Monday, January 16, 2006


I once worked for a man who was giving and compassionate in many, many ways. But he was also a Southerner through and through, and whenever the rest of the country was talking about or celebrating MLK Day, he would pointedly call it "Robert E. Lee" day.

Some Southern gentlemen are still bitter about the gains made by the civil rights movement.

Today, as is the case with many other holidays, people will enjoy their day off (for me, no day off -- the day before class is always a prep & grading day), but they won't think about why they have a holiday. Americans will sleep in, shop, use the extra 24 hours away from the job to paint the porch or clean out the garage, but only some will take even a minute to remember the incredible courage of the people who stood against those in power who believed that only some people, the "right" people, were fully human and fully citizens.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a fascinating, complicated, flawed man (read Taylor Branch) -- who did the right thing even though it was so personally inconvenient it cost him his life.

When I think of civil rights heroes, though, I think of Bob Moses. Not nearly as famous as King or Rosa Parks, Moses went to Mississippi alone when oppression of blacks was at its peak, and tried to register blacks to vote. Alone. I'm going on memory here because I don't have time to recheck exact facts (planning & grading and all that...), but if Moses wasn't the absolute first to give this a try, he was among the first. This was the era when Mississippi blacks who even spoke to people like Moses found bullets flying through their front windows. This was the era when Schwermer, Goodman, and Chaney, who arrived* with many others to register blacks to vote, were murdered by "Southern gentlemen" in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Bob Moses tried this alone. And beyond Moses were thousands of others whose names no one remembers who pushed hard to right the embarrassing wrongs of a country that claimed to be a land of freedom.

We've learned over the past few years that we don't have to be part of a minority to be on the receiving end of oppression by the powerful. We only have to be sitting on the wrong side of power. (And not even that -- many Americans today support the oppressors and are enthusiastically giving up their civil rights.) And while we're in dire need of heroes right now -- Cindy Sheehan can't do it all -- we can't wait for "big name" leaders to step up. Like Bob Moses, we each need to do what we can.

*My sometimes unreliable memory insists that Chaney might have been a local -- that's the kind of fact I don't have time to research right now.

Edit: That link I inserted says that Chaney was, indeed, local.

No comments: