civil rights

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It has been a difficult week or so since the Presidential election. Thankfully, we had a clear winner of both the electoral votes and the popular vote. Still, President Obama’s re-election did little to heal divisions. A disturbing number of petitions have been launched calling for states to secede from the federal United States. A woman was arrested for running down her husband for not voting. A man began flying the American flag upside down as a sign of distress. Comments boards have been full of the same trash-talking nastiness that preceded the election, much of it treating the outcome as if it was a Monday Night Football beating.

Meanwhile, both sides of the aisle in Congress, along with President Obama, continue to posture from their entrenchments over positions taken with regard to the approaching Fiscal Cliff deadline. Most of it is attributable to politics as usual while Americans and American businesses and American investors await Federal tax decisions that will have real consequences for 2013 and beyond.

Then, without a breather, we’ve had the resignation of General David Petraeus as CIA chief in the wake of an extra-marital affair, leading to the extra-bizarro world of scandals cascading to the FBI agent who began the investigation, a socialite with lots distracting side-stories, and linkage to the current general in charge of the Afghanistan theater. All of it representing layers of distraction from the real scandal — the deaths of four Americans, who went without requested security and aid, during the attack on our consulate in Benghazi.

I don’t know about you, but I am thoroughly disgusted by the profiles in cowardice on exhibit in recent weeks. We are all human and we all have our weaknesses and failings, but no one on the horizon appears to be taking a long view, or thinking of whether their actions are corrosive and ultimately self-defeating in pursuit of momentary satisfaction, or giving anyone else consideration or even the benefit of the doubt.

"Claudette Colvin; Twice tward Justice" by Phillip Hoose won the National Book Award

"Claudette Colvin; Twice Toward Justice" by Phillip Hoose won the National Book Award

At times like this, grace can sometimes be found in unexpected places. When I was at my low point surveying the current landscape, I discovered uplift in of all places, my daughter’s latest school project: a non-fiction book report. She chose a recent National Book Award winner, “Claudette Colvin; Twice Toward Justice” by Phillip Hoose.

Whereas most Americans know who Rosa Parks is, few of us have ever heard of Claudette Colvin or her inspiring story. You owe it to yourself to learn who Colvin is via either Hoose’s excellent account or other resources. Frankly, Colvin was a solo spark in the fight against bus segregation, and all forms of segregation. She was a lonely teenager who had big dreams, recognized simple right from wrong, and demonstrated a remarkable personal courage made all the more remarkable because of her youth.

In a nutshell, well before the courageous but organized bus protests and civil rights marches of the 60s, Claudette Colvin was riding a Montgomery, Alabama public bus and refused to give up her seat to a white woman standing in the aisle. Her three friends and seatmates got up, leaving three available seats, but the white woman would not sit down and insisted that Colvin get up from the row as well. Colvin stood her ground, which led to her arrest for violating bus segregation laws, disturbing the peace, and “assaulting” police officers. Quite simply, she knew she was within her Constitutional rights, but it took tremendous presence of mind and moral focus to not bend to the pressure of the woman in the aisle, the bus driver, a transit officer, and finally two police officers who subsequently boarded and dragged her off the bus. She went to jail, had to brave bullying by law enforcement, ostracism by classmates, and a judge who found her guilty, even maintaining the “assault” charge in a subsequent appeal, so she was branded with a criminal record.

There are many other aspects to Colvin’s story, but ultimately it was her decisive action that helped lead to the Supreme Court upholding the abolishment of segregated seating and to spurring on Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and other civil rights leaders to vigorously carrying on the fight.

Colvin, now in her 70s and having subsequently lived a quiet life out of the limelight, stands as a shining example for all of us at this particular moment in our history. The time is always right for each and every one of us to do the right thing.  Taking a stand against hate and for freedom and individual rights often requires courage and the potential for mistreatment by others. This is what leadership looks like. If more of us were willing to take such principled stands against popular opinion, withering criticism, and hard-nosed  entrenched authority and special interests, we might be able to effect positive change. Sometimes it means picking your battles, but in Colvin’s case, her battle picked her, and even as a young teenager without any adult to guide her, she rose to the moment and made a lasting difference. Her personal courage really resonates at this time when so little is on display from our elected and appointed leaders.


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