Making an Ordinary Life Extraordinary

Soon no one will be left; we will only have us.

I watched the Representative John Lewis funeral today.

Encyclopedia of Alabama

John Lewis at Comic-Con | Encyclopedia of Alabama

I remember thinking at one point: one day there will be no one left.  One day, it will be only us. Those left behind to pick up the mantle.

No one will be left from the March on Washington.  No one will be left from the Selma March.  No one will be left from the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Rev. Lawson is 90 years old.  Diane Nash is 80; Bernard Lafayette is 80.  I met Bernard as President Lafayette, when he was President of American Baptist College.  That was my first faculty appointment. I was an assistant professor teaching Public Speaking and English at the men’s and women’s minimum and maximum security prisons in Nashville.. I started teaching as a first year law student, my second semester.  Going out to the prison gave my life a special purpose.  It was the start of my development of a consciousness around injustice, inequity, Black men incarcerated; women incarcerated.  I had access to another world — a world that is hidden and submerged; out of sight and often out of the mind.

I think about what it is like to lose a life, to lose a voice, to lose a presence.  We almost lost the voices of the formerly enslaved.  But, as part of recovery efforts during the Great Depression, the Federal Writer’s Project from 1936 to 1938  they captured the voices of the last known enslaved people. Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938, contains more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves collected as part of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration.

But that epoch, that period, is gone.  We have, thankfully, their own words as history.  But that will happen with other epochs and moments. Soon, no will be left who saw the signs:  White, Colored.

I would hope that we also wouldn’t have segregated schools.  The signs are gone, but the reality is still here. America is a segregated and unequal society. There are still battles that must be fought; still work to be done to reach that “more perfect union” of the American democracy. Who will be around to do this work? It must be the children whose hands and hearts John Lewis has influenced.

John Lewis.  An inspired and inspirational life.  Two years ago, I wrote about the impact of singular life:

art by @emmanuelaopc

We never know the where or what or how of our own life will impact others.  When my mom retired as a full professor of Social Work, a former colleague during her retirement said, “

In our system, you have influenced at least 1,500 students. That is quite a legacy to leave the world. Your energy and caring has planted seeds for much social change. In teaching history, you have greatly influenced the future.—Mary Cunningham, Department Chair, 1993

Mama was a Professor of Social Work, but into social work, she integrated history and the history of African-Americans, doing oral history, and capturing the narratives of over 100 elderly African-Americans as part of the Bloomington-Normal Black History Project.   

I am reminded of the impact of teachers – teachers who influence hundreds of students every year and thousands over a lifetime.  Teachers who plant seeds of hope and possibility, but also teachers who foster doubt, insecurity, and hopelessness. I have heard so many stories of Black students being discouraged by teachers from pursuing their aspirations and inspirations. We have to have teachers who can instill hope.  Teachers/professors are often seen as ordinary people.  They are.  But they can have lives of extraordinary impact.

John Lewis was born into an ordinary life – one of 10 children to parents who were sharecroppers. Before he made his ordinary life extra-ordinary, he was ordinary. We are all born ordinary.  We are not born with an extraordinary life.  We must make it extraordinary.  He was a “boy from Troy.”  Without wealth, without title, without fame, who in his early 20s, decided to challenge the status quo.   As they said at his service, “within all of us, there exists the capacity for great courage.”

And we have to activate that capacity by making a choice. John Lewis “made a decision about the kind of life he wanted to live.”  Each of us has to make our own decisions.   And we have to decide what life we will create and upon what values we will stand. For John Lewis, it was an incorruptible integrity; extraordinary kindness; unwavering commitment to nonviolence as a tool for justice; a global vision.  Because of America’s selfish myopic vision, it often ignores those who work for global justice. It is rarely part of their narratives, but it is important for us to increasingly recognize our interconnect world and justice impacts. John Lewis cared about the world :

John Lewis. He was here for a moment. Gone now, leaving a legacy behind and a final charge to those of us left behind.  A New York Times op-ed, a posthumous message:

While my time here has now come to an end, I want you to know that in the last days and hours of my life you inspired me. You filled me with hope about the next chapter of the great American story when you used your power to make a difference in our society. Millions of people motivated simply by human compassion laid down the burdens of division. Around the country and the world you set aside race, class, age, language and nationality to demand respect for human dignity.

That is why I had to visit Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, though I was admitted to the hospital the following day. I just had to see and feel it for myself that, after many years of silent witness, the truth is still marching on.

Emmett Till was my George Floyd. He was my Rayshard Brooks, Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor. He was 14 when he was killed, and I was only 15 years old at the time. I will never ever forget the moment when it became so clear that he could easily have been me. In those days, fear constrained us like an imaginary prison, and troubling thoughts of potential brutality committed for no understandable reason were the bars.

Though I was surrounded by two loving parents, plenty of brothers, sisters and cousins, their love could not protect me from the unholy oppression waiting just outside that family circle. Unchecked, unrestrained violence and government-sanctioned terror had the power to turn a simple stroll to the store for some Skittles or an innocent morning jog down a lonesome country road into a nightmare. If we are to survive as one unified nation, we must discover what so readily takes root in our hearts that could rob Mother Emanuel Church in South Carolina of her brightest and best, shoot unwitting concertgoers in Las Vegas and choke to death the hopes and dreams of a gifted violinist like Elijah McClain.

Like so many young people today, I was searching for a way out, or some might say a way in, and then I heard the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on an old radio. He was talking about the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence. He said we are all complicit when we tolerate injustice. He said it is not enough to say it will get better by and by. He said each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out. When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something. Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.

Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.

You must also study and learn the lessons of history because humanity has been involved in this soul-wrenching, existential struggle for a very long time. People on every continent have stood in your shoes, through decades and centuries before you. The truth does not change, and that is why the answers worked out long ago can help you find solutions to the challenges of our time. Continue to build union between movements stretching across the globe because we must put away our willingness to profit from the exploitation of others.

Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.

When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide. [Representative John Lewis]

Humble, yet tenacious; persistent, yet gentle; kind, yet direct.  It seems he was a man who knew the power of equilibrium; being in the balance. Able to reach compromise without compromising. 

As was said in his funeral.  His reminder to us: “Be kind; be mindful; be particular; make it plain; make it simple; make it sing.”

His example of his life and his statement of love and kindness, and conviction and a charge remind me of another message from Mary McLeod Bethune in her last will and testament. Her life started out as ordinary, one of 15 children of sharecroppers. She made her life become extraordinary and in her passing, left a message for us:

Florida Archives, Mary McLeod Bethune

Sometimes as I sit communing in my study I feel that death is not far off. I am aware that it will overtake me before the greatest of my dreams – full equality for the Negro in our time – is realized. Yet, I face that reality without fear or regrets. I am resigned to death as all humans must be at the proper time. Death neither alarms nor frightens one who has had a long career of fruitful toil. The knowledge that my work has been helpful to many fills me with joy and great satisfaction.

Since my retirement from an active role in educational work and from the affairs of the National Council of Negro Women, I have been living quietly and working at my desk at my home here in Florida. The years have directed a change of pace for me. I am now 78 years old and my activities are no longer so strenuous as they once were. I feel that I must conserve my strength to finish the work at hand.

Already I have begun working on my autobiography which will record my life-journey in detail, together with the innumerable side trips which have carried me abroad, into every corner of our country, into homes both lowly and luxurious, and even into the White House to confer with Presidents. I have also deeded my home and its contents to the Mary McLeod Bethune Foundation, organized in March, 1953, for research, interracial activity and the sponsorship of wider educational opportunities.

Sometimes I ask myself if I have any other legacy to leave. Truly, my worldly possessions are few.  Yet, my experiences have been rich. From them, I have distilled principles and policies in which I believe firmly, for they represent the meaning of my life’s work. They are the products of much sweat and sorrow.

Perhaps in them there is something of value. So, as my life draws to a close, I will pass them on to Negroes everywhere in the hope that an old woman’s philosophy may give them inspiration. Here, then is my legacy.

I LEAVE YOU LOVE. Love builds. It is positive and helpful. It is more beneficial than hate. Injuries quickly forgotten quickly pass away. Personally and racially, our enemies must be forgiven. Our aim must be to create a world of fellowship and justice where no man’s skin, color or religion, is held against him. “Love thy neighbor” is a precept which could transform the world if it were universally practiced. It connotes brotherhood and, to me, brotherhood of man is the noblest concept in all human relations. Loving your neighbor means being interracial, interreligious and international.

I LEAVE YOU HOPE. The Negro’s growth will be great in the years to come. Yesterday, our ancestors endured the degradation of slavery, yet they retained their dignity. Today, we direct our economic and political strength toward winning a more abundant and secure life. Tomorrow, a new Negro, unhindered by race taboos and shackles, will benefit from more than 330 years of ceaseless striving and struggle. Theirs will be a better world.  This I believe with all my heart.

I LEAVE YOU THE CHALLENGE OF DEVELOPING CONFIDENCE IN ONE ANOTHER. As long as Negroes are hemmed into racial blocks by prejudice and pressure, it will be necessary for them to band together for economic betterment. Negro banks, insurance companies and other businesses are examples of successful, racial economic enterprises. These institutions were made possible by vision and mutual aid. Confidence was vital in getting them started and keeping them going. Negroes have got to demonstrate still more confidence in each other in business. This kind of confidence will aid the economic rise of the race by bringing together the pennies and dollars of our people and ploughing them into useful channels. Economic separatism cannot be tolerated in this enlightened age, and it is not practicable. We must spread out as far and as fast as we can, but we must also help each other as we go.

I LEAVE YOU A THIRST FOR EDUCATION. Knowledge is the prime need of the hour. More and more, Negroes are taking full advantage of hard-won opportunities for learning, and the educational level of the Negro population is at its highest point in history. We are making greater use of the privileges inherent in living in a democracy.   If we continue in this trend, we will be able to rear increasing numbers of strong, purposeful men and women, equipped with vision, mental clarity, health and education.

I LEAVE YOU RESPECT FOR THE USES OF POWER. We live in a world which respects power above all things. Power, intelligently directed, can lead to more freedom. Unwisely directed, it can be a dreadful, destructive force. During my lifetime I have seen the power of the Negro grow enormously. It has always been my first concern that this power should be placed on the side of human justice.

Now that the barriers are crumbling everywhere, the Negro in America must be ever vigilant lest his forces be marshalled behind wrong causes and undemocratic movements. He must not lend his support to any group that seeks to subvert democracy. That is why we must select leaders who are wise, courageous, and of great moral stature and ability. We have great leaders among us today: Ralph Bunche, Channing Tobias, Mordecai Johnson, Walter White, and Mary Church Terrell. [The latter now deceased]. We have had other great men and women in the past: Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth. We must produce more qualified people like them, who will work not for themselves, but for others.

I LEAVE YOU FAITH. Faith is the first factor in a life devoted to service. Without faith, nothing is possible. With it, nothing is impossible. Faith in God is the greatest power, but great, too, is faith in oneself.  In 50 years the faith of the American Negro in himself has grown immensely and is still increasing. The measure of our progress as a race is in precise relation to the depth of the faith in our people held by our leaders. Frederick Douglass, genius though he was, was spurred by a deep conviction that his people would heed his counsel and follow him to freedom. Our greatest Negro figures have been imbued with faith. Our forefathers struggled for liberty in conditions far more onerous than those we now face, but they never lost the faith. Their perseverance paid rich dividends. We must never forget their sufferings and their sacrifices, for they were the foundations of the progress of our people.

I LEAVE YOU RACIAL DIGNITY.  I want Negroes to maintain their human dignity at all costs. We, as Negroes, must recognize that we are the custodians as well as the heirs of a great civilization. We have given something to the world as a race and for this we are proud and fully conscious of our place in the total picture of mankind’s development. We must learn also to share and mix with all men. We must make and effort to be less race conscious and more conscious of individual and human values. I have never been sensitive about my complexion.  My color has never destroyed my self-respect nor has it ever caused me to conduct myself in such a manner as to merit the disrespect of any person. I have not let my color handicap me. Despite many crushing burdens and handicaps, I have risen from the cotton fields of South Carolina to found a college, administer it during its years of growth, become a public servant in the government of our country and a leader of women. I would not exchange my color for all the wealth in the world, for had I been born white I might not have been able to do all that I have done or yet hope to do.

I LEAVE YOU A DESIRE TO LIVE HARMONIOUSLY WITH YOUR FELLOW MEN. The problem of color is worldwide. It is found in Africa and Asia, Europe and South America. I appeal to American Negroes — North, South, East and West — to recognize their common problems and unite to solve them.

I pray that we will learn to live harmoniously with the white race. So often, our difficulties have made us hypersensitive and truculent. I want to see my people conduct themselves naturally in all relationships — fully conscious of their manly responsibilities and deeply aware of their heritage. I want them to learn to understand whites and influence them for good, for it is advisable and sensible for us to do so. We are a minority of 15 million living side by side with a white majority. We must learn to deal with these people positively and on an individual basis.

I LEAVE YOU FINALLY A RESPONSIBILITY TO OUR YOUNG PEOPLE. The world around us really belongs to youth for youth will take over its future management. Our children must never lose their zeal for building a better world. They must not be discouraged from aspiring toward greatness, for they are to be the leaders of tomorrow. Nor must they forget that the masses of our people are still underprivileged, ill-housed, impoverished and victimized by discrimination.  We have a powerful potential in our youth, and we must have the courage to change old ideas and practices so that we may direct their power toward good ends.

Faith, courage, brotherhood, dignity, ambition, responsibility — these are needed today as never before. We must cultivate them and use them as tools for our task of completing the establishment of equality for the Negro. We must sharpen these tools in the struggle that faces us and find new ways of using them. The Freedom Gates are half-ajar. We must pry them fully open.

If I have a legacy to leave my people, it is my philosophy of living and serving. As I face tomorrow, I am content, for I think I have spent my life well. I pray now that my philosophy may be helpful to those who share my vision of a world of Peace, Progress, Brotherhood, and Love.

Mary McCleod Bethune.  – published in Ebony magazine, August 1955

Florida Archives

Mary McCleod Bethune and John Lewis are examples of ordinary individuals who led extraordinary lives of impact.  These two farewell messages remind me of our responsibility in our lives. Our singular life must become a plural life; a life filled with courageous choices and decisions; a life to impact the world, even if in small ways and even if one child at a time:

As I wrote in the blog post on “Singular Lives”:

Inspired by singular lives, like Mildred, and many others, may more of us be “disciplined advocates” for justice and equality, preparing others to continue at a higher level, leading shifts in systems. May more of us live lives that generate system shocks, create change, and accelerate transformation that improves lives, if even one life at a time by shifting stereotypes, shifting possibilities, shifting outcomes, and shifting the world. May more of us lead singular lives of impact – shocking systems across the world – to create a more just and humane society. May we rescue, salvage, and transform the driftwood of the world, — lives abandoned, voices silenced, those discarded, and those thrown away — by our art, action and activism.

At the same time, as we are pushing on a daily basis for change, for justice, because of the tenuousness of the string of life, we must also find time for joy and celebration; rest and respite; retreat and release; we also must make time to get away, to appreciate cows, clouds, and countrysides;

for dophins and rainbows (and reflecting on the lives of John McCain and Aretha Franklin)

and especially for monumental moments:

May we all have more monumental moments as we lead ordinary lives with extraordinary impact.

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