Phil Ryan’s January 15, 2018 Address to

         THE NAPA COMMUONITY-WIDE CELEBRATION OF

           THE LEGACY OF DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.

 

            In the Spring of 1963 I was the youngest legislative aide in the California Legislature. One day there was a sit-in in the Rotunda of the State Capitol in support of fair housing. Since the Legislature was then considering the Rumford Fair Housing Act, I mentioned this to a young woman demonstrator that it might be more prudent to rely on the Democratic legislature and Governor to solve this serious California racial problem. She smiled and replied, “Frederick Douglas said, ‘Power concedes nothing but to a demand. It never has and never will.'” My life, even to this moment, has proven that young demonstrator and Frederick Douglas absolutely correct!

           

            But what inspires demands, particularly demands for radical social transformation? Such inspiration is unique to each of us. Sometimes it’s the invocation of an old Negro spiritual before a quarter of a million people by the man we honor today. But it can also come from a terrible moment in a terrifying place. Such was the case for me in the 1965 Mississippi Freedom Summer where we confronted America’s apartheid. On this day, we revere the eloquent dreams of Martin Luther King, Jr. echoing from the Lincoln Monument. But Martin’s true congregation were common folk, unseen by media, unheard by politicians, uncared for because of the accident of melanin. For a young law student like me, that day in our Nation’s capitol, ordained that I travel from San Francisco to the capitol of America’s apartheid – Mississippi, circa. 1965.

 

Initially I worked for Marian Wright, [1] the first African American female attorney admitted to practice in Mississippi. While working for Marian, she had gathered a hand full of college students from UC, Yale, Michigan and assigned us to speak at Sunday services in the black churches of Jackson, Mississippi, urging the community to integrate Jackson’s elementary schools. Now this was before Southern Christian Leadership Conference had organized Mississippi’s black pastors who, at that time in Mississippi, were reluctant to actively challenge the white power structure.

 

Although I was an experienced public speaker, something unusual happened in my maiden speech from a Southern black pulpit. As my rhetoric intensified, the congregation began to murmur, then collectively chant words rhythmically like “speak,” and “tell it brother,” and “right on.” I found myself speaking to their rhythm, more like an evangelical preacher than a Jesuit educated rhetorician. Then I saw a lovely, little black girl in the first pew, in a cute white dress and Mary Jane shoes, with those little curly Q’s in her hair, sitting next to her humbly dressed father. Pointing to this little girl, I shouted: “Who, in the sight of God, dares to tell this beautiful, innocent child that she has no right to an education???”

 

“NO ONE!” the congregation shouted, “NO ONE!”

 

Now the good Pastor wasn’t about to let a white boy from California best him in oratorical skills. So he proceeded to deliver a stem winding, hand clapping endorsement of integrating Jackson’s schools – 11 years after Brown v. Board of Education!

 

After services, while the Pastor greeted his congregation, the father of that little girl came up to me and softly asked, “If I take my little girl to the white school, can you promise me white folk won’t spit on her or call her nigger?”

Stunned and feeling inadequate, all I could think of to say was, “NO SIR, I’m sorry. I, I,… can’t promise that”

 

A week later that dignified, unpretentious black father, holding his daughter’s little hand, walked her into the first grade of a previously all white school. After integrating Jackson’s 1st grade, he was interviewed by local TV and asked how he decided to join the racial integration of a Mississippi school. He looked right into the camera and with a hint of a smile said: “A white boy at church called me SIR, so I figure he be telling the truth.”

 

An impotent common courtesy uttered by me was enough for this black dad to defy a century and a half of systemic bigotry and demand an equal education for his darling daughter.

 

It’s difficult to encapsulate in a few words the moments of that summer that changed and shaped my life. Perhaps the “Freedom Schools” that we created in Mississippi best illustrate it. We white students, from all over America, set up and taught in schools with black kids, ages 8-12. We taught reading, writing, Negro history, general math, as well as citizenship, typing and even sewing. We created and stocked “Freedom Libraries” and we tutored adults to pass voter registration tests. We even had sort of a Head Start program for preschoolers.

 

I look at old photos and marvel at how young we were. In my mind’s eye, I see black mothers and grand mothers drop their little ones off in our schools that were in churches, garages, private homes, wherever it felt safe, even if nothing was safe for integrated groups in Mississippi. We noticed that the mothers would leave, after dropping their kids off to go to work or take care of other kids at home. But we also noticed that the grand mothers stayed. We suspected that they didn’t fully trust us with their grand children. We assumed that they were keeping guardian eyes on us, so we paid them respectful attention.

But like so much in Mississippi, we were wrong about these grand mothers’ purpose in remaining at Freedom School with their little ones. They were actually monitoring our teaching, they were studying along with their grand children! And at the end of that “Freedom Summer,” these grand mothers, armed with modest literacy, marched up to register to vote.

 

I was blessed to know Martin Luther King and inspired by him. But I will tell you that when it comes to courage, those Mississippi black grandmas were the bravest folks I’ve ever met. And it is the echo of their DEMANDS and the DEMANDS of that singular Black Father, in a place and time of sweltering oppression, that must still live in our souls.

 

And it must be that YOUR DEMANDS will force POWER to concede to a demand – THE DEMAND FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE NOW!

 

By Phil Ryan

January 15, 2018

St. John the Baptiste Church

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] In 1968 Marian married Peter Edelman, aide to the late Sen. Robert Kennedy, and she then founded the Children’s Defense Fund, which she leads to this day. In the interest of full disclosure, my granddaughter, Naprisha Brown Ryan, served as Marian’s executive assistant after graduating from Georgetown University.