In recent weeks we have watched the news erupt with stories of protests both peaceful and violent happening all across the U.S. including cities within Iowa. Protestors demanding justice following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis by the knee of a police officer.
As we watch the events unfold around us, I took the opportunity to sit down with Lorena Blount as she stepped back in time to her years working for the same peace and justice many are asking for today.
Lorena met her husband Ross at a conference in Athens, Ohio at Christmas in 1959. Two busloads of students from Iowa State University were taken to the International Conference where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the speaker.
It was in this time the movement began for a means to an end to racism and segregation.
“At Iowa State we certainly had a lot of black athletes, but they couldn’t even get a haircut in Ames, Iowa,” said Blount. “They had to go to Des Moines to get a haircut and no one would rent them an apartment in Ames because they were black.”
Blount remembered those years where the inequalities were noticeably bad before any laws were changed. She went door to door speaking on behalf of the civil rights movement, knowing changes were needed in Ames before moving to teach in Chicao in the fall of 1960.Ross also began his first year of seminary on a Rockefeller Scholarship before John F. Kennedy was elected as President.
The Blount’s were selected to join the fifth Peace Corps to ever leave the country being sent to West Africa. They spent four years abroad before returning to Chicago to finish the last years of seminary.
“Ross’s classmate fresh from the deep south was Jesse Jackson,” Blount stated. “Jesse was there on a scholarship as well and you could tell he had never been around that many white people as he was very withdrawn.”
Lorena remembered as she wheeled her babies in the strollers on mornings speaking with Jesse and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“Dr. King spotted Jesse as a very promising, young worker and Dr. King knew he had a lot to do in Chicago,” Blount said.
She noted the first big project she remembers Dr. King becoming passionate about was his taking a stand in Chicago against Colonial Bread for the unjust hiring practices in 1966.
“It was in a large black district where a large Colonial Bread factory stood, but they hired no black people,” Blount began. “Their market served all of Chicago but primarily the southside. Dr. King visited with them and said it was a problem and they needed to hire some black people for their staff. They were polite to him, but nothing happened.”
It was then King informed the factory they would strike by the set date if no black workers were hired.
“King was very organized and followed his set of principles when moving for social change,” Blount added.
With Dr. King working for change he followed six principles in his movement for nonviolent protests: Principle one-Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people, Principle two-Nonviolence seeks to win friendship and understanding, Principle three-Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice not people, Principle four-Nonviolence holds that suffering can educate and transform, Principle five-Nonviolence chooses love instead of hate and Principle six-Nonviolence believes that the universe is on the side of justice.
“He followed his principles and the strike happened and in just a few days, there were black people hired at the factory,” said Blount. “It was a breakthrough. It was a beginning and something other than rigid segregation."
“Ross and I for 17 years were involved in the civil rights movement,” began Blount. “We marched in a protest against the war in Vietnam and I marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on March 25, 1967.”
The march against the Vietnam War took place in Chicago as more than 5,000 people joined together, marching down State Street to make a statement of opposition against the war itself.
“There were huge crowds on each side of State Street as we marched together 10 a breast with Dr. King and other black and white leaders from Chicago and flag bearers leading the front,” Blount stated. “This was so carefully organized and monitored by the police. We marched through long lines of policemen lining each side of us with their billy clubs.”
“The raw emotion of hatred from the crowd that was shouted out, I had never felt that before,” Blount continued. “I’ve heard a lot of rough language, but not the hatred.”
Dr. King spoke to the crowd following the march with a key statement that has resonated with Blount for many years thereafter as he said, “I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the south but I can say that I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I have seen here in Chicago.”
“It was so raw and ugly, but there was no violence,” said Blount. “Not physical violence. King grew up in the south in Georgia and he knew what segregation looked like and what racism looked like, but never had seen the raw hatred that you can feel is just evil.”
King was warned to not vocalize his opposition to the war, however he moved forward with his march working with the Veterans for Peace in Vietnam group. In 1967 Blount had an 11-month old infant and a two and a half years old toddler at the age of 27.
"I had little children and there was a picture from a photographer hiding in a ditch where he had captured a photo that is burned in my memory that circulated in all the newspapers and in Time Magazine of a young woman running, carrying an infant that had been burned and I thought this is so wrong," an emotional Blount remembered. "I couldn't sit in my comfortable apartment and do nothing. I had to be with my body and say this is wrong and I want this to stop."
Blount remembers Dr. King’s main goal of remaining nonviolent as he worked for peace, noting peaceful protests are allowed within the Bill of Rights and are a way to redress specific grievances.
“When I see what’s happening now it almost seems like it’s a third group that moves in to loot, burn and cause chaos,” said Blount. “They may be organized but they have a bad motivation. Violence is the opposite way to change. Love is the way to positively change a bad situation. It is never violence and hatred. What I see that is so different from the protest I was in compared to the protests now for the murder of George Floyd is these have been spontaneous. The burners and looters have used what was meant to be peaceful protests for their own means."
“When you look at where is the unjust situation, it’s Colonial Bread not hiring black people, it’s calling bad names in public space, it’s the murder of George Floyd,” said Blount. “It is choosing love instead of hate.”
“We have somehow lost sight how to accept other’s positions on racism,” said Blount. “Any form of racism is unacceptable to me. I try to live at peace with my neighbors but somehow we have to disarm hatred when we meet it.”
“King provided a strong moral center and we need to enjoy this life and remember hatred is a waste of time,” Blount said in closing. “Wherever there is a grudge it may be more beneficial and more fun to get to know the person instead of having hate.”