Bernice Sims remembers asking her mother why she couldn’t drink from the same water fountain as white people. She was 6-years-old at the time, growing up in Mississippi in the 1950s. As a teenager in 1964, Sims fought against the unlawful prevention of blacks from voting as a member of CORE/COFO during Freedom Summer. The KKK murdered her mentor, Michael Schwerner, that June.
Things have changed some would say drastically since then, and yet not enough.
We’re all drinking from the same water fountain now, but it’s impossible to hail the United States as a society free of racism when racially fueled shootings and protests have dominated the headlines over the past two years. Sims has followed it all. Her memoir about the trials and tragedies of Freedom Summer, Detour Before Midnight, was published in June 2014, close to the 15-year anniversary of the death of her mentor and one month before the highly controversial not guilty ruling in the George Zimmerman case. From the riots in Ferguson to the recent tragedy in Charleston, it seems like since then every day there seems to be a new story that serves as an unsettling reminder that the US has a long way to go before it lives up to its billing of “One Nation.”
She will talk about the past, present and future of race in America at a presentation at Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island on Sunday, Sept. 27, but first, she shared her thoughts with Long Island Pulse.
Long Island Pulse: Racism has become a hot-button issue in both traditional and social media since your memoir, Detour Before Midnight, was published in 2014. A recent poll even said about 4 in 10 Americans believe race relations in this country are getting worse. Do you agree or do you think it’s simply become an issue at the forefront of 24/7 media?
Bernice Sims: I think because of the impact of social media, it has been more clearly defined and we’re hearing about it more. Not too many things have changed but I think it has had a larger impact because of social media and television and as a result of the body cam and the fact that people have been able to document things that they’d been talking about for a long time. The documentation has been better.
Pulse: Touching more on the social media aspect, there’s so much discussion and vigilantism on social media. People are speaking out about issues that matter to them, including racism. Do you think that it’s effective?
BS: In my day, we were marching during the Civil Rights Movement. The high-powered hoses were being placed against pregnant women, people were being beaten with billy clubs and bitten by dogs. The news media was there and a lot of those films and stills were a result of the news media. We thought at the time that the news media was our friend because it exposed not only what was going on to the south but nationwide and to the world. I saw then that it was very important that the news media was there and picked up those images, and I think it made a big difference in the movement. I know it did, so do I think it’s saturated now? I can’t really answer that. The problem I’m having is that there’s a silent majority. I have a problem with people seeing something that is wrong and being silent.
Pulse: America was founded as the land of the free, though even that was during a time when people owned slaves. To you, how should the nature of freedom be defined?
BS: I should feel free and not intimidated to travel around in this country and not like what was going on in South Africa, an American Apartheid. I should feel that kind of freedom and right now I don’t and a lot of people don’t. I think some policemen are very embarrassed and upset by what’s happened but there’s a few of rogue policemen that are giving the rest of them bad names and seem to be killing black people and that’s obvious. I have to almost equate this to another form of lynching. I don’t feel the same freedom that I learned in school, the flag that I had to pledge to every day, freedom for all.
Pulse: You mentioned the silent majority before. Why are people so uncomfortable talking about racism?
BS: I think that sometimes, we think, “This is a personal attack on me.” Do not take on the responsibilities of a few bad eggs. I do not take on the responsibility of black people who do wrong, who do ugly things. If you are human, when we see something, don’t worry about whether or not it’s going to be a direct affront on you. We should not protect it. Human beings are being killed for the color of their skin. It’s morally wrong. We have to become human beings and speak out for things that are morally wrong. You can’t keep excusing and blaming victims and seeing it as black people need to get together and rally. In the 60s, I saw Shirley MaClaine, Marlon Brando, James Baldwin and Hugh Hefner. They were out there on the front lines, they were fighting something they thought was morally wrong. I don’t see that now.
Pulse: There are some athletes, like LeBron James and NBA players who wore T-shirts after the death of Eric Garner…
BS: There are things being done here and there. LeBron James is paying for college for a lot of African Americans. I don’t see some of these big mega-stars being as courageous as the ones I saw in the 60s.
Pulse: Who would you like to see?
You know one of the people I expect to see because his mother was a Freedom Writer? Ben Affleck, and he has friends who were very much involved in Freedom Writers. Gwenyth Paltrow. Sean Penn. The big-name ones. In order to make a difference, you have to see everybody out there. If some of these people who have a platform to speak, whether they’re reality stars or big movie stars, spoke, maybe people would pay attention more.
Pulse: Speaking of protest, unfortunately, there was an incident in December where NYPD officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were shot in the line of duty in retaliation. As someone who has spent her life fighting for civil rights peacefully and whose mentor, Michael Schwerner, was murdered during the Freedom Summer, what do you feel is an appropriate form of protest?
BS: First of all, wrong is wrong. We started based on the principles of Gandhi and then it was Martin Luther King and we had to strive to peacefully protest. I don’t believe in retaliation. Shooting the police is only going to make matters worse. Protestors should do some of the things that we did, even silent protest. Groups should get together, find out where it’s legal to be and march. They should be offered protection by police. Violence is only going to erupt into more violence.
Pulse: What advice would you give to people who are inspired to get involved with the civil justice movement?
BS: In terms of their role, each person has to decide what their own role is going to be. It might just be when you see something, say, “You know what? That’s not right.” Don’t use the word “all.” I used to go out and say, “All the white people here are ignorant.” My mother used to say, “Do not use all. Say some. You’re no different than the ones who are stereotyping if you say that.” That’s part of the problem we have now. We’ve been put in one ballpark and we’re looked at as one bunch of people that’s different than everyone else, having different needs. If one person commits a crime it’s, “that’s what they do.” My mother never allowed us to hold onto that. She even showed me many examples of white people who were helping make change in Jim Crow South. When people correct their children, they need to have some examples to the contrary.
Pulse: What can people expect on Sept. 27 in Garden City?
BS: I will focus on my book and my friends that I lost and what they lost their lives for. They will footage from 1964 and 2014 and they will be able to ask me questions. They can ask me whatever they want to ask me and I will answer it as honestly and passionately as I can because that’s who I am.
If You Go
The Civil Rights Movement Through the Eyes of a Young African American Girl
When: Sunday, Sept. 27, 11am-12pm
Where: Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island, 38 Old Country Road, Garden City
More Information: 516-741-7304