San Quentin volunteer Chris Wilson says violence is no way to solve racial issues in America.
“I believe that no movement that is based on anger alone can create anything of lasting value. Even if I weren’t a Buddhist, I would argue that persistent nonviolent protests and civil disobedience are the ways to change our troubled and badly divided country,” Wilson said in an interview.
“When an inmate surprises me with his wisdom about life, I ask him, how in the world did you come to have such wonderful insight?” said Wilson. “The answer I usually get is, ‘Well, I have had a lot of time to think about who I am, what I have done, and what I want to be,’”
Having participated in the “Freedom Summer” of 1964, “insight” is an attainment that Wilson is well-qualified to talk about. “I had just completed my freshman year at Stanford when I decided to go to Mississippi and join the effort to register Blacks to vote,” he said.
The plan was organized by SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), an organization of southern Black students who were active in the sit-in movement to integrate lunch counters in the Carolinas. A key part of the strategy was to enlist White students from universities including Yale and Stanford who could assist with registering Black voters in Mississippi. At the time, Mississippi was the state with the worst track record of Black voter intimidation.
“Though I was plenty scared, I went,” said Wilson, recounting that there had been reports of violence.
“Incidentally, during that summer, some members of our group were beaten bloody with pipes, and some of our cars were shot up,” he added.
Reflecting more generally on the stresses, pressures, and challenges that life is certain to bring, Wilson then said, “Practicing zazen (formal sitting meditation) with inmates who are in the process of remaking their lives has been one of the greatest satisfactions of my long lifetime.”
On Sunday evenings behind the high walls of San Quentin, Wilson takes his place among a group of prisoners and volunteers assembled in a small room – this is their zendo (meditation den). All persons present have come to rigorously examine the processes going on within their own minds.
“I believe that no movement that is based on anger alone can create anything of lasting value”
With the characteristic scent of earth-toned incense subtly infusing the air, a calm vibrancy sets in over the space, which, with its close dimensions, offers a distinctive intimacy. Here, contemplation, concentration, and most important, introspection, are taken up in earnest. This is a Zen Buddhist group, and disciplining the mind – taming its impulsive tendency to “react” nonstop – is the principal effort.
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On the subject of “tendency to react,” Wilson is quick to use his experience as a way to elaborate. “The first real step I took toward active engagement in the Freedom Summer movement was a training course in ‘nonviolence,’ which took place the week before the activities got going,” he said.
Wilson recalled how that same week, three SNCC organizers who had gone to Mississippi earlier had disappeared. “Robert Moses, the charismatic Black leader of SNCC, warned us that they had undoubtedly been killed. He said that any of us who wanted to go home were welcome to go.” Wilson’s decision, however, was to stay.
Having been raised in California, Wilson said he knew that Jim Crow existed, but it was something that he had only “heard” about.
But at age 15 his naiveté came to an end. “On a trip through the Southern states I saw segregation for the first time. At a rodeo in Beaumont, Texas, I noticed the rope dividing White and Black people in the stands,” said Wilson. “And as we headed eastward through Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, it got worse.”
Combined experiences such as this one and others would eventually prompt Wilson to make a personal vow to oppose racism nonviolently for the rest of his life.
Making a sort of comparison between then and now (“past” and “present”), Wilson voiced his belief that there is a connection between the earlier civil rights work in the South that he was a part of and the struggle to regain voting rights for prisoners today.
“The rash of killings of African-Americans by police in many northern and southern cities has forced us to confront the fact that race still plays a huge role in how African-Americans are treated in our country,” he said.
Wilson added that he believes movements such as Black Lives Matter are important elements of the continuing struggle against racism in our society. “I do understand why younger African-Americans may feel that the recent spate of police killings of Black citizens is literally intolerable and must be met with anger rather than a more patient long-term approach.”
Wilson used the word “devotion” to describe the attitude that one should possess in pursuit of the things that are most important in life. The one-time lawyer turned computer software marketing executive, who is long retired, said for him, that means “family, Zen practice, and helping people in general.”
It is a formula that he has been sharing with the men of San Quentin for four years.