The Greatest Generation

In 1998, journalist Tom Brokaw coined the term, “the greatest generation.” It was the title of his book on ordinary Americans who, during and after World War II, were such an important part of this country’s growth and success. Many celebrated his stories using words like courage, sacrifice, and honor to describe the valor and contributions of everyday people. While Brokaw’s book wasn’t only about veterans, World War II formed the core of his greatest generation.

For me, there’s another complement of “greatest generation” heroes.  War veteran isn’t their primary identity even though many may have had a connection to that or the previous war. In fact, the segregation of troops made them, and their children, even more aware of how America was failing Black people. My greatest generation are the 1950s and ‘60s unarmed, non-violent, marchers of the civil rights movement. Their enemy wasn’t tyranny from a foreign country, but oppression of Americans, by Americans, right here at home. They. too, are quite aptly described by the words, “courage, sacrifice, and honor.”

My greatest generation includes people like Carolyn Wilson (left in photo) and Dorothy Batson (right in photo), elders who I recently heard talk about their experiences in a little-known, but horrific event in Danville, Virginia — Bloody Monday, June 10, 1963. They had marched to the courthouse steps, protesting segregation and overall racial inequality. To break up the demonstration, police turned high volume water hoses on them. The power of the hoses knocked Ms. Batson down the steps. For the other marchers on the street, the aim and force of the water combined with the street’s incline pushed them down and under parked cars, adding to their injuries. Ms. Wilson and Ms. Batson told the audience that white bus drivers and garbage workers were deputized, armed with night sticks, and given the authority to beat them. Ms. Batson reminded the audience that, due to the norms of the time, women and girls didn’t wear pants then, only skirts and dresses, sharing how the gravel and concrete from the streets dug into their exposed legs as the water carried them along – a little told fact that adds to the physical pain suffered by female protestors. The small audience listening to them was transfixed as these women calmly told their story of actively participating in a movement to gain rights that America had promised to all, but only delivered to some.

As I, a Black woman, listened to them, I wondered if I could have done what they did. Could I have gone into a situation in which I knew I would most likely be harmed, possibly killed, to fight for my rights? Just as I started to think if I had the guts, Ms. Wilson reminded the audience that they weren’t courageous, just teens and young adults who probably viewed themselves, unconsciously, as invincible. Ms. Batson agreed that as a 20-year-old, she doesn’t remember being afraid, just tired of “not being treated as people.” Surely their age contributed to their decision to join the march, but it wasn’t bravado. It was bravery. They knew the members of the KKK in their town who met boldly and openly. They definitely knew there would be repercussions. That’s what makes their actions great – moving forward, marching even though armed haters lined the street, poised, and probably anxious, to attack.

Whenever Brokaw’s greatest generation is discussed, the commentator will say something like, “we’re losing over 350 of these heroes every day,” simply acknowledging their aging and life’s passage. Almost 60 years after it occurred, I happened to be in a room listening to Ms. Wilson and Ms. Batson tell of an incident I’d never heard of even though I grew up only 150 miles away. So many stories in your own town or very nearby are unknown. There are far too many unrecognized heroes or leaders whose role in the movement has been forgotten. Seek them out, learn their stories, and celebrate their leadership. There isn’t much time left.

For me, “the greatest generation” will always be those men, women and children who marched, were beaten, jailed and, sometimes, killed, so that I might have the rights I do today. As a country, we have much further to go to achieve racial justice, but I — we —  owe a huge debt to those who paved the way.

20 Replies to “The Greatest Generation”

  1. So we’ll said, Tam. And yes, I believe you would have been marching and protesting for our civil rights back in the day. That’s who you are!

  2. I, too, only recently (past few years) became aware of Bloody Monday despite growing up in Richmond, and the men, women and even children who risked and lost their lives in the civil rights struggle are heroes. Their unbelievable courage and sacrifices have not been fully appreciated by many or most of us. When their greatness and courage fully struck home with me was hearing the words from the leader of the Fisk students telling the Kennedy administration that they had all signed their wills before getting on buses to continue the Freedom Riding campaign. What greatness!

    Will any of us have the courage now to combat the new wave of anti democracy measures sweeping the country now.

    1. I have thought of that and wondered if a book of essays of this type would have an audience. I’ve even thought some about how I would organize it and if there would be a publisher. Your thoughts?

  3. Thanks Tamara, for sharing this important piece of Virginia and American history. I heard the author of Caste Joyce Wilkerson? on news last night comparing denying our past like denying you have had a heart attack. Recovery isn’t possible without admitting the disease. We have a long way to go. Another friend blogged on racism in Canada and said the only difference is they have begun to get serious about reparations. The path is clear and does require courage from all generations. Best, Tom

  4. Thank you, Tamara, for a very thought provoking post, and for including a link to read more.
    This made me remember a conversation I had with an older Black gentleman in a pottery class I was taking, about the time we saw you in DC in 2019. He was quietly working at a pottery wheel, wearing a baseball cap with “African American Museum of History and Culture” on the front. I asked him if he’d been there, and he said he hadn’t. I told him I would be going and would report back to him. The next time we were in class, I told him all about my visit. I mentioned that the exhibit of the lunch counter was particularly powerful. He quietly told me he had participated in a sit in, I believe in Jacksonville, FL. He was one of three groups that took turns at the counter throughout the day. He was in the second group, and they were taunted and challenged. The third group was beaten up. I was struck by his willingness to share with me, and I felt so fortunate to be hearing a story directly from someone who had been involved in the early days and was willing to put himself in the path of violence.
    Stories are such a powerful way to connect people. Being in an art class with students from a wide variety of backgrounds gave me that opportunity. Of course, having grown up in segregated schools and neighborhoods, many of us haven’t had those chances. I’m thankful for them now.

  5. Amen, and now we have to start again, not only for the right to vote but for the right to our own bodies, which most deeply affects people of color.

  6. Tamara – well said . The things alleged Modern History books don’t even mention let alone link with the civil Rights movement , right of women to vote , peaceful protests and enlightenment marches and freedom of assembly attacks by racist community leaders and their false icons like the KKK to violate and ignore the US Constitution. We have a lot of US History that needs telling and explaining so the recent Gen Z anX and millennials don’t repeat mistakes made by great grandparents , grandparents, parents and siblings.

  7. I agree 100%. While it is true that battles of World War II did save the country and the free world from the horrors of Nazism and Fascism, it must also be remembered that in this country as well as throughout the world most people of color remained less free. Indeed, numerous men and women of color were casualties of the conflict and were denied the fruits that others did.

    One is reminded of the eloquent words Frederick Douglass wrote in his speech, “What to the slave is the Fourth of July.” There is a dichotomy in the freedoms enjoyed by those of European descent from those that are not before and subsequent to World War II.

    1. Thanks for following my blog and for sharing your thoughts. I’ve been writing this monthly series since September 2017. I’m wondering if it’s time to stop. I’d appreciate your thoughts on this.

  8. Yes indeed!
    One of my favorite places in Richmond is the VMFA, just a couple blocks from home. Whenever there are events such as live music put on by the Richmond Jazz Society, God willing, I am there. It’s a piece of heaven in that people of all kinds, races, ages, gender identity, come together over music and the atmosphere is Happy!
    Happy to be there in that environment.
    Occasionally I’ll find a seat but I only take one if an elderly Black person is sitting there. I have met so many people who will generously share their pasts with me, complete with their struggles. I’ve learned how Black business communities were taken over due to reasons including unjust taxes, etc so that greedy, immoral White ( ok, I used W just like I use B for Black as well as Brown) businessmen could make money. The history I learn first hand is valuable and I Always learn something listening to these people.
    The ladies you heard speak had a powerful, gut-wrenching history to tell.
    The newly-remodeled Virginia Center for History and Culture offers much also. is a So many opportunities to learn history as it was, unlike the texts you and I had in 4th grade.
    Thankfully, Richmond is progressing, and I’d like to believe Richmond will finally become a source of pride for All Virginians.

  9. An excellent article, Tamara. It should serve to remind all of us that freedom isn’t free. It is fought for, and those rights earned can easily be taken away. As I look around at the American flags on display this weekend in yards, on buildings and in other places, I keep thinking that we all, black and white, have a long way to go to come close to the freedoms and rights that so many take for granted, but which so many others are still not granted.

  10. I am a 70+ year old (white) reader who grew up in Danville, Virginia during the civil rights years. As a teenager I had NO knowledge of the struggle going on right in my hometown! I lived overseas for much of my adult life and it is only since retiring and returning to live in the USA in 2013 that I intentionally researched the truth about the greatest generation you have eloquently described in your post. For the first time, to my dismay, I learned about Bloody Monday. Last October I returned to Danville for a funeral. My husband and I were surprised and pleased to see the placard in front of City Hall that recognized the horrible event that took place there. I have read your book “Daughters of the Dream” and eagerly watch for each new post on this blog. You are doing an important work and I am a grateful recipient. Thank you!

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience and for your kind words. Far too many of us learn an incomplete history that shapes how we view today. I hope you will share my blog with others.

  11. Tamara, thank you for sharing these stories and insights. And, (emphatically) YES, I think you should publish these as a follow up to your book. Because of this blog, my perspective is so enriched, specifically re: 7/4 and “the greatest generation”. You have an impressive following, but these reflections can benefit so many others, too.

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