by Chris Chavez
The New Cafes of Segregation:
A Call for Courage and Radical Hospitality.
A radically simple idea from the 1960s.
If David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, and Joseph McNeil, the four men of Greensboro, North Carolina, who pioneered the sit-in, chose to sit in their living rooms, or in the cafes that would welcome them with open arms, they would have merely been sitting. It was their decision to go into the lion’s den of injustice that transformed a common act into a revolutionary choice for all of us to confront and judge. The Civil Rights activists that took part in sit-ins following the courageous example of the Greensboro Four did so despite threats to their person, despite the yelling, verbal assaults, spitting, jostling, and in some cases, physical violence, they would have to endure. They chose to radically engage. To turn the rules of hospitable Southern Living on their head through a radically simple action.
Their sitting was defiant because of its simplicity.
It used the dignity and humanity of black activists and their allies to reflect an unarmed truth and mirror the self-generated fear and hatred back onto the white southerners who wanted nothing to do with them and nothing to do with their own shadows. In other words, their nonviolent action, done in silence, would expose the deep wounds of their white brothers and sisters who had no good reason to treat them badly other than the historical prejudice passed from one generation to the next that pitted one human skin color against another. Sit-in activists would show up in their Sunday best, heads held confidently, but not arrogantly, trained to maintain a calm and collected comportment no matter what the situation threw at them. They behaved as welcomed and gracious guests in an unwelcoming and ungracious environment. One participant in the sit-ins summarized the general mindset as follows.
You go to a counter. You do not request that the person sitting next to you get up and leave. You merely come in and sit down beside him as any human would do. You cause no violence. You have no angry words. You’re friendly. And, it sort of helps to project the idea that here sits beside me another human being.
[See the video linked below for the context of this quote]
Among the many other tools deployed during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, the sit-in was the most direct and personal way to engage the deceptively small injustices that had become baked into an entire region’s way of life. As such, it was also one of the most vulnerable practices. Activists went through trainings to prepare for the dehumanizing reception they were likely to receive. Their friends and tutors would put them through the paces by role playing the nasty, hate-filled, fear-based behaviors they would encounter. Sit-in activists steeled themselves within brave spaces created by trusted peers and friends before they ever set foot in a segregated cafe. They were instructed to always go in groups. To always be ready to take the seat of the person in front of them should they be dragged out of it or arrested. To always act non-violently. To always maintain their dignity no matter what happened. A participant in a Feb 27th sit-in shared.
All of us wanted to be hit. This was an experience that we needed to keep our movement going, to keep ourselves going, and to convince ourselves that we really were nonviolent.
[See the video linked below for the context of this quote]
How will we sit?
When times feel tough, reflect on the trials our black brothers and sisters and their allies had to go through in order to gain the ability to sit at whatever counter they wished without fear of violence. Their consistent, simple, and strategic actions expanded our collective access to freedom and to love. When I think of the black activists who shared their desires for a more just world in this way, I gain courage to radically engage with those who would seek to make me their enemy.
Following the example of those who came before us, what can we do now?
- Engage. We no longer have openly segregated cafes of place. But, we do have segregated cafes of the mind and of the heart. We need to place our strange thoughts and our strange feelings in these mental and emotional spaces and engage with the people who own them. Typically, the rules of hospitality would demand that we wait for an invitation. Honoring the wishes of the host is the hallmark of a good guest. However, when our host will not host ideas and feelings different from their own, we must nonviolently place these ideas and feelings in front of them for their engagement. We cannot wait for their permission. The goal, as the sit-in activist shared in the quote above, is merely to come in and sit down beside him as any human would do. You cause no violence. You have no angry words. You’re friendly. And, it sort of helps to project the idea that here sits beside me another human being. What happens next is up to the mental and emotional cafe owners you are engaging (see non-violence below).
- Prepare. We have adopted the language of the safe space in the last decade. We need to specify that a safe space is not a sterile space and that sometimes a safe space needs to transform into a brave space. We must lean on those we trust to prepare us to engage non-violently with those we do not trust. Our friends are uniquely positioned to provide us with the armor we will need in order to engage without unintentionally harming ourselves or harming others. The conversations we have among our trusted group of sit-in activists cannot solely focus on shared grievances or complaints. They must also include role playing the other side’s argument with feeling and empathy for the pain and injustices the other side feels. If we do not understand where another person is coming from, we cannot know where to engage. Role plays must include all sides of the perspective, even the unsavory and painful ones we will confront. These exercises must feel real.
- Embrace nonviolence. Even though Civil Rights activists were using the sit-in as a tool to instigate social awareness and social change, I do not think the deeper goal of a sit-in was to win. The goal was to expose that those violently opposed to treating all people equally had already been defeated through their surrendering to fear. The goal of the sit-in was to reveal the prison of small thoughts and small feelings keeping one person from loving another. When we engage in conversation with those who vehemently oppose our way of life, we have to remember that our purpose is not to convince them, or win them over, or offer a counter argument. Our purpose is to receive their pain, accept their hurts, embrace their disrespect, and in the most tragic cases, be a mirror of the grief, humiliation, and broken heartedness that fuels any effort to shrink their love to a love of self and a love of tribe. Questions that draw this venom out will be the way in which we sit. I have written a recommendation of how to engage someone who seems to fundamentally disagree with your values here.
- Celebrate the toolbox. The sit-in was only one arrow in the quiver of Civil Rights activists. It wasn’t a magic solution to all problems, but a tactic deployed in the service of a greater strategy. It’s fine for us to look over the fence and wonder why our neighbor isn’t doing what we’re doing. It’s counterproductive to then ask our neighbor to stop doing what he or she is doing so that he or she can act more like us. The same holds for the activism needed now. During the Civil Rights era, or the second reconstruction as Rev Dr. William Barber describes it, Dr. King was powerfully preaching nonviolent approaches to resistance and transformation, and Malcolm X was eloquently calling for freedom for all or freedom for nobody. There are also those who rightly ask if non-violence would have stopped a violent state sponsored war like the one Nazi Germany waged. I am soberly aware of the limitations of nonviolent engagement — in body, thought, and heart — and also optimistic that if we engage nonviolently by sitting in our segregated mental and emotional cafes, we can avoid violence in our real ones.
No matter what approach to protest and promotion you find yourself choosing, please remember to aspire to be a warrior of light. To do that, you must fight with the lights on. Do not fight with hate in your heart. Respect the engagement of others. The war, if we must call it one, is on behalf of an ever expanding love. The battles cannot distract us from this ultimate goal. March with your feet. March with your thoughts. March with your hearts.
This post is the second in a series of reflections on the topic of hospitality. The first is titled Re-Cultivating Hospitality. These reflections come on the heels of work done by prime producers in neighborly partnership with sisters of the Community for the Holy Spirit and members of the MindKind Institute. At the time I started writing my reflections, the prime produce farm salon had hosted two years of consecutive monthly gatherings. We are now three years and two months into this continuing experience. It is a labor of rich and expansive love. Thank you for reading.
I’m forever grateful for David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, and Joseph McNeil, and the countless other black activists that demonstrated through non-violent action that change is possible. For a 12 minute review of the sit-in, please click on the link below. If you would like to speak about how we can learn from sit-ins and nonviolent movements of the past, and turn that learning into action, please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.