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.

 

 

The Civil Rights Story: Another Layer Revealed

 “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” — Maya Angelou

When Roscoe Jones was 17 years old, he attended the Freedom School in Meridien, Mississippi, a school established by the Council of Coordinated Organizations to provide black students with an actual education, not the inferior one that black children then received in the Mississippi public schools.

Roscoe was recruited by, and ultimately led, the youth chapter of the NAACP. During the summer of 1964, Freedom Summer, he worked on voter registration. It was only through a quirk of fate he was not in the car with James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner on the night the Ku Klux Klan killed them in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Schwerner  had  overheard a call Roscoe received inviting him to talk with a youth group. He urged Roscoe to stay and do that talk instead of joining them. Fate.

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Roscoe Jones beside the grave of James Chaney

I met Roscoe earlier this year. Last month, I joined him and a group of racial equity activists and knowledge seekers from the Washington, DC area on a civil rights learning journey. I thought I knew a lot about that movement. Now I know my knowledge has been superficial. I know the basic facts; the dates, the names and the more prominent incidents. But it wasn’t until this trip to Memphis, Tennessee and several parts of Mississippi and Alabama that I learned the nuances, the shadows, and just how different the life of a black, 17-year-old in Richmond, Virginia—my life—in the late 1960s was from that of one in Meridien, Mississippi or Birmingham, Alabama. The Deep South.

While I was attending a public high school at which I was receiving a solid, college prep education and hanging out with friends at state parks or at pool parties, Roscoe was organizing with his peers and risking his life to register voters. Only about 800 miles separates Mississippi from Virginia geographically, but we were separated by centuries of racial realities. Our worlds were incredibly different.

One of our guides shared the story of her mother, a social studies teacher, trying to register to vote. She was prepared when the registrar asked her to recite the preamble to the Constitution; she had had her students memorize it as they learned American history. Then came the follow-up question. Do you remember Oprah Winfrey in the movie Selma, the scene in which she was trying to register to vote? She was asked the number of counties in the state and then to name all the judges in those counties. You may have thought it was an exaggeration to make the point. But sitting before me was a woman in her 60s, recounting her mother’s sadness at being denied the vote because she could not recite the entire Constitution.

In Richmond, a poll tax was a requirement to register to vote until the mid-1960s, but the registrar did not ask the number of bubbles in a bar of soap or the number of feathers on a chicken.

Nowhere in my recollection of Richmond’s history were black people jeered and assaulted as they registered their children for school as were Fred and Ruby Shuttlesworth when they tried to enroll their children in an all-white school in Alabama. The crowd beat Fred Shuttlesworth with brass knuckles and stabbed Ruby.

I heard stories and learned things I never knew.

The differences I felt in Roscoe’s and my experience strengthened—chillingly so—when visiting the Kelly Ingram Park across from the 16th Street Baptist Church, the site of a bombing that killed four young girls.  Memorials are throughout the park. One depicts young people huddled against a wall with water hoses aimed at them, but the most powerful had snarling dogs leaping at you on both sides of the walkway. Only a soundtrack of growling, enraged dogs would have made it more realistic. No caring, compassionate person could visit such representations of fundamental moral wrongness, and not come away with a visceral—heartsick—feeling, but one, nonetheless, mixed with pride and awe for those who stood up and protested.

When I think of the civil rights movement, my frame is the non-violent protests in my home city. Nothing like this happened, to my knowledge, as young people in Richmond advocated peacefully for integrating downtown movie theaters and department store restaurants. I was aware at the time of the violence in Birmingham and on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Those were newsreel images. My mind hadn’t wrapped around the pervasiveness of the daily terror, the consequences of not stepping off the sidewalk as a white family walked by or of being dragged from your home in the night, beaten and possibly lynched to provide an example to others.

We hear a lot about the greatest generation, typically about World War II veterans. This trip reminded me that there are others in that greatest generation, the civil rights workers. The Roscoe Joneses of the Deep South risked their lives for many of the rights we take for granted today. They, too, were soldiers fighting for justice, for the freedom portrayed in our Constitution. Today as Roscoe, and others, share their stories with people like me, he deepens our understanding of what those experiences that we read about really were like and he strengthens our commitment today to racial equity. I am  grateful.