Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Thursday, September 16, 2010

When power overcomes hate

What power does, hate cannot undo. (Uganda)

Dear Zayda,

Please remember the names of these girls: Addie Mae Collins (aged 14), Denise McNair (aged 11), Carole Robertson (aged 14), and Cynthia Wesley (aged 14). They were attending church in Birmingham, Alabama, when someone threw a bomb that killed them.

This incident took place on September 15, 1963.

At that time, Jim Crow laws existed in the United States. If you lived under those laws, you would have to attend a school for Black children only. These schools were never as good as schools for white children. The better jobs were kept for whites only, and most Black moms and dads worked as maids or gardeners in white people’s homes. Blacks who managed to become doctors, lawyers, or teachers, were also separated from whites.

Jim Crow laws affected where you could sit in a bus. Blacks had to sit in the back of the bus, and could not remain seated if a white person was standing. If you were out and wanted a drink of water, you would have to find a fountain that was meant for Blacks. If you wanted to use a bathroom, you would have to wait till you could find one that Blacks could use. Hotels and restaurants could turn you away if you wanted a room or a meal. Even Blacks who were in the army could not fight alongside whites.

As you can imagine, Blacks protested these unjust laws. In particular, Black soldiers returning from fighting in Europe could not understand why they could not have freedom when many of them had died in Europe (and elsewhere in the world) fighting for freedom.

Blacks therefore came together to oppose Jim Crow laws. They protested against being treated as inferior because of the color of their skins. In some places, they refused to use businesses and services that did not respect their right to be treated like any other human being.

By the early 1960s, Blacks were starting to see some results. For example, a change in the law allowed Black children to attend the same schools as whites. However, there was still a far far way to go.

Reverend Martin Luther King Junior and Malcolm X spoke out and led protests against the Jim Crow laws. Black people did not see why they had to wait any longer to be treated equally, and a Black Power movement started.

However, there were whites who did not want any change. They thought Jim Crow laws should remain and that Blacks should be their servants forever. The Ku Klux Klan, a group of racist whites, encouraged violence as a way of keeping Blacks from exercising power.

Addie Mae, Denise, Carole, and Cynthia were attending Sunday school classes at their church when the bomb blast went off. The Ku Klux Klan so hated Blacks that some of the Klan members attacked this Black church. Someone saw the person who threw the bomb. That person was at first given a hundred-dollar fine and a six-month sentence for the murders, because the courts still did not value the lives of Blacks. In 1977, however, this person who killed the girls was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

Power proved to be stronger than hate. Because of the 1963 bombing, more and more people supported those who were seeking rights for Blacks. Demonstrations continued until the United States government changes the laws so as to allow Blacks to have the same rights as whites.

Zayda, the battle is not yet won. People might be able to drink water where they want, or to be a guest in any hotel or restaurant they can afford. However, pockets of hate still exist. But so does our power to do what hate cannot undo.


Your shangazi Nothango (Yvonne)

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When the occasion arises, there is a proverb to suit it. (Proverb from Rwanda and Burundi)

Welcome to this space where we can talk about proverbs that we can relate to (or not), and proverbs that make sense to us (or not). Most of all we can discuss how proverbs make us think about life and living. We can also share experiences of proverbs that have provided us with lifelines or just the chance to reflect.

Some of the proverbs here may also be found in "Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs", published by Random House and authored by Askhari Johnson Hodari and me. The foreword is written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

One of the unique features of our book is that we arranged the proverbs according to life cycle, in sections including, Birth, Childhood, Love, Marriage, and Intimacy, Challenge, and Death.

For more proverbs and for information on Lifelines: the Black Book of Proverbs, please visit us at