I was fortunate to have been friends with the late Gwen Patton, though the foundations of our friendship came from a thorny incident. Gwen, who passed away in 2017, had been the first-ever female SGA president at Tuskegee Institute (now University) in the mid-1960s, and she had worked as an organizer on the Selma-to-Montgomery March. Decades later, she helped to found the nonprofit group that lobbied the National Parks Service to create the Selma-to-Montgomery National Historic Trail. Though she was small in stature, Gwen Patton was a powerful and intense woman who would not stand for injustice.
I first encountered Gwen in the early 2000s when the publishing company that I worked for in Montgomery, Alabama was sub-contracted by a Boston-based design firm to collect images and information for the first interpretive center on the Trail. I was assigned to coordinate our efforts with Gwen, who I didn’t know at all. By that time, she was an archivist at Trenholm State Community College’s library, and her archives contained important materials that would be impossible to find anywhere else. I pleased to be involved in the project, and after receiving my instructions, I picked up the phone one day at work and called her.
“Hi, Dr. Patton, this is Foster Dickson. I’m—”
“I know who you are, you white *$@#%!” That’s how it began. She then railed, and even cursed, about the whole process, dealing with the Parks Service, the design firm, us— all white, she lamented. This was a black people’s movement, she continued, and she had worked hard to see it preserved, and now a bunch of white people were taking over to make all the money from it! This went on for several minutes, and I replied respectfully, “Yes, ma’am, I understand,” when she made brief pauses to catch her breath.
When she gave me an opportunity to respond, I quickly and without flourish explained my position. I was told by my employer to call her and ask whether we could include her photographs and resources in the forthcoming interpretive center, and because I had no role in the movement or in the development process of the Trail up to that point, what I really needed to know was: are you willing to work with me on that?
“Okay,” she said, much more calmly. “You heard me. You know where I stand. Now, what do you need from me?”
Though we had led very different lives — a trailblazing, black Civil Rights activist from Detroit and a working-class, white twenty-something from Montgomery, with a thirty-year age gap between us— Gwen Patton and I became good friends. We worked together on various projects, attended some of the same events, exchanged Christmas cards, and called to check on each other from time to time. When my father died in 2011, Gwen was the first friend to call me with condolences and the first to send food to our house. And throughout our friendship, she made it clear to me why she liked and accepted me: I had been, and always was, willing to listen.
Many white people have come to the latter-day movement for Civil Rights. Though white participation was present in the 1950s and ’60s, it was scant and generally frowned-upon by the activists’ white peers. There was also a special kind of violence reserved for the white allies of black progress. Gwen Patton was among the generation of black activists who experienced a dangerous period in the movement for social justice and who saw the rarity of white allies amid that danger. She had also seen the growth of white participation as the danger subsided, and as there was money to be made on Civil Rights history and tourism. Her diatribe to me in that first phone call elaborated that reality, and I learned from her that, no matter how well-intentioned I might be in my willingness to preserve history or advance the cause of social justice, what I really needed to do was: listen to the people who lived the struggle and act according to what I hear.
I was born in the mid-1970s, then came of age in the 1980s and ’90s, and there were few opportunities to listen. Though I grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, where Rosa Parks kept her seat, where the Freedom Riders were beaten in the street, and where the Selma-to-Montgomery March culminated, my childhood did not include the lessons and images of the Civil Rights movement. Though the after-effects and tensions were always present, the images and stories were largely absent. The white community didn’t talk about it, even when asked, especially not to us children. There were also no museums or landmarks and few public commemorations. The Southern Poverty Law Center had been in Montgomery since the early 1970s, but most Montgomerians had no reason to visit their law office, and their Civil Rights Memorial, created by Maya Lin, wasn’t dedicated until 1989, when I was teenager. Later, the Rosa Parks Museum opened in 2000, the Freedom Rides Museum in 2011, and EJI’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice in 2018. So, I grew up largely in ignorance about what happened in my hometown then learned about the history as an adult . . . by listening.
We live in a world today where social media has created an expectation that we will share our lives, our ideas, and our opinions constantly. But if everyone is speaking, who is listening? I believe that protestors have a valid point when they say that more people should be there, that more people should be speaking out. However, I disagree that speaking out is the only way to be actively involved in the struggle for justice. Sometimes, the right things to do are to listen, to watch, and to read, in order to consider what we’ve heard, seen, and read, not through our own lens but through the lens of the person who has spoken, who has acted, who has shared a part of themselves with us. In most public demonstrations, I hear protestors say, “We want to be heard.” We can give that if we listen. And to do that, one has to take a break from talking, posting, and sharing.
Listening shouldn’t be the only thing we do. But, if we are going to understand what has happened in this country so far and what should come next in this too-long pursuit of peace and justice, it is something that we must do.