The Civil Rights in World History

June 24th, 2013

Who inherits the Civil Rights movement and its lessons? Is it only for African Americans? only for minorities? only for Americans? Or is it the inheritance of the world. What is its meaning for millions around the world who seek freedoms, equitable relationships, free from fear, intimidation, violence etc? One gets a sense of the broader implications of the civil rights movement for our world when reading Eboo Patel’s book Sacred Ground. He tells the story of Muslims gathering in New York, in the wake of 9/11 and the confusion and turmoil it created for their community. While denouncing the hatred of Islamic extremism, some Muslims also called for a Muslim civil rights movement, just had taken place in the 1950s and 1960s in the United States. The Rev. Jesse Jackson a participant in the Civil Rights movmet was a guest at that meeting. He surprised everyone by saying that there could be no Muslim civil rights movement in the United States. He reminded the audience that the civil rights movement was not about a specific community, but for all (see Eboo Patel, pp. 15 & 17). It was not just African-Americans who stood to gain, but the entire country; every American stood to gain. This renders more inclusive the story of the Civil Rights movement in the United States. After all did they not borrow the idea of non-violence from Gandhi, more than 7000 miles away. These interconnections and shared histories between civil rights movements from around the world (whether it be the Arab Spring movements, the Orange revolution, or the Occupy protests) make them part of a broader canvas of dissent by the growing numbers of the dispossessed on our planet. So they continue to be relevant today.
It is interesting to see how one’s perspective on an event changes as one begins to travel. As I flew from the United States to India with a 15 hour layover in Riyadh, I got more time to reflect on these issues. If indeed, the civil rights movement is now part of our shared human story, how do we tell this story to all. Should migrant workers in Riyadh know about the story of the civil rights and its value and meaning for us in the twenty first century? What about low caste sewage workers in Indian cities like Delhi and Mumbai? Why should they, if this story is not even fully acknowledged in the United States? What does the message of pluralism/reconciliation, equity, inclusion and non-violence, which are at the heart of the civil rights movement, have to say to the rest of the world?
The road ahead for those of us burdened with these questions seems unclear, difficult, and without guarantees. Never before in our planet’s history of human diversity and cross cultural living and communication have such questions become so pressing—demanding our full undivided attention. There is no complete resolution to these questions. There will be costs to pay—individually and collectively, I suppose. Learning to understand and live with others invariably calls for self-denial and extending grace to our neighbors. These, in turn, create their own psychic burdens. I realize that they are an integral part of any kind of diversity and inclusion work we choose to undertake. In the twenty first century, our planet urgently needs this message, and I am not sure if time is on our side.


June 17th, 2013

Wow, what a full week of incredible experiences. I’m not going to try to recap the whole of my experience on the Civil Rights Tour but I would like to post one final thought.

I noticed a theme from a few of the people with whom we had the opportunity to interact. Ms. Lisa McNair, sister of one of the victims of the 16th Street Bombing, spoke about what it was like to grow up in a home that had a missing member. The family recognized their daughter’s death but it was rarely ever spoken of, it was simply the way things were. We also heard from Ms. Phyllis Brown, sister of one of the Little Rock Nine who integrated Central High School. In describing the Nine’s reunions decades later, many of them would share stories that none of the others had known about. Again, there was a sense of silence.

I find a quiet beauty in this. Many of the people that we met with were simply trying to live their lives well. I believe there’s room for the Lord to speak within silence, moving people in ways our words cannot. But I am also so very thankful for the many incredibly moving words we heard this past week. I am thankful for people that are committed to sharing their story, giving others a small glimpse of one of our nation’s most important eras. Personally, I hope to allow room for the Lord to speak while also giving voice to what I have experienced.

Reading on the Civil Rights Movement: colored cosmopolitans and transnational activists

June 16th, 2013

While writings on the civil right abound, as a historian of South Asia, I dont often get time to read these books. Yesterday, Christina Thomas, a student at Messiah who is working on Messiah’s Multicultural history alerted me to a recent book, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing by Joy Degruy Leary (2005) that tries to explain PTSD on a longer and more devastating terms–as experienced by terrorized communities in the United States. Seems like a timely answer to a question about this I had posted in an earlier blog. Of course, Christina’s research has revealed that Rachel Flowers, Messiah’s first African American student, was herself active in the movement for Civil Rights in the Philadelphia area. Keep an eye out for more on the Flowers family history in coming months.

I have found other works useful here like Nico Slate’s Colored Cosmopolitanism: The Shared Struggle for Freedom in India and the United States (2012). The writings of David Blight such as American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era (2011). I learned among other things the role played by international students in the civil rights movement, such as those at Tougaloo in MI. Some of these students participated in the movement and were forcibly evicted from eating places. In May 1964 Ram Manohar Lohia, a member of the Indian Parliament himself traveled to Jackson, MI and protested segregation when he refused to leave a “whites only” restaurant. When the US government offered to apologize for this incident by way of Senator Adlai Stevenson, Lohia rebuffed the move by saying that Stevenson should go and apologize to the Statue of Liberty! (see Slate’s book for more details, esp p. 239). Interestingly, Lohia had traveled in the US in the early 1950s and spoke about Gandhi’s method of satyagraha at Fisk University’s Race Relations Institute.

Dont forget Ian Chaney’s White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race (1996) to get a sense of the prejudice experienced by various racial and ethnic groups in the United States and how these were unpacked and processed in the law courts. A number of curious claims were made by the law courts that vaccillated in defining Hindus in the United States either as “caucasian” or “non-white Asiatics.” These legal cases are repleted with such, often times hilarious definitions (see Slate, p. 29). But there were serious repercussions as well. There is the case of Bhagat Singh Thind who relocated from CA to NY in order to start life anew when he failed to gain citizenship on the west coast. A more tragic history unfolded in the case of one Vaishno Das Bagai (1891-1928) who frustrated by his repeated failure to secure citizenship in the United States committed suicide in 1920. More details about his life can be found at A copy of Das’s suicide note can be found in the South Asia in North America Collection at the University of California-Berkeley. Check out Newspaper clip, “Here’s Letter to the World from suicide”Microfilm BANC MSS2002/78cz Box 5 Folder 18.

There were international students who participated in the civil rights movement about whom much is not known. For example Ahmed Meer and Jaswant Krishnayya who were Indian students at MIT traveled through much of the American South in 1961. In 1960, veteran Gandhian activists from India, Acharya Kripalani and his wife Sucheta visited the US in 1960 and spoke to SNCC activists at Morehouse College. They also met with the Kings who had visited India a year earlier. I recently found out that in 1959, my own mother in law Mary Varughese traveled to the United States by ship to study at Lindenwood College in Missouri. She experienced segregation and racial animosity while in the United States though her “international” status sometimes helped her escape the full brunt of segregation. I need to ask her more about this.

Obviously, one needs to consider the life and work of the white Anglican educationist Charles Freer Andrews (1871-1940) whose anti-racist and social activism took him to India and to other places around the world, including the United States. Andrews a close friend of Gandhi and Tagore became a staunch opponent of British racism in India. In the US he met with WEB DuBois, George Washington Carver and others. Why mention this on a blog on the civil rights? These interstitial transnational activists created a wide circle of friends, an “affective community” where ideas and practices circulated around the globe to provide a wider context to the unfolding civil rights movement in the United States (for more see Leela Gandhi’s 2006 book on Affective Communities, . These cross cutting histories certainly merit further research…and I certainly wish I could do more here. I might add, I am starting work on Andrews who also taught at St. Stephen’s College (1907-1914), my alma mater in Delhi.

So much for now…hope you have found this interesting reading…trying to make some limited sense of them in the space of this page has been a most helpful exercise for me…



June 15th, 2013

Over the past week, we have watched a number of videos and walked through a handful of museums. Invariably, the story of the Civil Rights movement ends with Dr. King’s assassination. Unfortunately, this implies that the work is over…that true equality has been reached.

As this tour nears to a close, I am trying to figure out how I will communicate the lessons I have learned when I get back home. How do I make this relevant when all the history books have turned the page on this chapter?

Today, NPR reported a story about Sebastien de la Cruz, an 11 year-old Mexican-American who was mocked for daring to sing the National Anthem at the NBA finals. What should have been a special moment for this young man ended with booing and a flurry of Twitter comments not because of the quality of his performance, but rather because of the color of his skin. Due to the unbelievably racist nature of the Tweets, I won’t quote them here, but you can check out this website if you want a few examples.

The story of the courageous men, women, and children who refused to accept anything but equality and basic human dignity in the 50s and 60s is far from complete. As a society, we were too quick to turn the page on this chapter. Racism is very much still alive and equality has not been reached.

I pray that God will give us the strength and wisdom to find meaning from the past in order to right the wrongs of injustice today. This task is long overdue.

The everyday life of segregation

June 15th, 2013

This trip being my second one has raised one general question persistently: why did white church and society experience a deep seated revulsion towards people of color in general and African-Americans in specific? How were this set of beliefs and experiences put in place historically? There are a number of works now that seek to explain this within wider contexts of European civilization, colonial encounters, Christianity, and so on. I would like to read Erskine Clarke’s Dwelling Places, for possible answers to this question. Another question that concerns me: How does this bleed into the fabric of our daily lives today? How does it impact the classroom at Messiah College?

Another question/observation maybe?: the civil war seems to have been fought over the issue of slavery…neither the south nor the north were particularly interested in creating integrated societies. This was something new I had not considered before.

We have been traveling through AL, TN and AK these past two days and been exposed to civil rights history in these states, the local music, food, and culture of the times. Once again the powerful and insurmountable walls of segregation, the comprehensive character of Jim Crow laws, and yet the dignity and the strength of African American communities as they strove to build their worlds. The Mosaic Templars Cultural Center in Little Rock, AK provided a glimpse into the rich social life of African American communities in AK.

In Little Rock we met Phyllis Brown, sister of Minniejean Trickey, one of the original Little Rock 9, who integrated Little Rock High School in 1957. She share with us what it meant to live in Little Rock at that tumultous time. She shared a perspective on American History that i had not really heard about before. For instance, surveillance and terror were what African Americans experienced in the South, long before 9/11 etched those terms in the popular imagination. The migration of African Americans in the early 20th century became flight from terror. All this was quite a lot to process. We also met with Spirit Trickey, Minniejean’s daughter. Spirit came across as a wonderful translator of the experiences of the Little Rock Nine in a manner that was hopeful and redemptive. It also became clear that for many civil rights participants, like the Little Rock Nine, did not share their experiences with their families. In fact they rarely talked about it…and family members often came to learn about this history from others. I suppose, the psychic toll of these events was never really been fully understood.

This much for now. More later.


June 14th, 2013

I have the distinct privilege of working on my M.A. in Higher Education at Messiah right now and happen to be completing an internship this summer. For the class, we’re reading a wonderful little book on vocation by Parker Palmer (“Let Your Life Speak”). Coincidentally, this week’s chapter used Rosa Parks’ bus protest as a case study for vocational discovery. Palmer wrote, “Rosa Parks sat down because she had reached a point where it was essential to embrace her true vocation-not as someone who would reshape our society but as someone who would live out her full self in the world.” I have never heard Rosa Parks’ story recounted through the lens of vocation, but I have to admit that I quite like it.

Parker continues later, “Where do people find the courage to live divided no more when they know they will be punished for it? The answer I have seen in the lives of people like Rosa Parks is simple: these people have transformed the notion of punishment itself. They have come to understand that no punishment anyone might inflict on them could possibly be worse than the punishment they inflict on themselves by conspiring in their own diminishment.” In other words, the pain of living a life not fully committed to one’s vocation is worse than the pain that sometimes comes with living out one’s vocation.

I am struck by Parker’s point not only because it is a unique lens by which to interpret the Civil Rights movement, but also because it is an extremely compelling call to understand and remain committed to one’s vocational mission. My life mission might not involve racial desegregation of buses, but how has God called and equipped me to speak into this world?

PTSD spread over centuries

June 13th, 2013

Soldiers returning from war are sometimes diagnosed with PTSD. Today one of the Tour organizers Chad reminded me that the long history racial segregation and hatred in the United States has left an indelible physic shock on the mind of the nation…scarring forever the minds of both minorities and whites.  Do we have a word for entire populations that have suffered brutality for long periods of time…then and still continuing today in parts of our world. Who is going to provide healing from that? How has the history of Christianity in the United States been touched by this history? What is the history of this in my own church?

This is my second tour. This time with family…my wife  Shanti and children David, 17 and Mary 10. I am glad they are coming along. But as I wonder about the psychic cost of the racial divides…I wonder about how to tell this story to the children in a meaningful and redemptive way? The brutality, daily ignominy, and dehumanization suffered…it is hard to hide that…David is older and thoughtful…but not sure about how best to tell the story to Mary as she watches the videos, talks to activists, and navigates the museums…i suppose the end is teaching our children to live lives that are inclusive…a task that cannot be undertaken without some personal cost. And one must lead by personal example.


June 13th, 2013

Growing up, I remember this funny little thing we would do in church. It went something like, “Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors to see all the people.” There was even a cool hand choreography that went along with it. Whenever the adults weren’t looking though, we would joke and change the position of our hands so that the last phase goes “open the doors but where are the people?”

At the time, we thought we were funny, but this tour has made me come to realize that our joke was all to relevant a parallel to the church at large during the Civil Rights movement. This might seem like an odd statement, since certainly the church was at the heart of the movement in one sense (so many ministers and churches served as the leaders and meeting places for the movement). I believe it was at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute today, however, that one of the speakers stated that there were about 60-70 churches who actively participated in the movement in Birmingham. In total, there were about 300 church in the area…that’s about a 20% participation rate if I have the numbers right, which is by all account a failing grade.

I have this constant, nagging question festering in my head…where were all the other churches in all of this? If we are the Body of Christ, are we not to show compassion to our brothers and sisters in need? How did this message of love and dignity fail to mobilize the broader church to act?

I read part of Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” again today and was struck by not only his eloquent and moving argument, but also by the very fact that he had to write this letter in the first place! We must be aware of our Christian heritage to ensure that we do not repeat the sins of our past, to stand when God has called us, and speak when we see injustice. I pray that I will have the courage and wisdom to stand up for what is right when my generation is faced with the evils of inequality.

“Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Even Today

June 12th, 2013
/After a few photo-ops at King’s home and church today, we visited Montgomery, AL’s Southern Poverty Law Center. The Center was instrumental in fighting law cases in the 1970s and currently continues to fight civil rights cases related to discrimination of race, sexuality, gender, and more. They also actively work against hate groups present today.


June 11th, 2013

Courage is such an easy word to understand theoretically, but near impossible to grasp unless confronted with individuals who exemplify its attributes.

Having now met a few individuals who lived during the Civil Rights movement…listening to the emotion in their voices as they recall a time now forgotten by our nation…seeing videos of what they were up against…I am humbled by their courage. Hindsight truly is 20/20. Knowing the ending allows us (who didn’t experience the movement) to passively accept the logical progression of the movement. The history books are clean in that sense. As we read about the Montgomery bus boycotts or the many marches and campaigns, we don’t have to read with anxiety because we have the privilege of knowing the “ending.”

What the history books fail to capture are the blank pages in front of Rosa Parks, Dr. King, and the many individuals who finally refused to accept anything less than equality. Yes, there was the hope that their words and actions would change the landscape, but there were no guarantees. Take away one march, one speech, one act and we might be on a very different journey this week. It takes something special for someone to look up at the mountaintop and not know if they will ever reach it…but begin climbing nevertheless.

That is courage.

What is our generation’s mountain…and will we have the courage to begin the climb?