It all comes down to this

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Here are some of the rules:

1. In all things observe ordinary rules of courtesy and good behavior.

2. Be quiet but friendly; proud, but not arrogant; joyous, but not boisterous.

3. Be loving enough to absorb evil and understanding enough to turn an enemy into a friend.

4. If cursed, do not curse back. If pushed, do not push back. If struck, do not strike back, but evidence love and goodwill at all times.

These suggestions were included in a document to the African American community in December 1956 as they were about to board integrated buses in Montgomery, Al, for the first time. The “Integrated Bus Suggestions” were distributed by the Montgomery Improvement Association and signed by the association’s president, The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I saw these in a  post last week by Rebecca Onion, writing for The Vault, Slate magazine’s history blog. The historic document (reproduced below) is revealing and timely. The Integrated Bus Suggestions are as powerful and important today as they were in 1956.

The document implores “a calm and loving dignity befitting good citizens ….” And it instructs: “According to your own ability and personality, do not be afraid to experiment with new and creative techniques for achieving reconciliation and social change.”

The event prompting the suggestions is 58 years behind us. The buses are integrated now. Civil rights extended. But there is still much work to do.

As we celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., here at JMU and across the country, we should reflect on the nuts and bolts of how it was done by ordinary people. Dr. King’s call was not lofty or highbrowed. Instead, it was simple, doable, pragmatic — and it was undergirded by a truth that is universal and eternal: It all comes down to you and me and how we get along.

And none of us is exempt from “dignity befitting good citizens”— if we really want positive change.

Learn about JMU’s weeklong celebration of the life of Dr. King here: http://www.jmu.edu/multicultural/

And you’ll find more information here: http://www.jmu.edu/news/2014/01/13-mlk-week-events.shtml

Inez Jessie Baskin Papers, Alabama Department of Archives and History, Montgomery, Alabama.

Inez Jessie Baskin Papers, Alabama Department of Archives and History, Montgomery, Alabama.

Skeeter Phelan’s little mistake

Last week, I watched the movie, The Help, based on Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel of the same name. While most movies rarely come close to capturing the heart and soul of a book, this one did. I enjoyed it.

It also made me think.

In one scene, recent college graduate and aspiring writer Skeeter Phelan is pecking away on a typewriter. Changing her mind in mid-sentence, she grabs a little bottle of liquid paper and corrects the word. The problem with the scene is that liquid paper wasn’t on the market in 1963, the year in which the movie is set. In the 1960s, correcting a typing mistake required a little pencil-like device with a white or sometimes pink “eraser” and a brush to whisk away the debris. Liquid paper, although invented, was not yet the ubiquitous corrector it would become. I was surprised and amused that the movie’s fact checkers didn’t catch that. Then I realized that they were all probably too young. After all, we are a long way from the days of manual typewriters.

The appearance of liquid paper in the middle of 1963 created the same kind of anachronism that T.H. White used in The Once and Future King. It was out of place. Unlike White’s Merlyn who lives backwards through time and can thus legitimately mismatch time and space, however, Skeeter Phelan and the moviemakers have no such excuse. They should have gotten it right.

And so should we.

If there’s one reason to study history, the present is probably as good a reason as any. Despite what some fifth grade students may think, history is far more than an academic exercise to learn what happened in the past. Understanding history is essential for understanding the present. In fact, you really can’t get the present or the future just right unless you remember the past, and especially unless you understand it. Skeeter’s little mistake is a case in point.

On a far more important scale are the great events in our history, those that changed our nation forever and for the better. Those are events in history that we should learn accurately and remember forever. We need to know what society was like in the first half of the 20th Century. In Harrisonburg, as late as the mid-1960s, the movie theatres downtown had separate white and black bathrooms, and the balconies were reserved for blacks, the mezzanines for whites.

Civil Rights March on Washington, leaders marc...

The 1963 March on Washington (Image via Wikipedia)

The history of the American Civil Rights movement feels long ago. Watching the historic March on Washington through flickering black and white film reels, hearing the speeches surrounded by crowds dressed largely in suits and hats, makes it feel like we have put it in our distant past. But it is not as far away as we think.

It was not until 1971 that busing was upheld by the Supreme Court as a remedy for segregation. As late as the 1980s, some members of the Virginia General Assembly still disagreed with the principle of integration, and some Virginia school systems that defiantly closed their doors instead of integrating after passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act are still trying to catch up. No matter how far we move from the past, we can still touch it in small ways. Think of it as seven degrees of history.

Remembering the past, whether it’s liquid paper or civil rights, makes living today better.

This week and next the James Madison University community will put history on display when the campus celebrates the life and times of Civil Rights pioneer Dr. Martin Luther King. Beginning tomorrow, a series of events will commemorate the King legacy, and will include a keynote address by Calvin Mackie, Ph.D., an award winning mentor, engineering professor and motivational speaker.

To learn more about JMU’s celebration to honor the life of Dr. Martin Luther King visit   http://www.jmu.edu/multicultural/

The problem with protests

I get the Occupy Wall Street movement. Everyone who remembers the protests of the 1960s and

60 Wall Street

Occupied

1970s probably does as well, even if they are mystified by the OWS movement’s schizophrenic message. What comes through loud and clear, despite their muddy message, is this: “There’s something we don’t like, and we intend to make you uncomfortable until you pay attention.”

The problem with such protests is that they are only protests. It’s about hating, disliking, knocking something that one disagrees with. It is energy completely wasted. Without a clear message, and most critically without a positive message, OWS is doomed to fail.

It’s the same kind of protest that Westboro Baptist Church has waged. By protesting at the funerals of fallen American soldiers, they have delivered complaints without solutions. While they have a message, however noxious it is, the change they want to see is completely overwhelmed by the odor of their protest.

By contrast, other protest movements — the ones that have succeeded —  have one sterling difference.

Take the Civil Rights movement, for instance.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s when the Civil Rights movement was in full swing, there were plenty of protests and plenty of criticisms of the status quo. The difference was that this movement held out something that sailed far above the rabble, that stood in sharp contrast to the riots and the demonstrations, the arrests and the even the assassinations that marked it.

That difference was a dream of noble change. Articulated beautifully by the late Rev. Martin Luther King, the dream added the positive to the protests. It was as if his vision of what might be — what could be — gave credence and courage, as well as substance, to the protests that raged below. While protesters fought for civil rights, they held out the promise of positive change. In time, their dream began to materialize. The Civil Rights protests indeed spurred a better future.

The OWS movement has none of that. It has no overarching dream, other than a vague notion of “I want a bigger slice of the American Pie.” In its own hastily thrown together “literature,” it is self-admittedly a movement simply railing against a hodgepodge of things, like corporations and banks and heavy-handed police officers and government tyranny. In today’s vernacular, it is a movement against “whatever.”

Protests that rally around negatives and that neither shape nor promote a vision of a better future will never rise above the level of pointless and incoherent whining. While some of the protesters may have solid and thoughtful ideas of what this might be, most don’t. Few can articulate anything more than an “I don’t like this and that ideology” — despite enthusiastic attempts by the media to help them frame their message. It is, in many ways, a “designer” protest. A pick-your-own protest.

While change sometimes results from protests, organic change that alters lives more successfully rises from compassion and understanding. Our Be the Change people  demonstrate that every day, as do so many other Madison people. Like MeMe McKee (’99) who spent two years in Nicaragua working with the Peace Corps and Sarita Hartz Hendricksen (’02), director of the Zion Project, “a faith-based organization that runs holistic rehabilitation homes in Northern Uganda for both girl child soldiers and their children, and Congolese refugee women who are trying to escape prostitution,” according to their website. In their work, these women invest their energies in change, not protest.

Every successful protest needs a positive message — a dream. And until OWS can find that message, until they can lift their movement out of the confusing and wholly splintered message, all they will do is try the patience of local governments, anger the residents of the occupied spaces who are trying to peacefully live their lives, further polarize political thought, and inflame the passions of the most gullible who believe that protest for protest’s sake is a worthwhile goal.

The gift from September 11

September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City: V...

Image via Wikipedia

The sky was an exquisite shade of blue that morning. Nothing hinted at the immediate future — or the malevolence that had taken flight. In the city, New Yorkers boarded subway trains, sipped on cups of coffee and greeted colleagues. In Harrisonburg, students shuffled toward their 9 o’clocks. It was a beautiful day.

Until 8:46.

The news came in pieces. One student in Godwin Hall’s computer lab heard classes were canceled. Something had happened. As a friend drove her home in his convertible, she reveled in the gorgeous day. “I didn’t understand the gravity of the situation until I saw my roommates. They were stone-faced. One said, ‘We can’t get in touch with Katie’s dad.’ That was the hard part. All the phones were down.”

Everyone was glued to a television screen somewhere, in offices, homes and residence halls. We were the reluctant audience to a tragedy. Everywhere a collective gasp rose as disbelief gave way to reality. The World Trade Towers were crumbling. Then the Pentagon. And a plane went down in rural Pennsylvania.

We had touched tragedy before, or at least brushed by it, but this felt different. This was aimed at America, and it had penetrated deep into our collective American heart. Together we shuddered at the sights and sounds. On campus, President Rose received the chilling message: “He, I feel, is lost and probably not to be found.” Everywhere students craved information about parents, siblings, friends who they knew were too close to the fire. In the end, we would learn the JMU community had lost four of its own.

We all floated in a state of disbelief, like the moment when a roller coaster peaks and then propelled by a reality as powerful as gravity, we plummeted. We were breathless, lightheaded, as we descended into tragedy. As a nation, we recoiled.

And then we reacted.

I, like most mothers, took stock of my children. I drove to pick up my middle-schooler. I’m not sure why, but it felt like the right thing to do. I have often thought of the mothers and fathers, the wives and husbands, the children who had said goodbye at breakfast that morning. What did they do? Students reached out to each other. The world was suddenly insecure. With every step we took, we were searching for normalcy, for explanation, but none came. There was no reason.

Today’s college students were only 8 to 11 years old that fateful day. They watched the tragedy through children’s eyes, but the vision still stung. Scott Dyer (’12) remembers: “I was homeschooled that year and watched it all happen. My sister’s friend died on the plane in Pennsylvania. When you are that age you can remember it all, but you can’t do anything about it.” Anthony Baracat (’13) was in Disney World: “My dad was at a conference. There were a lot of pilots attending and I remember seeing them all cry. I was very concerned for my family’s safety. I wanted to take a self-defense class.”

The next day was Mary Marks (’12) birthday. “School was canceled, but wherever we went people were crying and sad. I did not understand the significance. I was very confused. The attack made me more aware of the world and how much power the U.S. has and how many enemies we have.” Josh Thoemke (’12) says, “I remember staring at the blue sky all day long and being afraid of it. It made me feel less invincible.”

Tyler McAvoy (’12) remembers: “I was beginning 6th grade, and my nervousness about making friends and not getting thrown in a locker by some mustached, pre-teen 8th graders was my priority at that point. I do remember the moment I discovered the towers fell. My teacher tried to break it to us easily.  ‘Something happened in New York today,’ she said, her voice trailing off. The stuffy classroom was silent and for a few minutes, we sat stunned, confused and scared. After regaining some composure, our teacher flipped on CNN, and we spent the rest of the day watching things unfold in a city many of us had seen only in pictures. It was a surreal experience, a bad dream, something intangible and truly unable to grasp.  How does an 11-year-old comprehend the loss of 3,000 lives? How could we understand the destruction of a skyscraper, or the plumes of smoke that covered people in ash as they ran from Ground Zero? Ten years later, I’m not sure I’ve fully wrapped my mind around it.”

On JMU’s campus, the Classes of 2002, ’03, ’04 and ’05 gave blood in massive numbers. They held hands and cried together. There were no Republicans or Democrats that day, no blacks or whites, no liberals or conservatives. Just us.

Oscar Wilde wrote, “Behind every exquisite thing that existed, there was something tragic.”*  What happened in the aftermath of September 11 was exquisite. As smoke cleared over Manhattan and Washington and Shanksville, tragedy united us. We were one nation. We rose up together, wounded but resilient. We were not separated by our differences but united in our sorrow. All of our disagreements, both petty and important, sank to the bottom of our consciousnesses. We were hit by a sudden clarity of what bound us together — our freedom and purpose as a nation.

If there is a legacy that we as a nation should cherish from the tragedy of September 11, it is this: What separates us should always be secondary to what unites us. Every one of us — all ethnicities, all political persuasions, all religions, all classes — should strive to recapture and hold on to the unity that was so pervasive in the weeks and months following September 11.

We will never forget the date. It is seared into our American heart just as Pearl Harbor had scarred our collective heart 60 years before. But the farther one moves from tragedy, the softer its impact becomes. Like grief, it fades. Gradually, our unity splintered. Too soon we allowed our politics and religion and divergent points of view to eat away at our unity. Too soon we were caught up in differences of opinion that really don’t matter at all when they are held up against the immensity of what we found when we lost so many.

Martin Luther King once wrote: “We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers.”* If we as a nation learn to subjugate our differences beneath our common identity as we did after September 11, we honor those who died that day. With their loss we were all diminished, and we must never forget the inestimable value of what we lost — and what we gained.

If we can rekindle, breathe life into the unity that we knew immediately after the towers fell, if we can place in permanent and proper perspective the value of each American above our own special and petty interests and opinions, then we can keep the gift from September 11. If that happens, those lost, including Bruce Simmons (’83), Craig M. Blass (’96), Matthew Horning (’97) and Brian Thompson, the father of Daniel Thompson (’03), will have died to create a world better than the one they left. Their lives, their deaths, will shore up the bedrock of a nation like none other: a nation that rushes to give blood, to aid neighbors, that shares its wealth and knowledge, that has as its foundational principal the inclination to lift each other up.

Monuments built at Ground Zero, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pa., will long tell the story of those we loved and lost on that fateful morning, as will the memorial on JMU’s campus. But monuments no matter how beautifully crafted, no matter how grand or expansive, do not sufficiently honor those who died. The only honor that will approach their sacrifice is if we unite to change the world. Our national unity, the precious and seemingly fleeting glimpse that appeared following September 11, must be reignited and stoked, in as much as we hold up a brilliant bright light for a dark world.

It is not pride or arrogance that should lead us, but the humble recognition that 2,819 individuals by their tragic deaths brought us all to our knees and to our senses. We are one nation. It is the great gift from September 11, and it will last as long as we cling to it.

To read more about the Madison community’s response on campus, visit: http://www.thebreeze.org/archives/9.13.01/front/front1.shtml  And to read moving and first hand accounts written by alumni, visit: http://www.jmu.edu/alumni/tragedy_response/read_messages.html

*Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray   *Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love, 1963
(Many thanks to Tyler McAvoy (’12) and Matt Turner (’12) for their help with this post.)

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