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The Shelbyville Lessons

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Compassion Fatigue, Peaceful Protest and Perseverance
©Scott Sines

I recently had lunch with a boyhood friend I hadn’t seen in nearly fifty years. We talked about our aches and pains, the kids and grandkids. We talked about who is still alive and who isn’t, not necessarily in that order.

Eventually the conversation turned to current events and he said, “He felt like he was done.” He asked if I felt the same way and I totally fumbled the question. I don’t think about things in those terms but I think I know what he meant.

Sometimes it seems like everywhere you look something is going to hell and you can’t do anything about it. So we do what we always do, get totally stretched out and lose sleep worrying about stuff we can’t possibly control. It’s a real thing called compassion fatigue and it’s exhausting. (Here’s a link to an NYT article about how current events can cause compassion fatigue.)

I had a lot of time to think about that conversation on the drive back to Memphis from Detroit. You see the Klan had a rally scheduled in Shelbyville, TN, in a couple of weeks, and I was kind of, maybe, sort of thinking about going over to protest.

White Supremacists express their views.

White Supremacists express their views.

But I was ambivalent. It was over a four drive and really what difference would it make? I’ve been covering these things since the early 1980’s and the only thing that changes is what they call themselves. They are constantly rebranding themselves as ‘Alt Right’, or ‘Unite the Right’, or ‘White Lives Matter’ but they are still the same old baloney. They are the same old Klan plain and simple

Somewhere along the ride home all those thoughts mashed together and I decided to drive over and protest the Klan rally. What the hell. When I got there it was clear that law enforcement had the lid screwed down tight. So it was what it always is, two groups who hate each other standing on opposites sides of the street screaming hateful words at one another.

I worked my way to one end of the overcrowded pen the authorities had arranged for us and there was a man of the cloth in the middle of a bunch of people. I only call him that because I don’t know if he was a priest or what he was but he was wearing a collar. He was leading about 50 people singing protest songs, the old protest songs.

The racial taunts, hateful as they were, were no match for ‘We Shall Overcome.’ ‘Amazing Grace’ trumped the ‘Blood and Soil’ epithets. All the chants about ‘Demon Seeds’ and race mixing looked foolish in the face of ‘This Little Light of Mine.”

Eventually the racists wore themselves out. The louder they chanted and the more hateful their words became, the better that music sounded. Finally the racists across from my end of the pen gave it up and moved on. For the first time I can remember I actually saw, and realized it in the moment, what non-violent protest looks like.

On the drive back to Memphis the words of John Kafentzis came back to me. He’s an old friend and former news editor at The Spokesman-Review. In a comments thread on a post about the Aryan Nations John wrote, “The hard truth is you have to engage. The region’s early response was to mostly ignore the white supremacists. That just emboldened them. It took a concerted effort by lots of good citizens and the newspaper to expose them as the ugly racists they are.”

I think he’s right. Shelbyville was only the first stop on the Klan’s dance card Saturday. When finished in Shelbyville they planned to continue to Murfreesboro for another rally there.

But the number of anti-Klan protesters in Shelbyville was more than double the number of Klansmen. The protesters blared Dr. King’s words on loudspeakers and drowned out the taunts. And waiting in Murfreesboro for the beleaguered bigots was another 500-800 anti-Klan protesters. Maybe they got “Hate Fatigue.” More likely they didn’t like being totally outnumbered by a crowd that hated them. Either way they canceled the second rally and nobody got hurt. The only person who got arrested was a Klansman and that seems just about right.

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