Civil Rights Memorial Dedication Speech
Julian Bond, Nov. 5, 1989
Ladies and gentlemen, friends, family members.
This memorial sits only a few blocks west of the first capitol of the Confederacy, the spot where Jefferson Davis took the oath of office to become President of the Confederate States. From Court Square to the north and west of this site the order was sent in 1861 to "reduce" Fort Sumter, beginning the Civil War. Ninety-four years later, on a December evening, Mrs. Rosa Parks began a historic bus ride from Court Square. East of us is the Dexter Avenue (King Memorial) Baptist Church, where a young pastor named Martin Luther King, Jr., led the movement Mrs. Parks began.
We are gathered in the cradle of the Confederacy to dedicate a monument to those who died so all might be free. As we do so, let us rededicate ourselves to freedom's fight. Let us gather, not in recrimination, but in reconciliation, remembrance, and renewed resolve.
Once this cradle rocked with the violence of our opponents; today it is soothed by the waters of this monument. A monument which, like the movement it honors, is majestic in its simplicity, overwhelming in its power. It bears the names of 40 men, women, and children who gave their lives for freedom. It recalls their individual sacrifice. And it summons us to continue their collective cause.
Most of the freedom 40 were ordinary people. Long before they died, some had already surrendered their lives to service to others; for some, service competed with job and family; for too many more, death came not because of what they did but because of who and where they were at a horrible moment that made them martyrs.
Virgil Ware was riding on the handle bars of his brother's bike when death struck. He was 13 years old — a threat to no one, but his skin color marked him for murder, and they cut him down.
Lieutenant Colonel Lemuel Penn meant no harm. He was driving home after performing his duty as a soldier, but his color marked him for extinction, and they cut him down.
They told Ben Chester White, who wouldn't say no to integrated schools, that he was needed to help find a lost dog, and they cut him down.
They didn't believe that service in his country's army entitled Corporal Roman Ducksworth, Jr., to a front seat on the bus, and they cut him down.
They were looking for three other bodies when they found Charles Eddie Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee. Only their color qualified them for death, and they cut them down.
These names and others now join their more celebrated brothers and sisters as the roll of sacrifice is called. They gave an equal measure of devotion so that all of us might be free.
Buried with each is a bit of American apartheid, for their deaths kept the movement marching on. That is why we honor them today not in sorrow, but in celebration.
There are those gathered here today who cannot remember the period when these sacrifices began, with its small cruelties and monstrous injustices, its petty indignities and its death-dealing inequities. There are many too young to remember that from that seeming hopelessness there arose a mighty movement, simple in its tactics, overwhelming in its impact.
That movement had its beginnings in Montgomery when a people chose to walk in dignity rather-than sit in segregated despair. From this city, the movement and its method spread throughout the land.
In 1955, when the mournful list of martyrs begins, the American South was an apartheid society, a world where racial differences were legitimized by law. A white Southern woman recently described it this way:
"I remember, from my early childhood, that white-robed men did sometimes ride out, and that there were lynchings from time to time. In those days black people could not vote. They could not travel because no lodging place would admit them. They were restricted to only the most menial jobs. There were few restrooms marked COLORED, which were the only ones they could use. No matter how hot the day they could not drink at a public fountain unless it was one of the very few marked COLORED. They were not allowed to try on clothes in the stores. In cities, where buses were everyone's means of transportation, they had to sit at the back of the bus, and I often saw them, as they made their way down the crowded aisle to the back, sworn at if they accidentally brushed against a white person. When they went to the movies they had to use a separate entrance and sit in the balcony. No black could ever come to a white person's front door."
"And the wonder of it," she writes, "is that the goodhearted among us (and we Southern whites are a basically goodhearted people), did not even see the harsh injustice and indignity in all of this. It was simply the way things were." (1)
In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled against segregation's legality. Soon a movement arose to challenge its morality as well.
There had been protests before against this evil system, in the courts and in the streets, but after Montgomery the protests swelled to a collective force.
College students adopted the techniques of Montgomery and began accepting jail without bail when they sat down to stand up for their rights.
They soon attacked segregated interstate travel with their bodies and segregated ballot boxes across the South as well.
Through all this period, the federal government helped only when it had to, when white lives or property were under attack.
The state and local governments worked in active concert with white terrorists,and the movement's people had few allies beyond themselves.
From its inception, it was a people's movement. The cumulative effect of individual acts of passive resistance brought about modern democracy's finest hour. By 1965, Jim Crow was legally dead.
Most of those who made the movement weren't the famous; they were the faceless. They weren't the noted; they were the nameless — the marchers with tired feet, the protestors beaten back by billy clubs and fire hoses, the unknown women and men who risked job and home and life.
We honor all of them today.
Let no one tell us that their movement wasn't a success.
Ask Montgomery's maids who walked to work for over a year so they could ride in dignity if the movement was a success. Ask the sharecroppers who lived in fear if the movement was a success. Ask the mothers who couldn't take their children to a downtown toilet or a decent school if the movement was a success.
And ask Hartman Turnbow, a black Mississippian, who said:
"Anybody hadda told me 'fore it happened that conditions would make this much change between the white and the black in Holmes County here where I live, why I'da just said, 'You're lyin'. It won't happen.' I just wouldn't have believed it. I didn't dream of it. I didn't see no way. But it got to workin' just like the citizenship class teacher told us — that if we would register to vote and just stick with it. He says it's gon' be some difficulties. He told us that when we started. We was lookin' for it. He said we gon' have difficulties, gon' have troubles, folks gon' lose their homes, folks gon' lose their lives, peoples gon' lose all their money, and just like he said, all of that happened. He didn't miss it. He hit it ka-dap on the head, and it's workin' now. It won't never go back to where it was." (2)
The movement succeeded in spite of cowards planting bombs in the night, in spite of shots fired in darkness, in spite of lynch mobs and hooded thugs, in spite, as Dr. King said, of the brutality of a dying order shrieking across the land.
In its successes, it has much to teach us today. America looks back at the Vietnam war to discover what went wrong; we can look back at the movement to remember what went right.
As the old Freedom Song reminds us, "Ain't but one thing we did wrong; stayed in segregation a day too long. Ain't but one thing we did right; that's the day we started to fight!"
Yesterday's movement succeeded — in part — because the victims became their own best champions. When Mrs. Parks refused to stand up, and when Dr. King stood up to preach, mass participation came to the movement for civil rights. We must continue to fight.
Today, too many of us — young and old, black and white — believe we are impotent, unable to influence the society in which we live.
Three decades ago, we marched, we picketed, we protested; and we brought state-sanctioned segregation crashing to its knees. We must continue to fight.
Yesterday's headlines send forth the message that we move forward fastest when we move forward together.
Today we have more experience, more legal skills, and more allies than we had then.
We have more than a century's history of aggressive self help and voluntarism in church and civic club, assisting the needy and financing the cause of social justice, and an equally long and honorable tradition of struggle and resistance.
We can double our support for those organizations which guard our liberties and protect our rights.
We can realize our full political potential, rewarding those who support equal rights and punishing those who don't.
We can monitor our children's schools, making sure the end of education isn't the beginning of a lifetime of unemployment.
We must continue to fight.
Next to those we honor today, we are called to give comparatively little — our time, our energy, our caring.
As Robert Kennedy once said:
"Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of these acts will be written the history of [each] generation. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring these ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance." (3)
May the waters of this monument create ripples of hope — now and forevermore.
1. Rosa Lee Jay, "We are not what we were," The Herald Leader, Fitzgerald, Georgia, June 7, 1989.
2. Raines, Howell, My Soul Is Rested, p. 25, G.P. Putnam's Sons (1977).
3. Day of Affirmation Speech, Capetown, South Africa, June 6, 1966.