing to take me on as one of her first white friends.
My friendship with Malika has shown me that the vital work of our times doesn’t take place only in the epic of politics or the spotlight of the media. It takes place also in the examination of our values, beliefs, and actions. It takes place in how we treat ourselves, how we challenge prejudice, and how we interact with the other people in our lives and in our world.
We all inherit a legacy that includes the love, sweat, prayers, dreams and prejudices of countless generations before us. We grow out of soil that has been at one time or another soaked in blood and tilled by slave labor, as well as enriched with compost and tended by loving hands. The work to build on the blessings and gifts of our ancestral history, while challenging and transforming the bigotry, fear, and disconnection that we also inherit, is at once collective and deeply personal.