This is the second part of a three-part series on storytelling and community organizing.
One of the things we work on in the storytelling workshop is how to make the first line capture the attention of the audience and the last line show the learning or moral of the story.
I learned this lesson when I first started organizing. Having been a victim of Klan violence, I left North Carolina under duress, vowing never to return until I could “fight” the Ku Klux Klan.
In the next few years living in Charleston, SC, I met my teacher and mentor, Septima Clark. In the brief time I knew her, she taught me to stand strong in the face of opposition, like the KKK. She also taught me the need to build trust.
I remember once that she sent me to the NAACP meeting in town to bring up an issue that was affecting our community around public transportation. I came back to her with head lowered, whining, “They didn’t like me. No one talked to me.” “Of course they didn’t,” she said. “What did you expect? Now, next time you go…” and she told me exactly what to do. I went back three times, before people asked me what I was there for.
The lesson I learned from Septima Clark was that I couldn’t expect to “fight” the Klan. I had to create an environment in which they could no longer exist.
This became one of my “stepping stone” stories:
“I woke up one night to find five men in white hoods standing around my bed. My heart froze as I tried to see the eyes behind the masks.
The Ku Klux Klan had broke into my house to teach me a lesson. I had become their enemy by aligning myself with African Americans — a traitor in their eyes to the white race! I had hired Black employees at the place I worked and the white men did not want to work with them. They had warned me many times, and I had only hired more people of color.
After two days held captive and tortured I escaped, leaving my home in North Carolina. I moved to a low-income African American community in Charleston, SC. There I met an elderly woman, Septima Clark, who was often referred to as the grandmother of the Civil Rights Movement.
I declared I would only go back to North Carolina when I was able to fight the Ku Klux Klan. She taught me that was a no-win proposition. That the only way I could win was by building a society where the KKK could no longer exist.
Six years later I moved back to North Carolina to organize and build power to eliminate the Ku Klux Klan.
I hated the Klan. When I first started working with Piedmont Peace Project (PPP), we had many gatherings at the trailer I shared with my mother. Blacks and whites were constantly pouring in and out of our home. Two young white men who helped us with yard work and repairs around the house were often there and were always included in our many dinners, picnics and celebrations.
Many times, PPP members encouraged them to join our efforts – to come to our trainings and conferences. One day, Billy, the oldest at 20, pulled me aside. He said, “You know, I don’t think y’all would want us to come because we’re both Klan members.”
It took my breath away. Don’t I hate these people? But I loved Billy, just like I had once loved my two uncles until I learned they were part of the Klan.
After taking a deep breath, I said to Billy, “You don’t believe what you’ve learned as a Klan member, or you wouldn’t be hanging out at our house.” So finally he and his friend started coming to our meetings.
In one workshop, we were talking about what it meant to trust each other as whites and Blacks working together.
One young African American, William, said indignantly while looking pointedly at Billy, “Well I would need to know that if one of you saw me outside of these meetings, like at the grocery store, you would speak to me.”
“Well,” said Billy, “Just maybe that person was with their father and couldn’t.”
After a pause, William leaned forward and asked him, “What would happen if you went home tonight and told your parents what you had been doing with us today?”
Billy spoke quietly and seriously, “I wouldn’t wake up in the morning.”
Stepping stone stories are not linear pathways. They take us back and forth across the contradictions and challenges in our lives, making us appreciate that there were turning points, sometimes only to be realized later.
In our work for social change, sharing our stories, and the moral of our stories, may seem very personal. But it is only by sharing those stories that we can build trust, understanding, and ultimately, acceptance of one another.