My first recollection of nonviolent struggle came when I was about six years old. My father, a New York City actor who also was an advertising genius, was standing in a Long Island supermarket handing out candy canes and pamphlets about CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, to which he and my Mom belonged. I stood with him there as he spoke quietly to people going in and out of the market with their groceries loaded up in shopping carts, the pneumatic doors whooshing open and closed on thin carpets of air.
I didn’t know it at the time, but in February 1960, in Greensville, North Carolina, four well-dressed black students, trained in the nonviolent resistance techniques of Gandhi, had already staged their first lunch counter sit-in. Within a few days, a group of Negro students in Nashville staged another round of sit ins; this time James Lawson, a nonviolent activist and teacher from Vanderbilt University, had trained them. Television cameras captured tough white people pouring soup all over the protesters, knocking them off their seats and bashing their heads with soup bowls and fists. In March 1960 a Houston man named Felton Turner was beaten and hanged upside down from a tree, the initials KKK* carved on his chest. Martin Luther King Jr. was indicted in Alabama for tax evasion and later went to jail with 50 others for staging a sit-in at an Atlanta department store.
Fast forward to 1979: I am a career journalist working for The Detroit Free Press as a features reporter. I am a white woman living in a black and white city. My beat is to cover mostly positive social movements for change and improvement to education and health care in the city, especially among children. I have come to Detroit right after the riots, after President John F. Kennedy’s death, before Martin Luther King’s and Robert Kennedy’s death. I recall my high school speech teacher proudly boasting that he kept several rifles at his bedroom window poised to fire on any Negro who crossed Detroit’s 8 mile road.
In Detroit for many years, I have nurtured a love of journalism as a way to speak. I have read newspapers (and books and periodicals) for signs of wisdom. Somehow I came to believe that words — speech — photographs — film — media — can help reach people and (maybe) transform lives. I remember, as my father died painfully at age 40, the words he used to describe his own nonviolent resistance to social injustice and disease: “I shall fight with speech and treasure the grossness of the human condition,” he wrote from his hospital bed. “I shall go on…a day, a week, a decade or more. I’ll take all [the life] that I can get.”
A decade after he died, I had a dream under a full moon and violet sky in Detroit that I had killed my father. In my dream I discovered a cache of guns in my basement and a coffin with the face of John F. Kennedy on it. Was it my father I murdered, or was it Kennedy, or Martin Luther King? I’m not sure. Perhaps I borrowed from the memories of the riots, or the whiff of death and violence and guilt one feels being comparatively privileged in Detroit. But as a young woman reporter in Detroit, I felt orphaned. I lived in a city of bullets in a post-apocalyptic time. My heroes, with the exception of Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Toni Morrison, and my mother, a political activist since the 1930s, had been men. What, I asked myself, does this city, this country — any country on earth — do now? How can we apply the lessons of civil resistance to the enormous, crushing tasks at hand?
How do I find my own strength as a woman, and as a woman journalist, when the violence and deprecations, insidious corporate backbiting, unspent racial heat, oppressive regimes, and my own struggles to gain self-confidence as a writer and woman, conspired to defeat me?
For the past four decades I have tried to answer these questions. I’ve gotten stronger. When I falter, I try to remember my father’s words. “I will fight with speech and treasure the grossness of the human condition. I’ll take all that I can get.”
Today, I remain a writer and mother of grown children. I am divorced and finishing my doctoral degree. Although I have seen my beloved newspaper industry begin its fast devolution from primacy as a “watchdog” and independent monitor of American and international power to a more confused, diluted state as just one of many forms of digital expression worldwide, I still believe in the power of journalism.
Words are a democratic thing, and the press is still essentially about democracy: seeking truth, above all, verifying facts, giving voice to the voiceless, serving as an independent monitor of power, providing loyalty, first and foremost, in stories written for and by citizens. Words and images are instruments to measure desire; they reflect our need to make sense of actions and behaviors that make no sense most of the time. We will never stop needing people to practice journalism in all its forms; if anything, given the current state of the planet, we need good journalism as never before.
Citizen journalism, in particular, is a tool that digital democracy gives all of us to capture and reflect back for the world we see. I believe that no matter what the struggle, people who write well, who ask penetrating questions, who carefully verify facts, who photograph and film with unrelenting creativity and vision — especially those citizens who serve as journalists of a conflict, violent or otherwise, and have the background and knowledge to help contextualize for viewing audiences exactly what they see — these people are desperately needed.
Mainstream media can no longer accommodate the huge demand for accurate, thoughtful, incisive journalism necessary to cover the depth and breadth of civil resistance around the world. From the West Bank to Zimbabwe, from South Africa’s Black Sash movement to the Women in Black movement in the United States and other countries, we need a new and highly personal form of multimedia journalism that maintains the best of the old practice with the jewels of the new. By jewels, I mean the freedom to practice ‘parachute’ journalism in territory that is rarely explored.
We need to unearth stories that are hardly, if ever, told. There is a wealth of material out there, in both desolation and abundance, and I believe that women journalists, in particular, are uniquely equipped to document these stories in a way that transgresses conventional journalistic boundaries.
Although we live in a world of dwindling news holes, two-minute broadcast stories and sound bites, what we really require is depth. Depth means reporting that is more truthful to real-world experience. Women journalists, whether “professional” or citizen journalists who are women, must step forward to articulate a journalism of real life that does not count on continuous exposes of violence to keep it alive. The men, especially male leaders (if not male publishers and network presidents) have largely blown it.
As a woman journalist, my goal today is to explore a new language of citizen expression — photography, writing, film, multimedia — that is neither dryly “objective,” purely subjective, nor stridently political. I want to know, with accuracy and nuance, how to create journalistic reportage that shows us the best and worst of this condition we call “humanity.”
Most important, I want to see citizen journalists cover democracy movements and civil resistance in ways that produce viewer surprise, delight, and anger at the truth. This is a form of advocacy journalism that produces results.
I call on all women to join me.
Arielle Emmett is a journalism professor at University of Maryland, and runs Arielle Emmett and Associates, a digital imagination company. http://www.arielleemmett.com/
*KKK, or the Ku Klux Klan, is a white supremacist organization that currently advocates for white nationalism, anti immigration, and anti communism. It is considered to be a hate group. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ku_Klux_Klan