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Catherine Burks-Brooks, 1939-2023

Catherine Burks-Brooks made a terrific self-portrait on May 28, 1961. There was, for sure, someone else in the Jackson police station who snapped the shutter, but the photograph is all Catherine conspiring with the camera to let us know what’s what. Sixty-two years later, her message seems as clear, and as relevant, as ever. 

Burks-Brooks was of the moment in 1961, and made for the moment. She passed, earlier this week, at 83. Born in Alabama, she grew up in Birmingham and went to college at Tennessee State in Nashville, where she soon joined the Nashville Student Movement. She was active in the sit-in campaign in Nashville in 1960, was a Freedom Rider in 1961, then worked in the Jackson Movement and in Mississippi, among other campaigns. She later taught in the pubic schools in Birmingham. 

During my interview with her in 2007, she talked about her earliest stirrings of resistance.    

“It might have been around fifth or sixth grade when I began to protest the way things were. I refused to step aside when walking downtown, when a white person would approach me. My mother – of course, because I love things – she used to carry me to town, and she used to pull me in front of her when we approached white people. My grandmother used to take me town, also. She never did pull me in front of her. That’s why I think, you know, my protest started there.”

I asked her about practicing nonviolence in Nashville in 1960, in the face of physical threats.  

“It was touchy to have someone maybe push you and to not push back. I was Christian and everything, but I was used to pushing back. I was used to not stepping to the side, to saying, “I’m gonna hold my ground.” With the nonviolence, you’re kind of stepping to the side. I can remember in one of the demonstrations [in Nashville], a white fella coming toward my face with a cigarette. I was just standing there. I was not gonna move. My girlfriend, Lucretia, was behind me. Later she told me she was gonna put her hand in front of my face. In the end, he didn’t try to put the cigarette on me. But I had planned, in my mind, I was gonna stand there.”

Burks-Brooks also talked about the study of nonviolence in Nashville.  

“There was a lot of talk about the philosophy of nonviolence, and books to read about India and Gandhi and others who had been involved in nonviolence. There were a lot of things going on, as you know, during that time, violent and nonviolent. I think Castro was up in the hills at that time, and I used to be kind of like in between. I’d be so tired when I’d wake up in the morning sometimes because I’d been up there in my dreams fighting with Castro. Then I’d go be on the nonviolent team. So it was a lot going on. Plus all of the African countries working for their independence, Dr. [Kwame] Nkrumah [in Ghana] and [Patrice] Lumumba [in Congo]. Oh, it was a glorious time to be alive.”

Rev. C.T. Vivian, 1924-2020

C. T. Vivian was the old man of the dream team that magically assembled in Nashville in the late 1950s. He was even older, by four years, than James Lawson, the expert in nonviolent direct action and ostensible adult in the room. Vivian was 35 in the fall of 1959, almost half a generation older than the fresh-faced John Lewis (19), Bernard Lafayette (19), Diane Nash (21), James Bevel (23), and all the other college students drawn to Lawson’s weekly seminars on nonviolence, out of which grew the Nashville Student Movement.

But Vivian embraced the aggressive spirit of nonviolence as heartily as any of his younger colleagues. Not for him the cautious legality of the NAACP and the rest of the Civil Rights establishment. It was for a very good reason that, one day at Fisk University in early 1960, Thurgood Marshall leaned across a table and shouted at Vivian, “You are a dangerous man!”

In my interview with Vivian in Atlanta in 2007, I asked him about the charge, frequently leveled in 1961, that the Riders themselves were the ones responsible for the three violent Klan-led and state-government-approved attacks on them in Alabama. I also asked about the conspicuous lack of support on this point from most white Southern liberals.

The normal white response is that the Riders were creating violence. Some of them jeered at the idea of our being nonviolent. No, you’re not nonviolent. You actually are creating the violence. If you would just be, you know, quiet Niggs – I mean, colored people [Laughs.] — then there wouldn’t be any violence. 

Of course, any dictator doesn’t want anybody to say anything about his dictatorship, ’cause obviously, he’s gonna create violence, but then obviously, he’s gonna blame it on the victim. Well, we didn’t play that game. 

This was always not only a white line but a scared black line as well. “Oh, please don’t bother these white people. Oh, ’cause they’re gonna be violent. They’re gonna kill us. They’re gonna kill us. They’re gonna kill us.” 

What these liberal white fellows were saying is to us was, you know that the non-liberals down here are gonna kill you, and you also know that we’re not gonna say anything to them. [Laughs.] We’re not gonna be active anymore, and we won’t be able to help you, because without our – this is now the unspoken stuff — without our help, you could never make it. And we were saying, you know, that’s your importance, all right, but you haven’t freed anybody. 

All that’s nonsense, because it hasn’t worked. It gives you something to talk about, and we can all be in this “national debate.” But we all know where it leads, ’cause we’ve been there for 400 years. You expect us to go along with you when you’ve already failed? We gave you your chance. You’ve been at it for some time, and you have failed. Oh, so you got a law passed. That failed too, ’cause nobody was gonna obey it.

This is the genius of Martin as he speaks the whole thing so well, week after week, month after month, from that time on. Until we are in charge of our own freedom, there is not gonna be any freedom for us. As long as we allow someone else to speak for us, and they know each other very well, there’s not gonna be a breaking of the old order. We’re still going to be killed daily whenever any policeman decides to, all right? And they are always gonna be covered up if they care to cover it up at all.

Who’s gonna get honest enough to cut through this? This is who we are.  We know we can be killed in the process. So? We’re gonna get killed anyway. But we’re not going to do it without it being obvious. We’re not going to do it without it being all over the world. And we’re not going to do it playing the game of your so-called democracy, which is undemocratic. 

Let’s get some honesty about this. Plus the fact you want us to take up a gun to kill for other people’s freedom, because they’re white. We’re supposed to die in the process but get nothing out of it? And allow you to preach a lie from your pulpits? And allow you to speak legal lies in your courtrooms? And allow you to go home and tell your kids that those black people are not quite human?

Which brings us to the encounter with Thurgood Marshall. Sometime early in the 1960 Nashville sit-in campaign, Marshall came to speak to a mass meeting at Fisk University. He was not enamored of the sit-ins, and when he had the opportunity, he told Vivian so.

We had invited Marshall to speak in Nashville. We had a mass meeting at the Fisk Gym, and I was chairing it. Before we could get started firemen came in and said they’d gotten a call that the place was to be bombed. They came into to try to find the bomb, and everybody had to go out. Those of us who were part of the program went into a back room and sat around. At first there was a little chatting and niceties, and then there was that silence that comes just naturally comes to a group of people, like it did when you were in a school room and something was gonna happen. [Laughs.]

Suddenly Marshall reached across the table, pointed at me, and said, “You are a dangerous man!”

And I looked at him. In my mind, I’m wondering, what’s wrong with this guy? 

And he repeated, “You are a dangerous man!” 

And I’m trying to grab this. What he really meant was is that you’re out here getting these people to go to jail, and then the NAACP has to take care of it. What he was really meaning, the NAACP doesn’t operate that way.

He didn’t say any of this, this is my hearing him, ’cause this is what was happening in the atmosphere. All around us. Because this was the beginning of SCLC [Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Organization, for which Vivian would work].

The NAACP was saying, if you nonviolent types do anything, you get arrested and that ends that, and then we lawyers take it from there. My response, in my mind, was look, Doc, we’ve been through that. Your history is that you won the education cases in Kansas, but nothing opened in the south. We’ve sent people to jail, and they’re destroyed and forgotten, and nobody even knew that it happened. Your method didn’t get anything done, plus the situation is so grave and so important that the masses want to be involved, and you’re trying to dull that and keep it from happening. From our standpoint, the movement of the masses is more important than your legal stuff. We already understood. That’s something that’s always been very important to me. 

Now, remember, this is an unheard debate going on between us, but it’s heard in the atmosphere. State’s rights, you have never been able to get state’s rights overturned. You got the Supreme Court, but politics determines a state’s rights, not law. And you’re talking law as though that’s the end-all, and we know it’s not. And until we remove state’s rights and all the rest of it, we’re not gonna be free in the south.

About the time all these unspokens were going to be spoken, the firemen came in and said it was just a crank call. No bomb. Instead of taking it to the next level, I just let it go, and we went on back to the program.

Six months later we invited him back to give another speech, and by then he understood. He understood who we were and what we were about. A quite different world had been formed in that short length of time.

We talked about Vivian’s time locked up in various jails in Mississippi, and I asked him what memory stuck with him the most.

The thing that I remember more than anything was a jailor, one of the policemen at the Jackson jail, his official title I don’t know, who just did not like me. He raised Cain with me for no reason, and I couldn’t understand that. I was in the same cell as [Freedom Rider and Nashville Movement colleague] Jim Bevel, who was from Mississippi. I said, “Jim, what is wrong with this guy?” 

Jim smiled. “The only problem is,” he said, “is you look him in the eye.  You talk to him like a man. He can’t take that. He’s a Mississippi white man, much less he’s a jailor, much less here you are this Freedom Rider person who is talking to him in a manner and in a way that he is not accustomed to. [Laughs.] He just can’t take it that you’re a man, and you just don’t give him special regard.” [Laughs.] 

Well, I didn’t disregard him, it’s just – he just happened to be there, and that’s what he couldn’t take, that he just happened to be there. [Laughs.] So I didn’t get it. And I never would have gotten it had it not been for Jim interpreting. Mississippi’s hard to understand if you’re not a Mississippian. [Laughs.]

One final story, of the time, as Calvin Trillin tells it, “C.T. Vivian made what I later called the most elegant request to leave the room I had ever heard.”

Vivian rode on the first bus of Riders into Jackson, on May 24, 1961. All the way it was under the control of the National Guard: the Alabama guard from Montgomery to the state line, then the Mississippi Guard the rest of the way. The Mississippi troops were commanded by an officer named Sonny Montgomery, who would go on to serve 30 years as a congressman from Mississippi. Montgomery was under orders to get the bus directly to Jackson, which to him meant no stopping. For anything.

As a young reporter for Time magazine, Trillin was also on the bus, along with several other journalists, including Claude Sitton from the New York Times. As Trillin recalled the moment in 2008 interview with me:

I fell asleep at some point. Then Claude sort of gave me an elbow in the ribs. I woke up. And what had happened was that somebody really had to go to the bathroom. Somebody had asked for a stop.

Sonny Montgomery said, “My orders are to go to Jackson, and I’m going to Jackson.” And C.T. Vivian made what I later called the most elegant request to leave the room I had ever heard.

It was — God, I still remember some of the language. He said, “What do you say to your children when you get home at night — what you’ve done that day? What do you say to your wife? What do you say to your God, if you have a God?”

That’s almost, I swear, direct quotes from that speech, which was what? Something like 45 years ago?

It was brilliant. There was a reporter on the bus from the Toronto Globe & Mail or the Toronto Star. I’m not sure. He was moved by the speech, as we all were, I have to say.

He started yelling at Sonny Montgomery to stop the bus. And Sitton said, “Sit down. It’s none of your business. You’re a reporter. You’re not here to argue with the National Guard.” And the guy sat down.

And the bus didn’t stop until it got to the Trailways station in Jackson. Vivian picks up the story.

When we get there, everybody wants to go to the bathroom, because we hadn’t been able to. I was trying to shoot off, and then somebody said they needed a senior person to be at the back of the line. So they asked me, would I take the back end? I said, “Yeah.” You can’t say no. [Laughs.]

So I was the last one to get to the bathroom. By the time I got out, they already had locked everybody up. Capt. Ray [the Jackson police officer who arrested all the Riders] was getting the last people on the police bus and closing the door. I tapped Capt. Ray on the back. He turned around, and I said, “I’m with them.” 

He looked in the other direction so he could smile. I think what he was smiling about was it’s the first time he ever heard anybody asking to be arrested – asking to get in the wagon. [Laughs.] I could see his face from the side. I could tell he was trying to hide his smile. Then he turned back around right quick and said, “Well, get in there!” [Laughs.]

Read Calvin Trillin’s full account of his ride on the first bus into Jackson.

Vivian in his art-filled Atlanta home in 2007.

“We Want Our Freedom Now!” John Lewis, 1940-2020


John Lewis arrived in Jackson, Mississippi, on May 24, 1961, in the first wave of Freedom Riders to arrive in the state. He was 21, but like so many Riders he was already a veteran of nonviolent direct action. A member of the famed Nashville Student Movement, he had participated in numerous sit-in actions the year before. As a Rider had already been beaten and attacked, at stations in South Carolina and Alabama.

When I photographed and interviewed him in 2007, he talked about the role of the Freedom Rides in expanding the movement. “The Rides took the movement off of college campuses and out of selected communities, it took it to a much larger community. The movement became much more inclusive.”

Those of us in Nashville, that small group, we were committed to this idea of the beloved community, the redeemed America.

During our stay in Jackson and in Parchman, there was this commitment, almost a bond, that we would do everything possible to get everyone to adhere to the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence. That we would not let anything break that.

But the Freedom Rides took the movement off of college campuses and out of selected communities, it took it to a much larger community. The movement became much more inclusive. People saw these young Freedom Riders–and some not-so-young–getting on buses, traveling through the South, which was very dangerous. So people were willing and and ready to become part of that effort.

So when people left Parchman and went to southwest Georgia and the black belt of Alabama, to Arkansas and eastern North Carolina and other parts of Mississippi, and stayed there and started working, it became a different movement.

These new people were not altogether grounded in the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence. But they wanted to be part of this effort to change America. They has a degree of freshness and a greater degree of urgency. What I call militant nonviolence, or nonviolent militancy. These young people–and those not so young–were demanding change now. And by 1963, you had people in SNCC, even someone like myself, saying, “We want our freedom, and we want it now.”

John Lewis in Breach of Peace
In 2007, on the balcony of his office.
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