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.