“Four things to learn in life:
To think clearly without hurry or confusion; To love everybody sincerely; To act in everything with the highest motives; To trust God unhesitatingly.”
On this Memorial Day weekend, 2006, I choose to remember three great warriors of the struggle for justice, peace and a world based upon love: Anne Braden, Damu Smith and Victoria Gray-Adams.
Anne passed on in early March, Damu in early May and Victoria is in a hospice situation in her home in Petersburg, Virginia as I write.
Those who knew and worked with them know what we have lost.
They were all long distance runners who gave everything that they could until they were physically incapable of giving any more.
All of them were fundamentally committed to anti-racism. I remember a time with Vickie in the ’80s where she felt that there might have been racism at work in the way I and others had organized a meeting in which she was to be playing an important role. Prior to that meeting she, myself and several others met to prepare for it, and I can still feel her eyes on me, her taught posture and her straightforward questions trying to get to the bottom of what had transpired. As she learned more and came to understand some other dynamics at work, she relaxed and made it clear that she did not see me as primarily, at least, to blame, which was a great personal relief. Our relationship has deepened and grown ever since.
Anne’s anti-racism unquestionably had an impact upon thousands of people, probably many more. For over 50 years, at work in the deep South, she and, for over half of those years, her husband Carl stood up against segregation and for racial justice no matter what the cost, and there was a cost. Her book, The Wall Between, is a classic that should be read by all white people who want to understand the depths of racism so that they can become trustworthy allies of people of color.
Damu had a serious commitment to environmental and peace issues. He founded two organizations, the National Black Environmental Justice Network and Black Voices for Peace, which strengthened consciousness and activism around these issues in the African American community, at the same time that he worked actively in multi-racial or predominantly white enviro and peace movements. He lived out in practice his commitment to both the uplifting of his community and the building of “the beloved community” of all people striving for justice and peace.
The three of them were alike in that they did political work in a way which reached out broadly, which consciously rejected narrowness and sectarianism and which appreciated that social change is made by a combination of faithful work by committed organizers and the willingness of large numbers of people to take determined action. Anne and Vickie were leaders of the civil rights movement of the 50’s and 60’s as Damu was growing to adulthood.
They were all deeply spiritual people who trusted in and believed in God. There is no question but that this belief was a great source of strength for them. It kept their eyes, their hearts, their minds and their souls focused on the prize of a profoundly different world.
Yet none of them, as I experienced their lives, wore those beliefs “on their sleeves.” Many people who knew them but not well probably were unaware of their conscious spirituality.
I do not know if any of them ever saw the words of Helen Keller quoted above, but I would expect that if they did that they identified with them. All of them, like Helen Keller, had no use for a system which puts corporate profits above justice and a healthy ecosystem.
Without question, they all did their best “to act in everything with the highest motives.”
On this Memorial Day in the year of their deaths, let us remember Anne, Damu, Vickie and all those who have kept the faith until the day they died, examples to draw strength from and to emulate as best we can going forward.