He folded his newspaper twice over and back. I reached for my book.
Even three chapters deep into Gore Vidal's The Golden Age, I struggled to follow the myriad of characters parading across the pages of the 1940s. Jet-lagged and meeting-weary, I read words, sentences, paragraphs, and reaching the end of the page, I knew none of it. I started to drift.
His voice startled me back to the open page. He ordered a drink in German. I don't recall what.
I looked back at my book, pretending I'd been immersed in the story and not in sleep. And there it was. A scene with FDR, an imagined look at the hours before Pearl Harbor.
And here I was. Only 57 years past Normandy. Flying over Strasbourg. Sitting next to a man who might have been a tall ten years old when the war was finally over, whose father might have "heil"ed Hitler, whose mother might have mourned, whose neighbors might have fled.
When our wheels touched down in Zurich, history didn't feel so far away.
"That was 1960?" I asked in disbelief.
"Texas," my husband replied. "The Cotton Bowl. And they've got the actual footage. It's awful. They aren't exaggerating this."
We'd heard the movie The Express (The Ernie Davis Story) was supposed to be good. And it was.
But it was hard to imagine that barely 50 years ago, when my father stood a tall ten years old, the Cotton Bowl's Most Valuable Payer wasn't welcome at his own awards ceremony. Because of his skin color.
When punches were thrown and slurs were shouted and signs were posted to keep people apart.
When equal opportunity was still just a dream.
A desperate, lay-your-life-down-for-it dream. So much more than a poster in the break room.
Martin Luther King Jr. wrote from a jail in Birmingham:
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
It doesn't matter which continent or century you pick. Our human history is ugly. It started with the garden, and we haven't let up since. But it has taken me a while (too long, in fact) to realize that our history--no matter how ancient--is connected, decade to decade, century to century, generation to generation.
It isn't just words in a book and multiple choices in a high school history quiz.
It's real. It happened. Some of it not very long ago.
I confess I have cared very little about history. I have paid only scant attention to the true stories that don't directly contribute to the plot of my own. In my apathy, I've stayed the "so-what?" student who studies to pass and not to learn.
And in doing so, I have been utterly foolish.
Because in this ancient and ongoing battle against self-destruction, indeed "we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny".
Just because my daughter hasn't been sold into slavery,
Just because my husband hasn't been tortured for his political views,Just because my son hasn't been forced to fight a grown man's war before he turns eight,
Just because my faith is not currently cause for persecution,
I still don't get to be immune.
I still don't have an excuse for crouching apathetically in a caved existence.
So let's say I stand up and take note. Let's say I study and say out loud that this is injustice. What difference would it make in the world at large?
I mean, really, what can one mother do to rid the world of injustice?
I'd like to know how Alberta Williams King would answer, if she were still alive.
Perhaps her reply, shaped by the brokenness of outliving her own son, would inspire us.
Perhaps she'd shut her eyes to lock in tears, shake her head and repeat the question, "What can one mother do to rid the world of injustice?"
Perhaps she'd open her eyes, tears slipping toward her smile and say,
"More than you might think, my dear. More than you might think."
I can't tell you how many times in the past year I've turned this question over. I'm just a mom. When people ask me what I do, I tell them "laundry". Who do I think I am, that I could actually make a difference, to pull even a pail's worth from this ocean of injustice?
Honestly, I don't know if the little I do will make any difference at all. But I want to be rid of this ugly habit of mine--this giving up before trying. I want to believe that even the smallest steps matter, that the miles will add up. Will you join me in the trying?
Originally published at Mylestones in January 2010.