Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Stories Beneath the Story

                         The Stories Beneath the Story
“There are so many men and women who hold no distinctive positions but whose contribution towards the development of society has been enormous.”    Nelson Mandela

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.”  Nelson Mandela

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed people working consistently can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has”  Margaret Mead

   Last week was a week of celebration and thoughts about change and courage for me. Last Monday was the Reverend Dr. King’s birthday, and his life always brings a focus on people displaying courage to make change and make things better. There were King Day breakfasts, service projects, religious and political meetings, and I took part in a march from Independence Hall to Mother Bethel AME Church at 6th and Lombard, which rests on the oldest piece of property continually owned by Black people in the United States. It was both a day of reflection and action. Last Tuesday we saw the film, Hidden Figures, about Black women who worked for NASA in the 1950’s and 1960’s and were a vital part of the space program. There were some 33 black women who were the “computers” of the time, and these women had to deal with both the racial and gender issues of that time.  Their lives and experiences, about which I knew nothing, were eye opening to me. The film focuses on three women very specifically, but there were a lot of scenes of the group of women together that clearly made the point that this was about more than just 3 exceptional people. Scenes showed the important roles family, church and community played in the women’s lives, and I was again amazed at the beauty and power in showing the courage of ordinary people in some pretty extraordinary circumstances. 

    Experiencing the two things so closely together deeply moved and affected me. I was glad for both experiences. And it also made me aware again of one of the things that sometimes bothers me about our historical celebrations and observations. Without necessarily meaning to, we leave a lot of people on the sidelines that were important parts of the stories we are honoring, and we miss, I think, an important part of the story when we do that. Too often we are guided by the “Great Person” way of looking at history, and we miss some very important and wonderful things.  When I taught American and world history I often told students that history is about story-what happened, why did it happen, how did it happen, and most importantly, who were all the ordinary people involved.? How were they affected? What did they do leading up to the big event  or just after it. To me, that is where the power and beauty of history rests. As the Margaret Mead quote states, it is the actions of groups of people and not just 1 great person that makes history and makes change. We may symbolize or personify the story through a great person, but it is the work of groups and of the "ordinary" that also played a huge role in making it possible.

    I love Dr. King; he is and has been an inspiration to me for decades. His quotes move me, the way he could strategize and plan for the future were amazing, and his courage was formidable in the face of great danger and even of the face of his own great fear. And the more I came to learn about him the more I realized that he was a person who was able to do extraordinary things in very dangerous circumstances only with the help and support of thousands of other people. Those folks were the “ordinary people” who made things possible, and when we look at them we can see that they have important and fascinating stories as well. We have endless quotes from and renditions of the “I Have A Dream Speech, every year, and it is thrilling and moving. I weep a little every time I hear it. But way before that moment in Washington, there were the actions of hundreds of ordinary people consistently doing things that led up to that moment and made it possible. I would love to see their stories told as well; they deserve it, and we need to see it. 

  One of the reasons I loved the film, Selma, was because it showed both King and the movement more fully. It showed him as a real person, with foibles, fears, and occasional confusion, and bad actions. He wasn’t just an icon. It also showed the ways some people disagreed with him, challenged him, and were the infrastructure of the movement that allowed him to accomplish so many of the things he did. He was great, yes, and for many he was the voice of the Civil Rights Movement.  But it was not him just by himself.

   Take the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. People know about Rosa Parks’ refusing to sit in the back of the bus and being arrested on Thursday, December 1, 1955. But most people do not know that she had worked with the NAACP for years, was not the first black woman arrested for sitting in the front of a bus, and that she had set out to get arrested. Most people also do not know that Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr was not really associated with the people who helped organize the initial meeting which led to the famous boycott.  It was labor leader E.D. Nixon who tricked King into hosting the first meeting because King was new in town and the powers that be in Montgomery did not know him and therefore had no plans on how to deal with him. And the first boycott meeting happened, in fact, not because of King, but because of the actions of one of my all-time favorite unknown heroines-Jo Ann Robinson. A long-time member of the Montgomery Women’s Council, a black group that had been advocating for change in the Montgomery transportation system for several years, she and her family hand mimeographed-not XEROXED or photo copied-hand mimeographed some 52,000 fliers Thursday night that were placed in churches, given to high school students, and placed in barber shops and other places on Friday, December 2, calling people to that first meeting on that Friday evening.  That initiated a one day boycott of the bus system on Monday, December 5, and it was the success of that Monday boycott that led to the full- blown Montgomery Bus Boycott that we think of today.

   So behind every great or important person and event, then, there are hundreds of ordinary people without whom the story of the great person/event would not have been possible. Yes, the Reverend Dr. King was a phenomenal and charismatic speaker, had wonderful ideas, and  said many wise and inspiring things. But without E.D. Nixon, Jo Ann Robinson, Rosa Parks and so many others in the early days of the boycott, he would never have emerged as a leader of the boycott. And then, without the hundreds of maids, cooks, shoeshine boys, chauffeurs, mechanics, students, teachers, volunteers and others who later marched in other rallies for years and were willing to be beaten and arrested, the movement and King’s emergence as a force for change would simply not have been possible. It was these groups of ordinary people that sustained the movement and helped bring forth change. That is important to me, for it says you and me, we all have a role to play in affecting and moving society. We are not all great thinkers or planners. We are not all great speakers. Most of us are “ordinary.” But being “ordinary” is not a deficit, and it doesn’t mean we have to be regulated to the sidelines. We all can be part of the change we want to see in the world. We can all be a part of making it happen. That is what has made things happen in the world and will continue to do so in the future. And that is one of the legacies of Dr. King’s story and of the women in Hidden Figures. All of us have roles to play if we are willing; the times for us to act will definitely be there.

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