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Anger and Activism

The older I get the more stories I tell. So, I beg your indulgence as I tell two stories from my journey.

In the mid-1970s I was a student at Jarvis Christian College. I had very little money. The summer between my junior and senior years, I went home to Mobile, Alabama to look for work. Most of the available jobs were for low-paying menial work, like mopping floors in Jac's Seafood Wheel House Restaurant, where you were lucky to make three cents a minute. I complained to one of my neighbors, whom I'll call "Mr. Pettaway." Although it's been more than three decades, I can remember his words. He said, "College boy, there is good money to be made, but you have to do man's work." Don't let those words fool you. Mr. Pettaway was proud that I was a "college boy," and he knew that I could do hard work. He just liked teasing me. So, I awoke early the next day to do "man's work," loading and unloading crates at the Alabama State Docks.

At first, I sat with the men at the docks, joking and playing dominoes. But then the joking stopped and all the men rushed to a makeshift stage just as a foreman appeared. The men started pushing, shoving, and working their way to the front, trying to get the foreman's attention. They shouted and begged, "Please, Mister, let me work. Let me work for you. Please, Sir, I will work hard. Get outta my way. I'm a hard worker, Sir, please give me a chance. Over here. Move over. He's gonna pick me. You know me, Boss; you know I will work hard. I got a family. Pick me. Don't stand in front of me. Pick me. Over here, Boss. I won't let you down. Move. Please, please, pick me." Imagine hundreds of men - all ages, all poor, most of them black people - bumping, jostling, elbowing, begging, and cussing anyone who kept the foreman from seeing them. The foreman pointed to the men he wanted, "You, yeah you. No, not you. That one with the red shirt." A dozen or so men were selected and they joined the foreman on stage and then, together, they exited the stage to work. The unlucky majority, many still cussing, went back to playing dominoes and telling bawdy stories as they waited for the next ship to dock.

Mr. Pettaway had gone to the docks for more than twenty years. Each morning he had left home not knowing if he would be picked for work. He was a good and proud man, but he had to jostle, shove, and beg for a chance to work - each day of his adult life. This was a demeaning pattern, steeped in tradition. When that first boat came in, I watched him beg his way onto the stage, and when he was on the stage our eyes met. He was a big man, well over six feet tall with the body of a defensive end, but - and I say this with no disrespect intended - on the stage he seemed smaller, not metaphorically, but physically smaller.

By 1838, the term "Jim Crow" was being used as a collective racial epithet for black people, not as offensive as nigger, but similar to coon or darkie. The popularity of minstrel shows clearly aided the spread of Jim Crow as a racial slur. This use of the term only lasted half a century. By the end of the 19th century, the words Jim Crow were less likely to be used to derisively describe black people; instead, the phrase Jim Crow was being used to describe laws and customs which oppressed black people.

I share this story because I believe that there are times in life when anger is a logical and reasonable response. There was a matter-of-fact anger in many of the workers that seemed to me to be both sane and inevitable. The system was oppressive and de-humanizing; men begged for the opportunity to do back-breaking, mind-numbing work. As soon as a foreman left the stage the men cussed like, well, longshoremen. Being treated as inferiors made the men angry, but they lacked the resources and opportunities to channel their anger into constructive social action. They were angry and their anger, like dirty water, had to drain somewhere. Poor, uneducated men rarely raise their fists against systems; more likely, they drink cheap wine and hit one another.

Funneling anger is risky business. Anger is a powerful fuel and one could certainly argue that much social change has resulted, in no small part, because of angry voices. However, in my half century of living, I have seen too many activists become frustrated and worn out - made callous by failed attempts to effect change, what with their idealistic passion devolving into seething anger, or worse, thick hatred; this brings me to my second story.

When I was in graduate school, I discovered the writings of J.A. Rogers, the mostly self-taught historian and journalist. I was fascinated by this maverick scholar who challenged prevailing theories of white intellectual supremacy. Although he was not formally trained as a sociologist, Rogers's critique of American race relations was solidly sociological. For example, in his book, Nature Knows No Color-Line (which he self-published in 1952), Rogers argued that racial (color) prejudice was not an inherent trait in humans, but rather a rationalization for domination, subjugation and warfare. Dominant groups created racial myths and stereotypes to protect and promote their interests at the expense of less-powerful groups. This belief is accepted today as a sociological axiom.

One of my professors at The Ohio State University saw me reading a copy of Rogers' first book, From Superman to Man (self-published in 1917), and recommended that I talk to a scholar who lived in town. I will call the scholar, "Doc," and like Rogers, he was mainly self-educated, though Doc had a few years of formal higher education.

Doc lived in a tiny apartment made smaller by chest-high stacks of books and newspapers. I remember thinking that he owned every small-run, out-of-print book about America's race problem. I spent many days in that tiny apartment listening to Doc talk about Rogers' single-minded work to prove that people with "African blood" had made significant contributions to the arts, science, and philosophy. He quoted Rogers' books the way some people quote the Bible, meaning, with a strange combination of familiarity and awe. Doc's only regret, he joked, was that Rogers had not been darker.

There is knowledge that comes from being an eye witness. Our initial conversations were about Rogers, but soon we were talking about the freedom marchers, civil rights leaders, and what might be called the "gossip of the movement:" character flaws, petty rivalries, intimate relations. Doc had walked in the second Selma-to-Montgomery March, not the Bloody Sunday March of March 7, 1965. He told me that he wished he had been at the first march, though he doubted if he could have remained nonviolent. He had been jailed several times for his activism. He had helped register poor black voters in the Deep South. He had participated in sit-ins. Doc had an album with newspaper clippings, one of which included a photograph of him being arrested.

Growing up black in the 1950s and 1960s had deeply scarred Doc. His hurt and anger had led him to participate in the Civil Rights Movement, but truth be told, he was better suited for the Black Power Movement. He never accepted Dr. King's belief that all men were brothers; moreover, he thought that Dr. King's belief about "hating evil not evil-doers" was silliness born of Christian naivete. Ironically, the gains won by the civil rights workers increased Doc's frustration. With each court victory came greater expectations, and when those expectations were not met - or met too slowly - Doc's conviction that the "whole system is corrupt" was, in his mind, validated. "No black man," he said, "could ever get a fair shake in this country." He argued that every major societal institution including government, education, religion, criminal justice, and mass media, were all set up to benefit white people, and that this would never change. And he added, "Any black man who doesn't see this is a token and a fool."

Doc saw me as a well-meaning but privileged beneficiary of his generation's activism. He did not know me. There was little about my background that could accurately be called privileged. Had he visited my neighborhood near Highway 45 in Prichard, Alabama, he would have seen a level of poverty that would make sensitive people throw up. Years before my neighbors gave up the ghost they gave up hope. He would have seen raggedy houses with plywood where windows should be, trying to stop people from stealing what's not inside. He would have met people who drank too much, in part, because they had been angry too long.

I know anger and the hurt it masks.

The advice, then, that I have to offer you is not especially profound, and surely you will get contradictory (and better) counsel from others. I will begin with a quote from Saint Augustine, "Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are." Believe that change is possible. Understand the past but don't live there. Cultivate a passion for social justice. Do not confuse whining with activism. Do something.

Work for social justice, not because it gives you status or a sense of importance, but because the work will make the world better for others. I don't care that these words sound naive and mawkish. Activism done only to promote oneself is, at best, a cathartic exercise. Work for others. Ground your activism in a spiritual or philosophical framework that stresses social justice. Have I said social justice enough times? Let social justice be your fuel. There will, undoubtedly, be times when you are justly angered. How can anyone look at the infant mortality rates of poor people in the United States and not get angry? That is justified, righteous anger - and so is the anger directed against the patterns of sexual assault in this country. Direct your anger against systems and patterns of injustice, not against individuals. That is hard, I know. Whenever possible, try to replace anger with focused passion and a zeal to address injustice. And, finally, as much as is possible within you, avoid the anger that simmers, paralyzes, and morphs into hatred.

© Dr. David Pilgrim, Curator
Jim Crow Museum
January, 2010
Edited 2023


Rogers, J.A. (1917). From superman to man.

Rogers, J. A. (1952). Nature knows no color line. New York, NY.