My grandfather, the sharecropper in rural North Carolina who built his church beside his house, risked a lot for others. In rural North Carolina in the 1930's, there wasn't a lot of justice for black people caught up, as he used to say "in the clutches of the law." An accusation could mean your life, whether true or not. When people were in trouble they would often come to my grandfather, and he would hide them until they could leave town. My father recalls that the sheriff would often come to him and ask, "Gus, have you seen so and so?" And my grandfather would stand up and say "no," when so and so was hiding under the floorboards. He had eight children and no money and as a sharecropper was dependent on being hired to work by white men in the county. He risked a lot because he believed in justice and fairness.
If he could risk so much for others and for the principles of justice, so hard to achieve in an unjust world, nothing I could face raises any fear within me.
There are those who say that public service can be uncertain, frustrating and unfulfilling. One can grind away for a principle or for a cause and ultimately not effect much real change.
My own father, as a young preacher in Greensboro, North Carolina, opened his church to students at A&T college and the NAACP as they planned their boycotts, meetings to which he used to take me as a toddler, riding on his shoulders. We often forget that in those days no one knew how the civil rights movement would turn out. The achievements we look back on today as inevitable were not assured in the minds of everyone. It was a time of great uncertainty. But there was never any doubt as to what my father would do. He focused not on the chance of victory, but the righteousness of the cause and the nobility of the effort.
My father has always believed that action should match thought, which is how, one spring afternoon in the mid 1970's my mother picked up the afternoon paper to learn that her husband had decided to run for mayor of our town. The incumbent was unopposed and my dad didn't think he'd done a good job. Rather than criticize from the outside, he felt he should match his principles with action.
If he could step out on principle without regard for the consequences, then I have no impediment to the pursuit of justice, which is not dependent on any verdict, of either a jury or popular opinion.
People often note that public service work is hard, it is difficult and one could work as hard for greater compensation or greater fame.
The woman who picked up that afternoon newspaper, my mother, is also my inspiration. Like Emory Buckner, she knew that education was the way out of her rural North Carolina life, and she pinned her hopes on college. She worked part time jobs. She saved her money. She talks of people from her church coming up to her to give her a dime or a quarter to put towards college, because the whole community was committed to seeing her succeed. She was determined that her children would have different choices.
One summer when she was in high school, she even picked cotton to make money. Picking cotton is hard, back breaking work. Cotton is soft, but the bolls are sharp, and will slice your hands to ribbons, and the picking is done in the heat of the day at the height of the summer. You are bent over with the sack over your back, trying to fill it as fast as you can because that's how you make money. I was a child when she told me this story, and as I recall I turned up my nose as only a 12 year old daughter can, and said "Eeuw, Why would you ever pick cotton?" And she looked at me and said, "So that you would never have to."
And I never have.