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Tanya M. Odom, Ed.M. Headshot

Seeing the Humanity of "The Other"

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The last days of Summer are here. "Back-to-school" energy is the in the air.

Like many of you, my Facebook timeline is filled with "Back-to-school" posts. We see and hear stories about the first days of school, school shopping, the buying of books, and the concern, hope, and joy, for those in preschool, kindergarten, middle school, high school, and college.

As we end the summer, I remind myself about the significance of this summer, as the 50th Anniversary of Freedom Summer 1964.

The Freedom Summer of 1964 is a key part of our human history and education. Volunteers looking to make a difference traveled to Mississippi to register Black voters, and work against systematic and institutionalized exclusion, discrimination, and pernicious acts of racism.

The Summer of 1964 was also marked by the tragic killings of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, and the signing of the Civil Rights Act by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

The stories, sacrifices, and struggles are not to be forgotten, especially as the U.S. and the world continue to struggle with injustice and inequality.

Mel King is one person who can share stories from Freedom Summer.

He is an activist, politician, teacher, professor, song writer, poet, author, professor emeritus, father, husband, and community member. He is a former state representative, and in 1983, was the first Black person to make it to the final election for mayor of Boston.

One author wrote the following about Mel King's Mayoral race: "He put the 'we' in Boston's mayoral race for the first time, compelling allies instead of confronting enemies. He acknowledged racism as the political and social catalyst that it was. He did not insult people's intelligence by pretending that racism did not exist or was not as injurious as it was. How could he? King had personally faced the harsh realities of racism and bigotry throughout his entire career."

As a civil rights leader, he is part of the historic "Eyes on the Prize" series.

A recent Boston Globe article described him as "an activist that has stood the test of time, in a city where that does not always happen."

Spending time with Mel King is filled with learning and education. We talk about his life, his legacy, civil rights/human rights, racism, poverty, war, and what we need to do today to make our world a better place.

His stories and life experiences are food for the soul, and important for those of us looking to tackle the many challenges that exist in our world. I asked him to share his thoughts about the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer.

Why is it important to commemorate the anniversary of the 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Summer?

The model that the youth represented was an important tool based on the power of love. It is one of the most remarkable approaches to human rights that has existed in this country. Folks here, there, and everywhere -- all kinds of youth became an incredible potent factor in changing how this country operates today. Even as I say that, I know full well that we have a long way to go.

I want to be clear about my work within this context, and the impact that the work of the students had on me. I talk about them, and treat their stories, with great reverence.

My work and relationships in the many places that I participated -- you couldn't not do it -- considering what the folks there had gone through and put together.

I want to frame this in Human Rights not Civil Rights terms. Civil Rights focuses on voting, etc. Human Rights talks about the quality of one's life and relationships, and what one has a right to. We are seeing this right now with this whole issue over water. Water is a human right. We are seeing the commodification of it, which is a way of commodifying people's lives.

It is important to dispel the myths if they exist, about segregation.

We have to understand the myths about "liberty and justice for all," otherwise we will be here in this same place, 100 years from today.

What are your memories of Freedom Summer 1964?

There are a lot of pieces to this, its roots go deeper than just that Summer, and are ongoing.

Whatever role/roles that I was privileged to play, was more in the Monday morning quarterbacking advantage that came as a result of some of the energy that was extended from the youth and adults in Mississippi.

A good chunk of what I did was trying to get support from here (Boston.) One of the people playing a role in the work was Jim Reeb, who was here in Boston. I remember the moment that we heard that they killed Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney.

There is no doubt about the importance of the roles that people like Bob Moses and many others played in this. I think people need to know where Fannie Lou Hamer came from, and the role of those folks in enabling some of the work that the youth did. The youth gave courage to the adults, and the adults encouraged the youth. I want people to understand that there was a synergistic relationship that happened.

Owen Brooks is one of the important people who many people do not know about from this time. There were many folks who gave coverage to the youth, and supported them.

I first met Fannie Lou Hamer through Owen. He played a big role in supporting her work. He worked with Amsie Moore. These are some of the people that people should know about from that time.

I think we need to know about the people who really struggled to make civil and human rights a reality.

The crucial piece of all of this activity was the knitting of the youth from here and everywhere, and the boost they got from the adults who had the most to lose. Their coming together was very significant.

In my family neighborhood, my folks believed very strongly in "love thy neighbor." I had the good fortune of growing up in a community where it was practiced. The whole question of doing unto others what you would want them to do unto you, was a part of how we were brought up.

My father was the secretary of his longshoreman union, which was segregated. They understood that by being organized, they had a chance to change. When I was 6 or 7 years old, I remember my father describing the March on Washington organized by the unions, that led to establishment of Social Security.

I grew up where you had no choice. It was the "church of all nations." It taught us how to live, and work, and play -- all for service.

What did we learn from Freedom Summer?

We have learned that we can create change. In my opinion, there is no doubt about the fact that the movement that Summer, led to the movement focused on a cessation of the country in Vietnam.

There was organizing that took place, and institutions that were built.

The press, the church, and the mercenaries have not really focused on human rights. They have not focused on "love thy neighbor."

I was at a rally once where they had signs that said "a Nation of Immigrants." I asked them to change their sign to "a Nation of Neighbors." If we are neighbors, then you remember the words "love thy neighbor as thyself."

People are ready for that.

Ferguson, MO

In a recent Huffington Post article about the killing of Michael Brown, and the events in Ferguson MO., Rev. Andrea Alexander is quoted as stating "...this is the 2014 version of Freedom Summer, maybe."

Your thoughts?

I think that it is true because of the ripple effect that it has had/is happening. You cannot find a person in the country that does not have some idea of what is happening and what needs to change.

With Trayvon Martin, there was not an eyewitness. This is different.

We have to own as a country that we have never believed in liberty and justice for all.

I spoke at a hearing before the Legislature about a budget for all, and I was the first one to speak after we stood and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. When they finished, and I was directed to the microphone, I said that I was so happy that they took the Pledge of Allegiance, and I said "I know that you will pass this legislation for a budget for all." The uproar and applause in the crowd was incredible.

We have not found the formula for leadership that knows how to work to beat swords into plowshares.

There is a momentum coming out of Ferguson. I think we need to say that we take the Pledge of Allegiance, but we do not practice it.

The people in Ferguson want to have the Pledge mean something.

As people working on Civil Rights/Human Rights, what is our role?

To keep pushing, defining, and re-defining what in fact are human rights. Without them, then ultimately, no one will have any rights.

You are seeing examples of that universally around the world. No one addresses the crimes against humanity, and every time something like this happens (Ferguson,) it is a crime against humanity. Look at Israel, look at the Nigerian girls in Nigeria, no one is talking about this.

I went to college in the South in 1947. I remember getting on the Jim Crow train after we got to Washington D.C. In my Junior and Senior years, I rode with students whose families were driving down South, and did not take the train.

Shortly after graduation, there was Rosa Parks. For me, she is one of the most significant persons in the history of our country.

Think of what she did, and think about how her actions lead to the movement of the workers in Memphis carrying signs that said "I am Somebody." She said that by not giving up her seat-- I am somebody, I am deserving. She set the table.

For me, the statement is one that catalyzed a movement. That has been my motto.

She is the epitome of the value orientation that we need to be pushing -- by the hour and by the minute.

No change comes to any person or any group until they make that statement for themselves.

That is what is happening in Ferguson.

We have to develop a model for the whole of community that respects, cares for, and has opportunities that bring out the best in each one of us. We have enough knowledge to start a process of love and inclusion.

Moving forward?
There are models of economic development and community development that provide for the issues outlined in the Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations. Our task is to look at places and communities where resources are shared, and opportunities are available for creativity and work.

We have to challenge people on any unwillingness to the see the humanity of "the other."