Thursday, April 15, 2010

Chicken Debeakers, Bologna Sandwiches, and a PBS Documentary

In 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr. capped the protest march from Selma to Montgomery (5 days/roughly 55 miles I believe) with what is often referred to as his "How Long, Not Long" speech. One particular line from this fairly short, yet stirring (even in retrospect and for someone who is acknowledgingly privileged) address is on my mind this morning: "We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience." Hmm, a lot to think about here.

This notion of noble expectation is weighing on me for reasons both content specific and ideologically tangential. First and most obviously, I was watching the PBS "Eyes on the Prize" series on KET last night (if you have not seen this, I encourage you to get your hands on it - it is documentary on the Civil Rights Movement that is as balanced and thorough as you will find). Secondly, my students are in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement and Great Society unit. Finally, my inspiration is also in part related to this morning's news blurbs on hospital visits for homosexual couples (but also affecting widows/widowers and patients who are otherwise single). For those who have not seen the coverage (and because this is the one that I suppose is more of a stretch), President Obama has requested that the Department of Health and Human Services establish a regulation that would inevitably prohibit discrimination as related to hospital visits (allowing patients themselves decide who can visit).

So, these are my reasons for contemplating King's quote. I think it's important, however, to also point out what isn't on my mind, and subsequent agenda, this morning. I have no intention of detailing a melodramatic reflection of the discrimination and violence (both physical and symbolic) that Americans have historically inflicted upon one another. This is not a topic of debate. It is disheartening, and embarrassing, and shameful to acknowledge the irrevocably undemocratic and unjust means that have been pursued in the name of assumed patriotism. I also have no interest in romanticizing civil disobedience or King himself. Even the most noble men and moral movements are flawed, marred by ulterior motives and power struggles.

So, four paragraphs in, I finally get to the point...:)
I think it's important for us all to think about what we are individually doing today to contribute to a society that can live with its conscience. If all we do is look back at those images of protesters being attacked by dogs or sprayed with fire hoses and think "that is so sad" or "why would people do that?", then we really have learned very little. While progress in human rights has undoubtedly been made in the forty plus years since this march, discrimination and fear and hatred born out of ignorance continue to be cornerstones of some political philosophy and more specifically, lie at the heart of individual rationales for who should be entitled to certain "privileges" (and more often than not, these privileges are in fact, constitutional "rights"). I simply think it imperative to recognize that democracy was not only a myth at various points in history, but that it will remain so unless we are willing to embrace experiential education, some degree of empathy, and a more inclusive sense of open-mindedness (for instance, some will argue that they are not racist, but openly homophobic).

I know that this all sounds idealistic, grounded in Pollyanna theories rather than in the reality of war, and economic instability (though improving conditions), and voter apathy. I'm okay with that. It doesn't hurt to have something to shoot for (obviously ideas are much more useful, though, when strategy accompanies them). I have also been thinking about a specific example, however, that gives credence to this notion of individuals (probably unknowingly and without intention) contributing to a society that can live with its conscience...

For those who knew Leon Turner, you knew he was a character; one of the most entertaining story-tellers I will ever know, occasionally as foolish as any of us Turner sisters have ever been, hard-working entrepreneur, according to him, probably the best athlete to ever come out of Marrowbone, and most importantly, just a "good man" - he may not have been the most politically correct, but his notion of good and bad was based on how people treated him and his family, not on what they looked like or what they believed. He gave people a fair shake. Papa was simply #1 (as he would often say when talking about his grand kids).

In the summer of 1966, Papa and my dad (CLT would have just graduated from high school) were in southern Mississippi contracting for a chicken company. A few months prior, Papa had patented a "chicken debeaker" and was traveling to various locations, primarily in the south, to educate prospective users and to obviously market the product. One afternoon, Dad and Papa loaded in a van, along with 4 or 5 men who were from the area and happened to be working with them that day, and went to a country store for lunch (according to Dad, they just wanted to get some "bologna sandwiches and drinks"). As Papa got out of the truck and started toward the store, he noticed that the guys remained in their seats. His response was simply, "well, c'mon, let's get something to eat." The workers, all whom happened to be black, knew what they were getting into and were justifiably hesitant. Papa would have none of it. Finally convincing the men to come to the porch, he walked in, I imagine, just as confidently as he would have into his own store in Waterview, Kentucky. Dad said that a small group of men who were in the store just watched as Papa told the woman behind the counter what this motley crew wanted for lunch. She responded only that he and Dad could eat in the store, but that the other men would have to go around back to get something. Long story short, Papa threw a fit, ended up taking his, Dad's, and the other men's lunches with them, and threw another fit to the company owner. His anger was not based on some predetermined involvement in a civil justice movement. It was driven by what I imagine to be notions of: "This is stupid. We all are hungry. We all have money to spend. Not a one of us is bothering anybody."

Now, I want to reiterate that occasionally we all verge on romanticism when we talk about past events, and particularly those that involve our families. I will try to avoid this. I know that Papa used the antiquated term "colored" and I know that he acknowledged race as a practical reality. And as I just mentioned, I know that he would have never seen himself as a civil rights activist. In fact, part of his anger was likely a result of his pride - these were men working with him and he didn't want to take shit for it. But, I firmly believe that Papa also understood that this act of discrimination, a refusal of service that did not even apply to him, violated those principles that made him a good man.

The society that Papa envisioned could have lived with its conscience.


  1. Pa Pa was a wonderful person. He had a strong sense of right and wrong and would let people know exactly how he felt. (Much like CLT)

  2. I really am lucky to have grown up around such clever, hard-working, funny, and just "good" people. Papa and Dad have given us all lots of stories to tell:)