Lew Sitzer: Kneeling in prayer
It was the summer of 1964 and I was one of almost 1,000 college students who traveled to Mississippi to register voters and conduct Freedom Schools — later becoming known as Freedom Summer.
I was a senior in college and curious about the state of our country and was raised to believe in the values of our Constitution and Declaration of Independence with voting as a basic right.
At the beginning of the summer, all of the volunteers went through nonviolent training. Early on, three volunteers went missing in Mississippi, presumed to have been killed. We were all cautioned about the risks and some of the volunteers chose to return home.
It was a summer of confrontations and arrests, at times violent, yet the volunteers and staff remained nonviolent. Our days were spent teaching young and old how to read and write, taking folks to the courthouses to register to vote and working to encourage and inspire civic involvement. Often we would gather in churches that were the center of African-American communities. We spent many nervous days and nights in song and prayer.
The intent of the summer was to bring greater awareness to Americans as to the state of race relations and bring attention to the practices of segregation and discrimination, not only in Mississippi. At the end of summer, the message from the movement leaders was to now go home to our predominately white communities and communicate and educate our friends and neighbors about our experiences.
That was 50 years ago and who would have believed that we would have an African-American president and that Mississippi would now have a very high percentage of elected African-American officials?
In 1971 I moved to Nevada County and taught in the local schools for 30 years, sharing some of my personal experiences and understandings in what were then very conservative white communities. As you would expect, young students were very curious and open to learn. In fact, for three years I arranged student exchange programs where I accompanied students to North Carolina for 10 days and students came here, living in homes and communities and thus sharing a deeper sense of each others lives and experiences.
Witnessing what is now happening to our country and communities, we still have much work to do. Two examples come to mind, NFL kneeling and the local incident with young Imani Walker.
What I have observed is that much of what happens in the African-American communities is still centered in the church. Prayer, song and sermons are part of life. Kneeling in prayer can be a very strong expression of beliefs and convictions. Kneeling, to me, is a solemn and reflective time. It is a humble statement that can have great power. Kneeling is not meant to disparage the flag or country or disrespect our military, but rather is meant to bring our attention to core principles of our nation and to important issues that still need remedies.
We now have a president who incites and encourages confrontation, picking emotional issues that confront our core beliefs and values. We are experiencing an increase of incidents that further our separateness. The harassment of Imani Walker in Grass Valley shows that the reach of racism continues in our country. If we are not diligent in stepping up and speaking out, these incidents will continue to grow.
We are fortunate to have such a responsive and active community as indicated by the Love Walk suggested by Imani’s father. If he had not spoken up, would we have been aware and able to show our support? It takes our continued efforts to expose and counteract racism here and elsewhere.
My experiences in traveling the world and teaching World and U.S. History, here and elsewhere, reveal that the social fabric of any community or nation is fragile. We must be careful with our words and actions as our lives and country can come apart as seen by the tragic event in Las Vegas. We cannot remain mute to the injustice that we know exists in the lives of many.
As a community, we have many opportunities to recognize that we have more in common than we have separating us and to build on this understanding.
Lew Sitzer lives in Nevada City.
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