Activism Done Right: Jim Brown’s Story

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“I got to admit, I was a little nervous,” laughs Jim Brown, “my wife was a little nervous for me, too.” When he found out that the Chief of Police in Nashville, Arkansas put decals on the department’s police cruisers, Jim decided he wasn’t going to take it lying down. “It’s the first time I’ve ever really done something like this,” he tells me.

What Jim did was quite extraordinary, even more so considering he did it in rural Arkansas; Nashville is a typical Bible Belt town of about 4,600 people. Mustering his courage, Jim marched into police headquarters, with a box full of stickers and American Atheist literature, and demanded – politely, he assures me – to speak with the Howard County Sheriff and the Nashville City Chief of Police. “The lady at the window seemed more than a little disinterested when I asked to see both the Sheriff and the Chief,” says Jim, “She said both were out at the moment and asked what this was concerning, so I flashed a bumper sticker and replied, ‘Secular bumper stickers.’  That seemed to wake her up a bit.”

The receptionist, who wasn’t being fully honest about the availability of the Sheriff and Police Chief, summoned the two men.

The Howard County Sheriff wanted nothing to do with Jim and his bumper stickers, but the Chief of Police was more courteous and engaging.

“I informed the Chief that I represent a local group called Southwest Arkansas Atheists, and we were concerned about what these In God We Trust stickers implied,” says Jim, chuckling that at the mention of the word atheist, the Chief’s eyes grew wide and his mouth dropped open. “It was like he’d never met an atheist before,” he says, “it was like he didn’t know we existed or thought that atheism was just some big-city thing.”

The Chief showed only a passing interest in the stickers and literature. “He seemed more concerned with my atheism and the group,” Jim says, “he wanted names, to know who else was an atheist, but I wouldn’t tell him.” Jim told the Chief that many of the atheist group’s members were still closeted and afraid to come out. “He did not understand this,” Jim tells me, “the Chief told me that if he knew an atheist worked for him he would never fire them for not being a Christian, but would work to show that person the error of his ways.”

The Chief’s lack of understanding and insensitivity towards those who lack a belief in God is troubling, but unsurprising. In the Bible Belt, it is almost unheard of for someone to be an atheist, much less for someone to be as open about it as Jim. “I’ve lost jobs over it,” he tells me.

That is why what Jim did is so important. Sure, he made little headway on the In God We Trust issue, but his act of made it known that atheists were part of the community, something the Chief may have honestly not known. After-all, Arkansas is one of the few states where there are still laws on the books banning the nonreligious from holding public office or serving as witnesses in court. “I tried to use that once to get out of jury duty,” Jim says, “it didn’t work.” Of course, such laws are unenforceable, but the fact that they remain despite their impotence speaks to how many in the state view the nonreligious – that is, if they consider them at all.

Local activism of the kind inspired by Jim’s contempt for the motto In God We Trust is the best way not just to raise the profile of the nonreligious, but also to show that there is organized opposition to religious politics. The only way to eventually win this fight – “and we will win,” Jim states confidently – is to actively raise our collective voice, thereby raising consciousness about how religion mixed with politics and patriotism negatively affects a growing and significant minority in the country. “I know atheists who still go to church just so nobody will ask questions,” says Jim. In the south, it is nearly impossible to be an open atheist without receiving the accusation of being anti-American. When I tell him that I am told at least once a week to leave the country, Jim sympathizes, “me too.” The only way for that dynamic to change is to actively try to change it.

And if you don’t think that Jim’s activism had an impact, think again. “I noticed as I left the room the window was now full of people, where before there was only a single lady tending the desk,” Jim tells me. He adds, half-joking, “They came out to look at me like I was in a petting zoo.” Jim wasn’t rude or nasty, he was simply matter-of-fact about his nonbelief and his disagreement with the Chief’s decision. “I told him that I knew was the US motto and it was legal to have them on the patrol cars; at least for now,” says Jim, “He replied that yes it is legal and will always be.” Time shall be the ultimate judge of that.

Jim certainly started a conversation that day, and social change starts with conversations and relationships. After his encounter with the Chief, Jim tells me he was able to hand out E Pluribus Unum bumper stickers to at least seven people, which are seven conversations that would not have happened otherwise.

What Jim did is the best kind of activism, but it can also be the most frustrating; the fruits of the social activist’s labors are slow to ripen. I ask Jim what advice he would give to other activists. Thinking for a moment, he responds in his southern-drawl, “stay in the fight, and keep your chin up.”

Thomas Essel

Thomas Essel is an outspoken secular activist and serves as Assistant Director for The Original Motto Project. Thomas also writes for the Patheos Atheist blog Danthropology and his work has appeared in the Springfield News-Leader. You can contact Thomas at: Thomas@originalmotto.us