Third Side Freedom Ride: Evoking the Past to Invoke A Future

by Rev. Robert V. Thompson

This article was originally published by Sound Vision.

Reverend Bob Thompson is a seasoned civil rights leader and a friend I trust. This article outlines an excellent initiative. I am committed to ride on one of the proposed freedom buses. This is a great opportunity for Muslims in America to learn more about the civil rights struggle of today and yesterday. Abdul Malik Mujahid

The Context

by Rev. Robert V. Thompson

This article was originally published by Sound Vision.

Reverend Bob Thompson is a seasoned civil rights leader and a friend I trust. This article outlines an excellent initiative. I am committed to ride on one of the proposed freedom buses. This is a great opportunity for Muslims in America to learn more about the civil rights struggle of today and yesterday. Abdul Malik Mujahid

The Context

Preaching at the Washington National Cathedral just five days before his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I believe today there is a need for all people of good will to come to a massive act of conscience and say in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘We ain’t goin’ study war no more.’  his is the challenge facing modern man.”

A messenger of healing and hope, Martin Luther King’s vision of a beloved community strikes a deep chord, especially in a post-9/11 world. Rather than seeing ourselves as connected in a beloved community wrapped in a garment of mutuality or sharing a vision of how we can come together with others and create a new world, we have fallen into the consciousness of alienation and fear. Many of us are plagued by a subtle uneasiness, a nagging feeling of powerlessness and a gnawing sense of despair. There is a pervasive awareness that we have lost something fundamental to the American character, the American dream, the very vision of America.

Lacking the leadership to call us to a creative and constructive vision of the future, we languish in the painful awareness that something is missing in our collective life. 

In his book, The American Soul, Jacob Needlemen argues that we have lost the power of the American “myth”. He writes, “A mythic image, symbol or event contains just this unique power of inner and outer meaning, spiritual and material meaning. America needs to recover its mythic dimension. If not, if it begins to live only in…its outer dimension, it will have lost all that really nourishes the life of a nation or an individual. It will be an outer empire alone, an empire only of money or military power or empty promises. And such an empty empire will soon die. And to the extent the world places hope in America the world may die with us.”

The Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s is a shining example of such a mythic symbol of inner and outer meaning. It was a time to face our conflicted world, face our fears, and confront each other and ourselves in a brand new way. More importantly, it was a public acknowledgement that we can become skillful enough to mediate and transform our collective consciousness. 

Once again, we find ourselves living in a dark time. But, as Theodore Roethke put it, “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.” Interestingly enough, it seems that many are beginning to see that the Civil Rights movement provides lessons and motivations for our challenges today. On their own initiative, people are taking Civil Rights road trips - carving out a week to visit sites such as Rosa Parks Library and Museum, the Dexter Ave King Memorial Baptist Church or retracing the steps of the route from Selma to Montgomery. These and other Civil Rights shrines are becoming increasingly popular destinations for people of all ethnicities and political persuasions.

In our current context, it is all too easy to become mired in nostalgia. As profound as the Civil Rights movement was, it does no good to idealize or sentimentalize it. The movement was no panacea for race relations, social or economic justice or racial harmony. It certainly didn’t solve all of our problems. Yet, it clearly remains an enduring archetype within the American experience. Perhaps it can help us see how now, as then, that we are being called to a new kind of action and a new kind of responsibility.

The Third Side

In his book The Third Side, William Ury writes, “No more important challenge faces us today than how to deal with our differences. The challenge exists on the smallest scale and on the largest…everywhere people are fighting and at a huge cost, imperiling our happiness at home, our performances at work, the livability of our communities, and ultimately, in this age of mass destruction, our collective survival.”

These words take on a special poignancy when remembering the charged and fearful atmosphere following September 11th. We lived with that eerie and surrealistic sense of a world unhinged. What might happen next? Will they contaminate the water supply? Dirty Bombs? With the sudden appearance of anthrax we held our collective breath. Fear was palpable and pervasive. One older woman in the Chicago area received a letter postmarked, Palatine, Illinois. But having heard all the anthrax warnings, fearfully, she called the FBI. Terrified, she pleaded that someone come right over because she had received a letter postmarked “Palestine”. Feeling unsafe heightens our anxiety and intensifies fear.

Personally or collectively, we will do just about anything to feel safe. We go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, convincing ourselves that we can destroy those who threaten us. We turn domestic airports into armed camps, libraries into Orwellian computer stakeouts - and don’t forget the duct tape. The war and the lashing out, gives us some short-term relief.

Following the victory in Iraq, Americans purportedly felt safer. Then suddenly the terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia and Moroccoshattered the illusion. While these attacks occurred far enough from home, they got our attention and we began to wonder when it would happen again here.

While most people believe that terrorism must be met with force, it can also be argued that terrorism can never be solved by force or reactive violence, much less a Department of Homeland Security. The current strategy addresses the symptoms rather than the cause.

Like the human body, the social body also has an immune system. Keeping our relationships healthy by dealing with conflict early and often is the best way to prevent destructive behavior and violence.

Every person has a role to play in strengthening the social immune system. Every human being can become a peacekeeper, healer, mediator and teacher of non-violent conflict resolution. We can do this in our homes, schools, neighborhoods, religious communities, nation, and around the world. The third side is the local and global immune system against violence. The more people there are involved, the more people take responsibility, the stronger the immune system.

And as we are occasionally reminded, terrorism is not only about foreigners who perpetrate harm against U.S. citizens and U.S. interests. Terrorism is also a homegrown disease. Those who live in neighborhoods plagued by gangs are on the receiving end of terror. Several years ago, the students of Columbine High School were terrorized. Several months ago, students were terrorized at Case Western Reserve University. The woman who seeks shelter in a safe place because of domestic abuse is a recipient of daily terror. Whether in the form of a catastrophic explosion or hidden acts of cruelty, terrorism always represents a breakdown of the protective social fiber of human relationships.

Just as a strong individual immune system can fend off both the common cold and fatal diseases, so can the third side immune system fend off terror both large-scale and small. The third side is a way of relating to the conflicts around us - in our family, workplace, community, and world - that actively seeks to transform destructive conflict into healthy conflict and cooperation for the benefit of all sides.

The third side is the power of the whole. Thirdsiders know that every person has a legitimate point of view and that conflict cannot be resolved unless everyone is respected as human beings and allowed to articulate their point of view.

The third side may seem an anemic response to the many manifestations of terrorism, especially those that are large and dramatic. How can an immune system founded on these principles overcome the horrors of terrorists flying planes into buildings or to street gangs holding communities hostage?

When I asked Bill Ury how a stronger immune system could have prevented September 11th he said, “Witnesses might have informed us of the terrorists' plans. Peacekeepers the world over might have frustrated the terrorists and taken them into custody. Healers would have been healing the wounds of the Islamic world. Mediators would have been working hard to resolve the obvious conflicts like that of Israel-Palestine. Teachers would have been at work teaching other ways of dealing with differences and about the tragic futility of violence. Providers would have been addressing the conditions of poverty and oppression that often breed terrorism. Bridge-builders would have been building bridges between the Islamic and Western world. Arbiters, equalizers, referees would all have been at work."

Overcoming Racism - Overcoming Terrorism: Two sides of the Same Coin

Racism is fueled by fear. Terrorism is fueled by fear. For the third side to confront terrorism as effectively as the Civil Rights movement confronted racism, we must understand that terrorism cannot be defeated by brute force. The military and law enforcement play a critical role in terms of preserving order and peace. Terrorists must be stopped and arrested. But fighting fire with fire only keeps the embers burning and ultimately builds a bigger fire. We must learn to fight fire not with fire, but with water. It is only as we commit to cooling things down that the risk of terrorism actually diminishes.

Just as the Civil Rights movement changed the climate then, so can the third side become active and change the climate of the world today. Civil Rights freedom rides rode for freedom from the terror of racism. We need a new generation of freedom riders - people who understand the ubiquitous nature of terror not only in its global manifestations but in its many local expressions.  A strong third side has the power to create a safer world than a Department of Homeland Security because the third side is not about giving in to fear but about finding our strength in solidarity with each other. The stronger the third side is in this country, the stronger it will be in the world. Fostering an understanding of the third side is the first step in the journey.

Third side freedom rides

The third side already exists. We need to identify it, catalyze, and organize it. We need to help people discover the thirdsider within and encourage people to join together in a way befitting the 21st century. Upon this commitment our future rests.

One way to do this is by taking a dramatic action that shows how the third side is the only realistic and practical way to find a long-term solution for terrorism (destructive conflict/violence), whether locally or globally rooted.

Scenario One: People come in 30 buses from different directions across the country. Using the visual impact of a freedom ride theme, people arrive in buses to Montgomery, Alabama. The first morning visits are made to Montgomery, Alabama Civil Rights sites. On to Selma in the afternoon.. The next day it is Jackson, Mississippi.  The third day it is Little Rock, Arkansas.

On each of the days on the Civil Rights trail, those who travel hear the stories about the past. But people also learn about how what happened at that site is a reflection of what the third side is all about.

The destination of this thirdside freedom ride is Oklahoma City. This is the day to take the lessons of the Civil Rights movement and use them as a thirdside springboard to how to prevent terrorism and create a better world in the future. On the final day the five thirdside commitments and the third sidecircle explain ways to get involved in our own communities. (see below for brief explanation).. 

Scenario Two: Same as above except the rides go from Montgomery and Selma, to Birmingham and finally Atlanta. We make Civil Rights stops along the way. In Atlanta, our final destination is another terrorist site, Olympic Centennial Park, site of the 1996 bombing. We have the same thirdside day in Atlanta that we would have in Oklahoma City. This route is not as long, allowing more flexibility and perhaps some creative media possibilities.

But the point of each is that we begin with Civil Rights Sites that point us to the future, where we are and applying third side skill and wisdom against the current menace of terrorism.

Scenario Three:   Suggest another alternative!

Such as: A third route could begin in Memphis, stop in Greensboro, North Carolina (site of the lunch counter sit-ins) and end up in New York City, at Ground Zero.

Or how about a route beginning in Birmingham and ending at the Pentagon.    

Outcomes

Other possibilities at the final destination: have a bipartisan delegation of congressional representatives and senators. It must be bipartisan! How about the President and democratic presidential candidates riding on the buses for 30 to 60 minutes? Give them all a Third Side tee shirt, hat, etc.

The idea is to create a mainstream movement that will help empower everyday people, insert a new topic into the national conversation, and begin to address terrorism using a different set of questions and from a different perspective.

The evening of the final day concludes with a large celebration with key public figures making appearances and some sort of commitment ceremony where all present pledge to return to their homes and initiate third side circles to begin working on resolving conflict.

Some additional thoughts about the final day:

These are intended to be suggestive:

All thirdside freedom riders will be given the opportunity to become card-carrying members of the Third Side by signing on to the “five commitments.”

On the last day, at the end of the “thirdside freedom ride”, in the vicinity of a place where a terrorist attack has taken place, i.e. Oklahoma City, Centennial Park, Ground Zero, there is a process to develop third side circles. The third side circle is a local group that meets to educate and support each other with the shared commitment to work together to address conflict in their own community. We all need training.

People develop ways to support each other when they return home. Attention is given to exploring key questions such as: 1. What kind of conflict around you (in your life) are you drawn to work on? What kind of support would enable you to play that role more effectively? 2. What kind of conflict in your neighborhood or community can you help resolve?

Creating a global network of these circles which will provide information, support, and appropriate collective action on global conflict is an anticipated outcome of the thirdside circles. 

Media

If (in the presence of all the variables) this action can grab the attention of the media, there is the potential to inject a new topic into the national conversation through television news stories, articles, letters to the editor, Op-Ed pieces, the internet, etc. Embedded reporters would be welcomed on every bus. We need photographers who can catch this vision and “picture it.” We need stories of individuals and communities who have put the third side into action.

When consciousness changes, the world changes. We saw this not only in the Civil Rights movement, but in South Africa and in Eastern Europe. The power of consciousness is the power to create new realities. When we change the climate, new things grow. A third side movement aims to change the climate, creating a safer world.

If you are interested in being part of this initiative, please fill out the form at www.justiceforall.org

Published with the author’s permission.

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