Thank You is Enough

The sidewalks in the neighborhood were narrow and uneven. sidewalk. bricksPeople walking in opposite directions often had to shift or even stop, to pass without bumping into each other. In this century-plus old section of the city, there were many tree roots twisting beneath the sidewalks creating tilts and ridges that threatened each step. So, the need to pay attention to where you were walking was necessary and the norm.

The first time we passed each other, I wasn’t sure he was who I thought he was.

For about a month, I would pass him every day around 7:45 a.m., after dropping my son—AJ—off at preschool. As I walked to the metro, mentally moving from mom to nonprofit exec, I would think about what I had to do at work that day. I was still adjusting to taking AJ to preschool. Until that September, he had been at home with a care provider. Now it was time to get him into a group with other children. So, I had to get him up, dressed, and fed… and me, too. As the saying goes, “it” — parenthood, in this case — “was more than a notion.” In my early 40s, I was an older mother, and the adjustments to motherhood had been many as I also worked to succeed in my career.

Some mornings were a bit unfocused as life’s demands jostled through my mind. Not paying careful attention, I had almost tripped on the sidewalk the previous week. On that first morning, when I saw him, I was head down, focused on carefully negotiating the uneven bricks. I glanced up just as I passed him. The glimpse was quick, perfunctory. I wasn’t sure it was him, but I thought it was.

On the next day and the subsequent days when we passed, I was sure. I knew who he was. At first, I would nod and smile. Then after a few days, I started to say, “Good morning, sir.” To which, he would nod and smile, sometimes replying with a pleasant “Good morning.”

At no time during those few weeks in 1997, when our paths crossed every morning, did I ever try to have a conversation with Congressman John Lewis. I wish I had.

I was reminded of those small encounters when I heard the announcement last month he has stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

When Congressman Elijah Cummings, a long-time civil rights champion, passed last October, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi referred to him as Congress’ North Star. I understood why. He was a strong and outspoken advocate for what was morally right. But John Lewis has always been my North Star. In 1997, I wouldn’t have thought of him with that term, but I have always admired his courage. I knew of his civil rights work, particularly the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. For me, he was then, and still is, the personification of fierce leadership and dedication to purpose.

After reading his memoir, Walking with The Wind, in 1998, the year after our brief encounters, I remember wishing I had engaged him as we passed each other. His leadership was even deeper and more critical to the civil rights movement than I had initially known. But what would I possibly have said to him or asked? How would I have broached meaningful topics in those brief moments? He was hurrying to important committee meetings, I suspect, with no time to carry on a conversation. I do, however, remember wishing I had said, “Thank you” as we passed kennedy quote. thank youon that sidewalk.

I was fortunate. I had a chance to say just that almost twenty years later.

In 2016, he, along with then-Congressman Sam Johnson of Texas, was presented with the Congressional Patriot Award by the Bipartisan Policy Center. I was lucky enough to be invited to the event, held at the Library of Congress. I brought my copy of Walking with The Wind, knowing I would ask him to sign it if the circumstance presented itself. As the guests mingled in an ornately beautiful room before the ceremony, I saw him enter without fanfare. I gathered my courage, walked up to him, and thanked him for all he had done for me, for people who looked like me, and for our country. Graciously, he thanked me for the kind words and signed my book.

At this time of the year when we are focused on resolutions and retrospection, I hope all of us take the time to reflect on those who have made a difference in our lives or in our world. If you have the chance to say something to that person, do so. Don’t wait until the perfect statement forms in your mind. Don’t be shy or intimidated thinking you may be intruding on a moral giant. The opportunity may never come again, and, realistically, your words will never be as perfect as you want. The eloquence will come from the purity of your feelings and the sheer power of uttering the heartfelt words, “Thank you.”

Happy New Year to all and wishing healing mercies for Congressman John Lewis.

 

 

Popcorn and Picketing

“Are the picketers out today?” a voice on the telephone asked, already knowing the answer. When the expected “Yes” response came, the caller replied, “Okay, then we won’t be coming to the movies today. They make the lines too long.”

At the time, my dad was the manager of one of the Lichtman movie theaters, a chain of segregated theaters in Washington, DC and across Virginia. The movies were a major form of entertainment. So, it wasn’t unusual for a group of us to be munching on popcorn and hot dogs and drinking cokes during a Saturday matinee at the Booker T, named for Booker T. Washington or the Walker, named for black entrepreneur Maggie L. Walker. We didn’t know that they got the movies a little later than the white theaters  only about ten blocks farther down Broad Street. And because we couldn’t go

Loews interior
The interior of the Loew’s Theater

inside those movie houses, we didn’t know of the opulence of their interiors. Many of the whites only theaters truly were old Hollywood movie palaces, Perhaps the most distinguished in Richmond was the Loews Theater that opened in 1928. It was the Loews that was called that day.

The voice on the phone was that of Debby Anderson Smith, one of my Forever Friends. Debby was only in junior high school when she made those calls. Remarkably, at the young age of 12, she had figured out a meaningful way to be a part of the civil rights movement. She was the youngest of three children. Her sister, Anna was in college, and her brother Bucky was in high school in the early ‘60s when the civil rights movement reached Richmond, Virginia, our hometown.

Perhaps, because she had older siblings, Debby, unlike the rest of us, had a deeper understanding of the movement. While we were sheltered from the conversations about protests, she heard them and watched as Anna, a student at historically black, Virginia Union University left home with her sandwich board to picket the downtown department stores. Thalhimers and Miller and Rhoads, like all the major stores of the time, denied blacks access to the upstairs fine dining rooms. She watched as her dad and Bucky drove off to Washington DC in August 1963 to participate in the March on Washington. And she watched as her parents regularly drove neighbors to the picket sites. Debby wanted to do something like her sister and brother, but her mother thought she was too young and that it was too dangerous.

That’s when Debby came up with her plan. She understood a fundamental part of the protest strategy: denying revenue to businesses got the attention of the power brokers. The protestors didn’t just march. They stood in line with others to purchase a ticket for the movies even though they knew they would be denied; therefore, the lines were long—very long—to get into the theater. When protestors were there, other customers wouldn’t want to stand in those long lines; so, the theaters lost money.

Simple calls telling the theaters that someone chose not to spend their money with them because they were being protested against, was Debby’s way of having her voice heard too. This was how she supported the movement.

While, in hindsight, we all felt that we had played a role in the civil rights movement simply by getting an education, dressing a certain way, talking a certain way and therefore being primed to walk through the doors of opportunity when they opened. Little did we know, until very recently, that our friend Debby played an active role. You go, girl.