Nina Serrano on Martin Luther King, Jr. “I Have a Dream” January, 2019
Today, as a woman writer, I look back on my civil rights movement activism and understand its role so many decades later in creating my first novel, Nicaragua Way, a story about a woman in resistance.
Women in Resistance
As a young woman, I heard Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech on radio during the March on Washington in 1963. Martin Luther King, Jr. called our constitution “a promissory note . . . a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In those days, we all assumed that “men” meant “human being.” Although literally it did not specifically include women. In the same way that “people” in our constitution really meant white men and usually only property owners. But today with end of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and its threat of massive deportations (see part 2) as well as the “Me too” movement revealing the widespread assaults on women, the word “men” can no longer be assumed to include women. We must revise our language to revise our consciousness. But, back then we activist women accommodated and continued holding up half the sky while working to make that “promissory note” pay up.
Remembering my own path to hearing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s historic moment takes me back sixty years. It was a sunny spring day in 1958, five years before his speech, when my best friend Anne and I were sitting in the Student Cafeteria as students at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. We were two mothers of young children enjoying each other’s company in stolen moments from childcare, housework, classes and homework. We were daughters of immigrant families. Anne had arrived as an infant with her family from Russia. I was born here but my father was born in Colombia. In those University years, we were trying to fit in, to find our way as best we could, as young people all do.
I was a pregnant 23 year old mother of a toddler and Anne had two little girls. We were soon joined at our table by a tall handsome man who introduced himself as Jim McWilliams. He was a black activist law student in the civil rights movement who came from Alabama. He was charming, funny and made us laugh. It turned out all three of us supported Martin Luther King, Jr. and his principals of equality. Dr. King’s name and ideas were just emerging on our campus after the news of the Montgomery Bus boycott of 1955 and ’56. We were inspired by the southern Black movement to end legal racial segregation and followed the events in the south closely. Those moments in the student union cafeteria, when Jim and Anne were bitten by the love bug while we were all full of ardor for civil rights burned into my memory and laid the foundation for the stories of women in resistance that I wrote in Nicaragua Way. Love added spark to our friendships and the electric energy of our soon-to-be realized collective efforts.
Dr King’s organization, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, (SCLC) organized Black churches to demand civil rights, focusing on desegregation and voting rights. SCLC followed the Gandhian principles of nonviolence that helped gain India its independence back in 1947. In 1955, Rosa Parks had refused to give up her seat on a segregated public bus and the Birmingham, Alabama bus boycott began. We were excited by that and discussed it.
Not long after our 1960 conversations, southern Black students staged a non-violent sit-in at a Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina. They refused to leave the white-only lunch counter, demanding an end to segregation. We immediately organized sympathetic picket lines at the off-campus local downtown Woolworths. After the Woolworths campaign, the southern Black students organized the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “snick”.)
Within weeks we led a march of thousands to the State Capital Building in Madison to support the southern civil rights movement. We brought southern activist Black students from the Woolworths campaign to speak at our campus along with prominent SCLC leaders. I will never forget two thousand students singing “We Shall Overcome,” the anthem of the civil rights movement, in the Madison campus Student Union Theater. Jim soon became the president of a student civil rights organization with a student government budget. We then recruited people to go south to participate in the dangerous 1960 Freedom Bus Rides to integrate inter-state busses.
I left the University for San Francisco with my husband and two children in 1961. Jim and Anne went on to bring major black intellectual figures like W.E.B. Dubois and Malcom X to the campus to lecture and interact with the student body. We stayed connected and I enjoyed Anne’s letters telling how she cooked delicious dinners for these prestigious visitors. Anne and Jim’s relationship deepened. The campus group went on to organize support for the 1964 Mississippi Summer to work on voter registration. Men and women risked their lives to end injustice and expand the rights of all of us to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” These early experiences where romance and political activism were intertwined inspired me to recreate them in my novel about other solidarity work later that also helped change the world.
End of Part 1