Tag Archives: Isabel Wilkerson

“Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” – Words to Remember for this and every July 4

(Just a short list – we could add so many, many more)

“Give me Liberty, or give me Death!”
Patrick Henry, March 23, 1775

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.
Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963

• from the statement by eight Alabama clergymen that prompted Dr. King’s response:
We are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders.  We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized.  But we are not convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely).

• From Dr. King’s response:
We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.
Martin Luther King, Jr., April 16, 1963 – from a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, in response to the celergymen who had written an open letter of criticism (the Letter from Birmingham Jail)

And if America is to be a great nation this must become true.
So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!
Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!
But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
Martin Luther King, Jr., at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963

What binds their stories together was the back-against-the-wall, reluctant yet hopeful search for something better, any place but where they were.  They did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done.
They left. 
In the end, it could be said that the common denominator for leaving was the desire to be free, like the Declaration of Independence said, free to try out for most any job they pleased, play checkers with whomever they chose, sit where they wished on the streetcar, watch their children walk across a stage for the degree most of them didn’t have the chance to get.  They left to pursue some version of happiness, whether they achieved it or not.  It was a seemingly simple thing that the majority of Americans could take for granted but that the migrants and their forebears never had a right to in the world they had fled. 
Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns:  The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration

“They carry them in their memory…” – (Lara Logan, 60 Minutes, Staff Sgt. Giunta, and Memorial Day)

“They carry them in their memory…”
Lara Logan, speaking to/of Staff Sgt. Salvatore Augustine Giunta’s Medal of Honor; 60 Minutes Presents Honoring Our Soldiers, 5/29/11

——

Memorial Day is a United States federal holiday observed on the last Monday of May. Formerly known as Decoration Day, it commemorates U.S. Service Members who died while in the military service. (Wikipedia).

Memorial Day.  A day to “carry them in our memories.”  Some died long ago.  Others more recently.

And those who survived remember their fallen friends.  Some who remember are now old, and feeble — like my wife’s father, who served as a Signalman on a Navy Ship – a ship that was hit by a kamikaze pilot, just feet away from him, near the end of World War II.

Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta

The places are many, and varied.  From Gettysburg to the Battle of Midway (I wrote about this battle last year on Memorial Day) to the battle in Korengal Valley, near the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Staff. Sgt. Giunta earned his medal.  Men died in that “classic L-shaped ambush.”  But Giunta did something remarkable, and then… (from Wikipedia):

Giunta learned two days later from Captain Kearney that the captain was going to recommend him for the Medal of Honor. He was uncomfortable about being singled out and labeled a hero. “If I’m a hero, every man that stands around me, every woman in the military, everyone who goes into the unknown is a hero,” he says. “So if you think that’s a hero—as long as you include everyone with me.”  Giunta insists that his actions were those of any man in his unit. “In this job, I am only mediocre. I’m average.”

Lara Logan and 60 Minutes presented a thorough and moving report of his work on that fateful day – take a look at the video here.

As always, in the United States, we fought and we fight to keep people free.  I think of much that I have seen and read and heard.  I especially thought of these:

From The West Wing, President Jed Bartlett, about a few who made it to the United States on a flimsy boat, from Cuba (from the Pilot episode:  script here):

With the clothes on their backs,
they came through a storm.
And the ones that didn’t die want a better life.
And they want it here.
Talk about impressive.

From the movie Gettysburg (text of movie speech, based on/taken from historical accounts, here):

Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain Addresses Maine Soldiers on What We’re Fighting For
This regiment was formed last summer in Maine.  There were a thousand of us then.  There are less than three hundred of us now.  All of us volunteered to fight for the union, just as you did.
Some came mainly because were were bored at home – thought this looked like fun.  Some came because we were ashamed not to.  Many of us came because it was the right thing to do.  And all of us have seen men die.
This is a different kind of army. If you look at history you’ll see men fighting for pay, for women, or for some other kind of loot. They fight for land, power, because a king makes them, or just because they like killing. But we are here for something new. This has not happened much in the history of the world.  We are an army out to set other men free.
America should be free ground, all of it. Not divided by a line between slave and free – all the way, from here to the Pacific Ocean. No man has to bow, no man born to royalty. Here we judge you by what you do, not by who your father was. Here you can be something. Here is the place to build a home.
But it’s not the land. There’s always more land.
It’s the idea that we all have value, you and me.
What we’re fighting for, in the end… we’re fighting for each other.
Sorry. Didn’t mean to preach.

Jeff Daniels as Colonel Chamberlain

From Isabel Wilkerson (winner of the Pulitzer Prize), The Warmth of Other Suns:  The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration:

In the end, it could be said that the common denominator for leaving was the desire to be free, like the Declaration of Independence said, free to try out for most any job they pleased, play checkers with whomever they chose, sit where they wished on the streetcar, watch their children walk across a stage for the degree most of them didn’t have the chance to get.  They left to pursue some version of happiness, whether they achieved it or not.  It was a seemingly simple thing that the majority of Americans could take for granted but that the migrants and their forebears never had a right to in the world they had fled.

For those who died to protect such freedom, “we carry them in our memories.”  

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson – A Big Book

Our mattresses were made
of corn shucks
and soft gray Spanish moss
that hung from the trees….
From the swamps
we got soup turtles
and baby alligators
And from the woods
we got raccoon,
rabbit and possum.
• Mahalia Jackson, Movin’ On Up

Richard Wright, the bard of the Great Migration, defected to the receiving station of Chicago, via Memphis, in December, 1927, to feel as he put it, “the warmth of other suns.” 

————–
I’ve been thinking about Big books vs. small books.

I’m not talking about the size of the book — although, a big book is usually bigger — i.e., more pages.  But not always:  consider Big Think Strategy:  How to leverage bold ideas and leave small thinking behind by Bernd H. Schmitt.  This is a big book with fewer than 200 pages.

I’m talking about the ideas, the sweep of the book.  And I am a big fan of big books.  Books that tie things together over a long haul.  Books that point me to connections that are important, connections that I have not thought of.  Recently, at the First Friday Book Synopsis, I presented my synopsis of Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson.  This is a big book, with a massive sweep.  Other titles come to mind:  Collapse by Jared Diamond; The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright.

(Click on the book cover for a better look at the photographs)

Well, here’s my new “current favorite big book” — The Warmth of Other Suns:  The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson.  Wilkerson is a Pultizer Prize winner (in 1994:  the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer in journalism) from her reporting days with the New York Times, and in this massive sweep of a book she tells the epic story of the Great Migration, the years from 1915 to 1970, when over six million African Americans left the American South for the North and West.  It is a terrific read, overflowing with insight into people, this country, prejudices, hopes, dreams…  I would like to suggest that you add it to your “serious non-fiction book” stack.  You will not be disappointed.

Here is a description from the New York Times review by David Oshinsky:

Wilkerson follows the journey of three Southern blacks, each representing a different decade of the Great Migration as well as a different destination. It’s a shrewd storytelling device, because it allows her to highlight two issues often overlooked: first, that the exodus was a continuous phenomenon spanning six decades of American life; second, that it consisted of not one, but rather three geographical streams, the patterns determined by the train routes available to those bold enough to leave.

People from Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi boarded the Illinois Central to Midwestern cities like Cleveland, Chicago and Detroit; those from Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia rode the Seaboard Air Line up the East Coast to Washington, Philadelphia and New York; those in Louisiana and Texas took the Union Pacific to Los Angeles, Oakland and other parts of the West Coast. Wilkerson is superb at minding the bends and detours along the way. She notes, for example, that some migrants, unfamiliar with the conductor’s Northern accent, would mistakenly get off at the cry of “Penn Station, Newark,” the stop just before Penn Station, New York. Many decided to stay put, she adds, giving Newark “a good portion of its black population.”

A segregated railroad depot waiting room in Jacksonville, Fla., 1921. (State Archives of Florida)

Here is just one paragraph – such a great excerpt:

The actions of the people in this book were both universal and distinctly American.  Their migration was a response to an economic and social structure not of their making.  They did what humans have done for centuries when life became untenable – what the pilgrims did under the tyranny of British rule, what the Scotch-Irish did in Oklahoma when the land turned to dust, what the Irish did when there was nothing to eat, what the European Jews did during the spread of Nazism, what the landless in Russia, Italy, China and elsewhere did when something better across the ocean called to them.  What binds their stories together was the back-against-the-wall, reluctant yet hopeful search for something better, any place but where they were.  They did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done.
They left. 

Wilkerson spent fourteen years researching this book (you can tell!), and interviewed over 1000 people.  The poignant moments in this book are too numerous to mention.  The description of the photograph of her own mother taken in the New World will leave a lump in your throat at the sheer symbolism of this new world “passport.”  This is the kind of reading that I wish I had more time to do.

I hope you have your stack of serious, sweeping, big book books to read.  They are rich indeed.  Add this one to your stack – you will not be disappointed.