On the day of his funeral, The New York Times and the Atlanta Journal Constitution published John Lewis’ final message. In it, Lewis spoke about his life, his work during the Civil Rights Movement, the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others, and about the hope for the future, the hope had in the generation today speaking up and marching for equity. He wrote about hearing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the radio and King’s “philosophy and discipline of nonviolence.” Continuing, Lewis wrote, King “said we are all complicit if we tolerate injustice. He said each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out. When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something.”
In a 1965 speech, King said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” This is summed up in the phrase “silence is violence.” When one does not speak up and speak out against injustice, no matter what the form, then the person tacitly endorses it, no matter how much one may disagree with it. This occurs because the injustice continues, unchecked and unfettered, spreading and multiplying. While it may still continue when one speaks out, the act of speaking tells others that the injustice must end.
Lewis and King both knew this, and so did Lillian Smith. In “The Right Way is Not the Moderate Way,” the speech she wrote for the one year anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1956, Smith lays out that one cannot remain silent in the face of injustice. If one chooses to remain silent, then they partake, whether they want to or not, in the injustice. Smith argues that the moderates who remain silent “are suffering from moral and psychic paralysis. They are working harder to be moderates than they are working to meet the crisis.”
While those such as Herman Talmadge, James Eastland and more “are shouting evil words at the tope of their voices” and newspapers spew false information and vitriolic rhetoric the moderate remains silent. The moderate allows the injustice to continue, unfettered. The moderate says, “I must above all be moderate; I must not get worried; I must not mind when innocent people are hurt and brave people lose their jobs and lives. Some day it will settle itself, somehow.”
By remaining silent, the moderate pays a price. The moderate, “[i]n order to maintain the status quo,” gives up freedoms: to do right, to obey the law, to speak out, and losing our freedom from fear. Silence causes a person to remain complacent. To adhere to the status quo. To allow violence to continue. To allow injustice to continue. All of this hinders change and allows everyone to suffer underneath the weight of the injustice.
Smith thoroughly understood this, and she wrote about it at multiple times. In a June 10, 1955 letter to Charles S. Johnson, President of Fisk University, Smith tells him about a senior from Vanderbilt who came with her mother to one of the interracial gatherings that Smith hosted. Smith asked the student what her and the other students had done, and the woman responded, “Oh, we are willing. Nearly all of us are willing to be unsegregated.” Smith continued to press, asking her what, specifically, they had done.
Smith told the woman, “The climate of opinion must be changed. And it cannot be changed simply by you being willing inside you for the change to come. Who is going to bring this change about? God? Or you?” Smith points out that it is one thing to want change and to know that change is needed. It is quite another to actively push for that change. What is one willing to do to end injustice? What is one willing to do to bring about the necessary changes in society that lead to equality and equity for all?
The student’s comments recall the white woman whom got “acute nausea” when she broke bread with Black women at Smith’s house. The nausea didn’t dissipate until they had concluded the meal. She told Smith that even though she knew her “conscience was approving” of the meal the lessons she learned in childhood and throughout her life crept into her thoughts, causing her queasiness. These same lessons afflicted the senior from Vanderbilt when she reverted to the questions about interracial relationships as Smith prodded the student about what her and her fellow classmates had done to change anything.
Smith finished by telling the woman, “Look. Get clear in your own mind, then try to help others get it clear: that you as American citizens have both public and private rights.” Here, Smith points out that one must engage with oneself in order to fully enact change. In this manner, one must dive into the inner depths and wrestle with the nausea inducing lessons one has learned over the course of their life. This process, as Smith knew, was not easy, but it is important in order to engage in the work of creating a more equitable world.
Later, Smith wrote to Hallock Hoffman on July 28, 1955, about some of the speeches she delivered over the past few years. She writes about a speech delivered in Savannah in 1951 where the Klan tried to intimidate her. She acted, delivering the speech, and she details how other white Southern women acted, facing the Klan members who gathered around the Black church in order to intimidate Smith and the attendees.
After Smith crossed the street to the church without the Klan accosting her, a group of white women got out of the cars and proceeded to cross the street. Smith wrote, “These KKK boys got out of a car, went up to the women, who never stopped their conversation, simply separated and walked around the KKK boys as if they were a mud puddle and quietly went into the church. (There is really nobody like southern women when they decide to do something they think should be done.)” The white women acted. They walked into the church as Klan members attempted to intimidate them. They spoke, through their actions, and proclaimed that they would stand up against injustice.
John Lewis, Lillian Smith, Martin Luther King, Jr., and many, many more remind us that we must stand up and speak out. We must, as Lewis writes, “study and learn the lessons of history because humanity has been involved in this soul-wrenching, existential struggle for a very long time. [and] Continue to build union between movements stretching across the globe because we must put away our willingness to profit from the exploitation of others.” We must seek equality and equity in all its forms. We cannot achieve any of it if we remain silent.
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