Civil rights leader speaks at WSCC
Rev. Harold Middlebrook greets Walters State Community College students after his guest lecture presentation on civil rights on Wednesday. From left are Gaby Gilmore, Bre Hall, Jasmine McAllister and Mishannon Wilbanks.
In the past few years the nation has celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.
This year the country will celebrate the 50th anniversary of what Rev. Harold Middlebrook considers the most important of them all, the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Middlebrook was the guest lecturer, speaking on the civil rights movement, during Walters State Community College’s Lectures at the Lyceum on Wednesday.
Among many things, Middlebrook is known as an activist, having worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and being one of the few with King at the time of his death.
Middlebrook said the Act of 1964 is significant not because of what it was, but the process of its fruition.
There were two attempts to pass civil rights legislation for voting rights and public accommodation in 1957 and 1960. Middlebrook said both times those bills were blocked by filibusters from Southern Democrats, excluding Tennessee but including future president Lyndon B. Johnson.
The legislation was re-introduced and passage urged by President John F. Kennedy, but he didn’t want to alienate the southern states until he began second term.
Dr. King told him that there wasn’t the luxury of waiting until the second term. So, in 1963, the wheels began to turn.
Middlebrook said what helped gain the popularity of the bill was the March on Washington, when leaders in education, religion and business all came together.
“The same issues in 1963 brought us back in 2013. The same things are happening all over again,” Middlebrook said.
“When I was younger my grandmother would say, ‘Things change and yet they remain the same,’ and here we are fighting the same battles,” he said.
Middlebrook said those battles are relatively the same things that killed Dr. King, challenging the power system and voting education.
“When we began sit-ins at the lunch counters the powers that be said they don’t have to worry about that, ‘we’ll go to the country club.’ When we started riding the buses, they didn’t ride the bus, they had their own charter planes,” he said.
“When Dr. King began talking about ending the war in Vietnam he became a threat because if there’s no war, you don’t need tanks, airplanes, bombs and ammunition.
“If you don’t need that equipment, you change the flow of the economics. Anytime you talk about the power of the dollar, something the civil rights movement hadn’t done before, you become a threat to the body politics of this nation.”
Middlebrook said for years blacks had to go through unfair checks and balances and even tests of moral turpitude to be able to vote.
In the present day, there is the law requiring photo identification to vote.
“The argument for the law is to keep people from scheming and voting twice. Those who would do that only run in certain circles. They are not the average citizen. I would argue the whole concept is to suppress, discourage and deny people the right to vote,” Middlebrook said.
“I grew up in a family that was so poor, we were ‘po,’ because we couldn’t even afford the o-r,” he said.
Even though everyone knew he would grow to be a preacher, he was determined to grow up and be the black Perry Mason, a steak eater, unlike the preachers he knew with torn up shoes that ate chicken.
It was his time at Morehouse College when he discovered his true calling.
“The urge was to find a way out of the jungle that kept us oppressed and find a way to rise above poverty to become a part from the cycle and be somebody. That’s the urge of everyone,” Middlebrook said.
Middlebrook said his father would say, “youth is wasted on the young,” something that took him a while to figure out.
“Change always scares folk, but the most effective people to bring about change are students. You can make this nation be what you say it’s going to be,” he said speaking directly to his audience.
Middlebrook said when he thought back to when he rode the bus on the Freedom Rides and sat at the lunch counters and remembered feeling the older people were not doing them justice, it was the young people who were the participants that created the cycle of change.
“The civil rights movement was not about blacks vs. whites, the movement was about a liberation of the mind of people,” he said.
“As long as the powers that be are in control, the poor will continue to fight one another while they continue to control the power system. Dr. King wasn’t about the liberation of black people, but of the nation.”
“You can’t keep anybody else in the ditch unless you’re willing to stay in the ditch with them. But if you keep someone in a ditch and you’re above ground you have to take your foot off their neck in order for you to rise as well. That’s what its all about, liberating minds so we’re no longer saddled down.”
Middlebrook said while he was doing what he did for the movement he never thought it would change the world until years later when he read that crowds in Poland and South Africa sand “We Shall Overcome” during those countries’ time of revolution.
“We are who we are because we’ve been able to work together. Until we can work together again, until we can change the economy so that the have-nots can benefit from the products we make in America we will not be able to rise,” he said.
“I’m not convinced. If God does not hold us accountable for what we do to each other and other folk, then he’ll have to wake up Sodom and Gomorrah and apologize for destroying them because they did the same thing we are doing now,” he said. “You can not, you must not, ever let yourself get to the point where you start hating anybody. Hatred is a cancer that destroys you without doing anything to the person you are hating.”
-By Chris Phipps, Tribune Staff Writer