The force of will and the arc of the moral universe
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When you read about, or think about, political activists the general picture is someone yelling about this cause or that. Their hair tends to be frazzled and the pictures of such folks tend to be of action. In all great social movements in America there were the great leaders, deified. Yet, what of the People that actually made those leaders? For without people following, one can hardly be described as a leader.
In light of the recent election of Barack Obama to the Presidency, and that events’ historic ramifications, it had occurred to me that the stories of the people that surrounded leaders such as Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks have all been told over and again. But what of the people? There’s a common adage “Power to the People”, and since we investigate our leaders’ lives thoroughly, it is the goal of this essay, and hopefully more to come, to shed light on the lives of those who not only saw history, but made it.
Miss Magnolia Brown is a lady whom the years have laid their weight on her back, but her eyes sparkle as though she were a child at the Christmas tree. She stands five feet tall, and her perfume pierces the senses, and indeed stays with the visitor long after they’ve gone home. After spending five minutes with her you are sure of two things. One: That everything she does is for God. Two: That she loves everybody (literally) and she loves children the best. Not to say that she doesn’t love adults, but she especially loves children.
The day after Obama had been elected I wanted to visit with Miss Magnolia to hear what she thought about it. She smiled to me and her reply to the entirety of what the 24 hour news cycle had kept on about was, “God bless…” She said much more. Things like she never thought she’d see the day. She knew it would come because she believed in the words of a young pastor from Georgia. She just didn’t think it would happen in her lifetime.
My daughter had had a school project involving Martin Luther King. She was to draw a picture or write a poem etc. I thought to myself, “What better way to learn history than to speak with someone that was there.”
I asked Miss Magnolia if she’d be willing to talk with her, and tell her of the things she’d seen. She gave the pg version of what happened. She’d saved the truth for me. (Just the way I like it) She told my daughter that things weren’t fair like it is nowdays. She’d said that it was up to the People to come together in love, and fight together. She was perfectly clear that when she said the word “fight” she did not mean to fight with physical violence. “You can fight without raising your fists” because right is right, and there’s no denying that. My daughter went to my mom’s apartment, and I stayed behind to listen to more. Without a recording device here is what was said:
“Sown, I won’t tell her a lot of what I seen. I seen folk in Greenville get gas poured on ‘em.. I remember there was an ol’ boy who sooo so loved this woman but she was white! And he was colored. Now she loved him too but she couldn’t do nothing about it, and neither could he. Now he’d gotten beaten a couple times over that, and then he moved, cuz I hadn’t never seen him after the second beatin’ he got.”
She’d told me that school officials told her and her co-workers in the kitchen that they’d best not go to any meetings because they’d be fired if they did. While the prospect of losing her job no doubt feared her, she had no choice but to stand on the side of righteousness and justice. So she went to those meetin’s.
I asked what went on during those meetings.
She replied, “Well, them folk met everyday, and they sang songs, and held each others’ hands, and praised God. Cuz it dun’t maddah if your all by yourself in this world, God loves you and you’re never really alone. You heah me sown?”
“Yes Maa’am”, I replied and smiled because I’d already learned that lesson, thankfully.
“I remember I was in line up at the courthouse, and don’t you know them folk had turned the heat up all the way! In the middle of the summer, and they turnt the heat on. Well a man came through and tol’ them people to shut that heat off and turn the fans on, or there'd be hell raised. Then he turnt to us in line and told us not to move outta that line that we were here to cast a vote, and nothin’ and no one was gun stop us.”
Listening to her, my mind travelled to my peers and their apathy towards civic duty. Here was a lady before me who had fought to be allowed to exercise her rights, and on the other hand is a kid who’s never known hunger or fear… It made me smile because I vote for everything I can, and I encourage others to do the same.
“I was up at that same courthouse today and you know what happen? The judge, a tall white man said to me “Good morning darlin’” and threw his arms around me for a big ol’ hug! I’m very blessed sown. The Lord done fill’t my heart with such love and I just gotta share it cuz that’s what he tol’ me to do. I love them chillren.”
She motions toward a wall with photographs of kids, white kids.
“Them’s Doctor McGowin’s chillren, and I help raise them like I help raise him. His chillren, and the lawyer’s chillren, ALL the chillren all mah babies I love ‘em all! And don’t you know that when you do love everybody they got no choice but to do you right. This heah dinner, Doctor McGowin dropt it off heah. Now I don’t ask for nothing from anybody, but these folk juss love me soo that they get me all sortsa thangs like these shoes.” She branshies her shiny orthopedic shoes (sky blue).
She’s right of course. If the reader were to spend five minutes with this incredible woman you’d want to do the right thing in all aspects of your life. You'd call that parent that you've not spoken to in yaers, or forgive that old friend for wronging you a decade ago. You’d want to because this little old black lady embodies morality. She is the epitome of what one should do.
“Ah prayed for them people up in Birmingham. When the po-lice turn’t them dogs on them folks I prayed so hard that they’d be ok.”
“Well I’m positive that a lot of people did…”
“No sown… I prayed for them po-lice. I prayed God would soften their hearts and make ‘em see the error of their ways. You see sown, Them folk marchin’ they hearts were fill’t with love so they had God in ‘em and din’t need my prayers, but if they asked I’da prayed for them too. No sown, the po-lice were being ugly. The po-lice were hittin’ on folk, n lettin’ their dogs bite people, That’s not what Jesus want you to do!”
While she’s telling me this her face turned pained when she spoke about Birmingham and the dogs, but the second she mentioned the name Jesus her face took on an air of serenity.
“See sown, Jesus… when Jesus was getting’ kil’t he asked God to forgive the people that was killin’ him! You see they minds was clouded and their hearts were fill’t with hate, juss like dem po-lice up yondah.. But… but Mistah Mawtin he showed the people that if dey stood together and showed them po-lice that they wasn’t fraid and they loved them po-lice because that’s what God tol’ them to do, that God’s love would shine in their hearts and make ‘em softer.
Even now, after speaking with her, I’m struck by her conviction. After seeing people have gasoline thrown on them, beatings, hoses, dogs,nooses, white sheet clad men with guns, killings…. After that and more she still loves everyone of them. “N if they day-ed then I pray God forgive ‘em cuz I have.”