Hospitality has been a central model for activism in my life. Starting before my children were born, I have been what some people would call an activist—working in political campaigns; organizing alternative schools; training, mobilizing, and reconciling in the black freedom movement, the women's movement, and the peace and justice movement. I've worked with some magnificent people, deeply committed to spiritually engaged, compassionate social change. People like Bob Moses, Anne Braden, Prathia Hall, Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, Clarence Jordan, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Marion King, Grace Lee Boggs, Julia Esquivel, Ndugu T'Ofori-Atta, and Staughton and Alice Lynd. I've learned a great deal from these marvelous women and men, and many others like them.
But as I think about my own movement work and its deepest inspirations, I am continually drawn back to the model of my family—especially my mother, Ella Lee ("Mama Freeney"), and great-grandmother, Moriah ("Mama Rye"). Mama Rye, born in Africa, was a slave in Virginia and died in 1930 at the age of 107. Both Mama Freeney and Mama Rye cultivated a profound mystic spirituality and deep hospitality that they passed to their descendants.
In the years when I was growing up, people visited back and forth at each other's homes more regularly than folks do now. Our house was an
especially popular destination for neighbors and relatives. We had a large family, and my older brothers and sisters had lots of friends. Also, my mother and father made the house welcoming. Sometimes it seemed "too" welcoming—all kinds of people came through, not just relatives and neighborhood friends, but peddlers, professional gamblers, petty thieves, prostitutes, and people we would probably refer to today as homeless. Mom set out beautiful china dishes and slices of her homemade pound cake for all of them—especially for the most transient-looking people, it seemed sometimes. It was as if she knew they needed the extra attention and acknowledgement, and she genuinely enjoyed their conversation and wisdom.
An itinerant bookseller would come to visit Mom now and then. The two of them would sit down in the dining room with Mom's best dishes and talk for hours about the events of the world and the world of books. The man was not always very clean and sometimes, especially in the winter when the heat was on full blast in our house, we could smell the mustiness of his old, ragged clothes and the heavy, acrid sweat of his body. He talked funny too, and we children were occasionally tempted to laugh—as much from discomfort as anything else. But if we let out the tiniest snicker, Mom would cut her eyes at us and we immediately changed our minds—and the expressions on our faces.
Hospitality was a foundation of my family's spirituality, as it had been for so many Southern blacks. The efforts my parents made to be neighborly and to reserve judgment against those who society viewed as outcasts served as important examples for their children and grandchildren as we grew into adulthood. One of my first projects as a young activist in the Southern freedom movement was developing an interracial social service project and community center called Mennonite House in Atlanta during the early 1960s. In addition to our work of placing volunteers with various movement organizations, training young movement activists, and coordinating early efforts at interracial dialogue and reconciliation, Mennonite House became an important place of retreat for many who were struggling and sacrificing so much to transform the South and the nation. Because of my mother's example, I understood very clearly how important it was to have spaces of refuge in the midst of struggle—spaces of joy and laughter, good food and kind words. This kind of compassionate care is a transformative force in itself. As Cape Breton novelist Alistair MacLeod writes, "We are all better when we're loved."
One important way we expressed love, in family life and in the movement, was a certain formality of relations, rooted in Southern and African traditions. Respect was shown through the courteous use of forms of address when talking to strangers, persons of authority, and anyone in an age group higher than one's own. Women were always Miss or Mrs. so-and-so, men were called Mr. (unless they were relatives, and then they were called Aunt, Uncle, or Cousin). As children our responses of "ma'am" and "sir" indicated the good "home-training" we had received from the adults who raised us. Even among adults of comparable age and status, who had known each other for many years, there was often a kind of quasi-ceremonial care in the way they interacted with each other. In some respects, this must have been an antidote to the indignities these men and women regularly suffered from a discriminatory white society. But this practice of almost exaggerated mutual deference and politeness also was an important element of interpersonal relations in many of the West and Central African communities from which the majority of North American blacks originated, and it was a common feature in slave communities throughout the Americas.
For those of us who lived and worked in the small towns of the rural South during the freedom movement, these relational dynamics became an integral part of the organizing model we developed. Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) project leader in Laurel, Mississippi, in 1964, describes how she and her teenage and young-adult colleagues in Freedom Summer interacted with older community members with whom they were working to mobilize political and educational reform in the area. Simmons says, "We were seen as ‘leaders,' people who brought a vision, people who brought resources, ideas, and materials that they wanted. At the same time, because of our youth we were also children to them."
Living with local community leaders, Simmons and other young activists were expected to replicate time-honored African-American forms of intergenerational association. Euberta Sphinks, a long-standing local activist in the Laurel community, opened her home and her heart to Simmons. The relationship the two women developed was generally indicative of the way younger organizers and the older local citizens engaged each other.
"I had to obey Mrs. Sphinks when it came to what time I could come in and where I was going," says Simmons. "I had to tell her where I was going and where I had been. If she said I had to go to church, I had to go. But at the same time, they were willing to follow me into the jaws of the jail.... It was a very interesting dynamic."
This "interesting dynamic" was a central element of the organizing strategy of the movement and a large part of the reason for the movement's resonance and success all over the region. The young people of SNCC, CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality), and other movement organizations probably sometimes felt constrained by the behavioral expectations of their elders. But those norms of comportment were practical measures ensuring the well-being of the youth who (even if Southerners by birth) were often not familiar with the local community they were assigned to and who benefited greatly from being integrated into family and church structures of connection. Obeying the elders was a way of showing respect and acknowledging organic leadership and home-ground authority. Furthermore, the closeness and familiarity created by relationships modeled on family interactions were important sources of comfort, stability, and support amid the extreme tensions, uncertainty, and terrorist violence that were constant threats to everyone in the rural Southern black communities.
Another vital source of support was music, particularly the sacred music of the black experience, which has long been an alchemical resource for struggle: a conjured strength. Bernice Johnson Reagon has told a story on many occasions about the alchemy of singing in the mass meetings, demonstrations, and marches of the Southern freedom movement. Reagon, an extraordinary musician, organizer, and scholar, describes marching out of a movement church into the streets of Albany, Georgia, and toward the particular store or public facility that was the object of the day's demonstration. Raising their voices with freedom songs, in the cadence and spirit of church, Reagon and her fellow marchers could feel the songs swell into the air around them and transform the space. The songs changed the atmosphere, becoming an almost palpable barrier between demonstrators and police, giving the marchers an internal girding that allowed them to move without fear.
As Reagon explained in an interview with the Veterans of Hope Project, there is actually something about the experience of traditional black congregational singing that, over time, "does something to the material you're made of.... It really connects you up with a force in the universe that makes you different. It makes you capable of moving with a different kind of access. You're connected to something else, other than what people think you're connected to. And they can't get to you."
Ruby Sales, a SNCC member who was active in the movement in Alabama, says that in her moments of deepest terror and anguish she called on the power of black singing. "[The] thing that got me through is what has always gotten me through, black songs. Singing those songs and hearing those voices...I sang, ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken?,' ‘Tell Me How Did You Feel When You Come Out the Wilderness?,' ‘We've Come this Far by Faith.'" Calling on these old songs, Sales linked herself to a tradition of sustenance in trauma much older than herself. In fact, she says that as she sang she felt connected to her grandmother and to all that her grandmother's generation had witnessed and survived. "It is in that moment, through song, that I am able to feel something other than myself," Sales says. "I become part of a community. I become part of a struggle."
The pervasiveness of spirit, the healing and transformative power of black cultural and religious resources and practices, and a recognition of God's accompaniment in even the greatest of dangers sustained the movement—and continue to sustain so many of us still on the journey. "You know," Mama Freeney once said, "everything else passes, everything else will be destroyed, but the only thing that is going to be left is love. So when you die, don't worry. The insignificant things will all go away, but that most significant thing will stand the test."
Rosemarie Freeney Harding was co-founder and co-chair of the Veterans of Hope Project—a center for religion and democratic renewal at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver when this article appeared. Rachel E. Harding, Rosemarie's daughter, was the project's executive director.