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by the good people.”

― Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

It is easy to get so caught up in the rigmarole and routine of life that we miss and ignore human suffering all around us. Many of us have become desensitized to horrific events because we are inundated with them on a daily basis through our smart phone news feeds, social media and 30-second sound bites on the evening news. We are so surrounded by negativity, that it can be appealing to tune it all out. In some instances, ignoring it may feel like an act of self-preservation.

I am a proponent of boundaries and mental wellness, but we have to know when and where to really tune in to what is happening (or what has happened) around us. Every so often I will have a moment when the gravity of the suffering of other humans stops me in my tracks. I had several of those such moments during a recent visit to Charleston, South Carolina.

While I was there, I learned that between 40 to 55% of Africans who were brought to America during the transatlantic slave trade were brought through the Port of Charleston. At the recently opened International African American Museum, my family and I viewed an exhibit that demonstrated how the bodies of the captured Africans who were being transported to the Americas were subhumanly arranged in the bowels of ships during the Middle Passage.

While I was there, I was also able to see and touch the forever-immortalized fingerprint impressions made by enslaved toddlers, who were forced to turn freshly formed bricks in the hot southern sun, so that they would dry properly, while their mothers labored alongside them.

I was able to visit auction blocks where countless ancestors of African American people were bought and sold like horses, mules and other chattel.

I was able to visit the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the oldest Black churches in the United States, long known as a center for civil rights organizing, which was the location of a 2015 mass shooting by a White supremacist who killed nine African American parishioners.

On an intellectual level, I am well aware of the existence of slavery, racism, race-based hatred and oppression in the United States. I grew up with the awareness that my great-grandparents were born into slavery, and that the condition of their slavery had long-term generational repercussions on our family. My own father, who was born in 1950 in Arkansas under the heavy thumb of Jim Crow laws and policies, grew up picking cotton along with his mother and siblings to make ends meet.

I knew all of this, but when I experienced and visited the locations where many of our ancestors were forcibly arranged side by side, shackled together while lying in human excrement and breathing in the stench of death, the places where enslaved toddlers were forced to form and turn bricks in the heat, and the church where nine innocent people were killed while studying the Bible and engaging in worship--essentially places and circumstances where human beings were subjected to tremendous suffering, all because they were Black--it felt different. My heart broke (again) for what my people had been through. The emotions that I knew they had to have experienced felt palpable. Fear, bewilderment, intense anger and helplessness, all ran through me at different points during my time in Charleston.

After all of the stirring I felt in my soul settled down, I realized a quiet truth: those people, my people, had never lost hope. They kept fighting. They kept standing. They continued to live their lives with resilience and determination. After surviving unimaginable atrocities, they continued to soldier on. They did not stop. They did not lie down. And because of their resistance and defiant will to survive in the hopes of a brighter day for their descendants, their stories and their legacies live on through those of us who benefit from their sacrifice.

Our World Changer of the Month, Septima Clark, a native of Charleston, whose father had been born into slavery, is the quintessential example of that resilient defiance. Despite growing up in abject poverty, and being actively prevented from accessing an education for herself and from educating others, she not only secured her own high school, baccalaureate and post-baccalaureate degrees, she created opportunities and schools for African Americans so that they would not only have access to education, but would be able to access their right to vote. She did all of this with minimal resources while navigating racism, sexism and oppression with grace; never with anger. Known for her perseverance and steadfast nature, she was quoted as saying,“I never felt that getting angry would do you any good other than hurt your own digestion, keep you from eating, which I liked to do.”

So what now for us when we see human suffering, oppression and injustice happening all around us? How are we charged with responding?

Do we close our eyes and try to ignore it? Do we steel our hearts and intentionally desensitize ourselves to it? Do we create a story in our minds to justify the behavior? Or do we take action in a way that is true to ourselves, honors our history and calls us higher?

I know in my heart what the right answer is for me. The right answer for you is a personal matter, but I will leave you with this quote from Septima Clark as final food for thought:

“I believe unconditionally in the ability of people to respond when they are told the truth. We need to be taught to study rather than to believe, to inquire rather than to affirm.”

The second of eight children, Septima Poinsette Clark was born May 3, 1898, in Charleston, South Carolina. Her parents, Peter Poinsette, who was enslaved at birth, and Victoria Warren Anderson Poinsette, deeply valued education and prioritized access to it for their children notwithstanding their limited means.

Clark's first educational experience was in 1904, when she started attending Mary Street School. When Clark’s mother realized that she was not being educated at the school and was instead being made to sit on a set of bleachers with scores of other 6-year-olds, learning nothing all day, she quickly withdrew her from the school. An elderly woman across the street from their house was teaching girls, so Clark learned to read and write there. Her family could not afford to pay tuition, so Clark provided child care for the woman's children every morning and afternoon in lieu of payment.

Clark graduated from high school in 1916. Unable to afford college tuition, she sat for and passed a state examination at the age of 18 which licensed her to teach. As an African American, she was barred from teaching in Charleston's public schools, but was able to find a position teaching at Promise Land School in a rural school district on St. John's Island. There she taught children during the day and illiterate adults on her own time at night.

In 1918, Clark returned to Charleston to teach sixth grade at Avery Normal Institute, a private academy for Black children. At that time, she also joined the local branch of the NAACP. While teaching at the Avery Institute, she noticed the gross discrepancies that existed between her school and the White school across the street. Clark's school had 132 students and two teachers. Clark not only worked there as a teacher, she also served in the capacity of principal. As the acting principal and teacher, Clark made $35 per week, while the other teacher made $25. Meanwhile, the school across the street had only three students, and the teacher who worked there received $85 per week. Her first-hand experience with these inequalities led Clark to become an active proponent for teachers of color. In 1920, she secured the first of many legal victories when Blacks were given the right to become principals in Charleston's public schools.

Clark settled in Columbia, South Carolina in 1929, where she began teaching at Booker T. Washington High School. During summers, Clark began studies at Columbia University in New York, and at Atlanta University in Georgia. Between 1942 and 1945, she received a bachelor's degree from Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina and a master's degree from Hampton Institute (now Hampton University). While earning her B.A.,Clark took classes in the morning, taught from noon to five in the afternoons, and took more classes in the evenings. She was earning $62.50 per month in college and every summer she traveled to Maine to earn more money. In 1945, Thurgood Marshall, Clark and the other members of the Columbia, South Carolina chapter of the NAACP sponsored a lawsuit that won the equalization of teacher salaries.

In 1956, Clark obtained the position of vice-president of the Charleston NAACP branch. That same year, the South Carolina legislature passed a law banning city or state employees from being involved with civil rights organizations. Clark refused to leave the NAACP, and was consequently fired from her job by the Charleston City School Board, losing her pension after 40 years of employment. Thereafter, no school in Charleston would hire her.

Clark is most famous for establishing "Citizenship Schools" which taught Black adults how to read, as well as citizenship rights so that they could pass the voter registration exams that had become so prevalent in many Southern states. Citizenship Schools were frequently taught in the back room of a shop so as to elude the violence of those who did not want Blacks educated. In addition to literacy, Citizenship Schools also taught students to act collectively and protest against racism.

The schools ultimately spread to a number of Southern states, growing so large that the program was transferred to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1961. With the increased budget of the SCLC, the Citizenship School Project was able to train over 10,000 teachers throughout the South, reaching and educating more than 25,000 people. By 1958, 37 adults were able to pass the voter registration test as a result of the first session of community schools. By 1969, about 700,000 African Americans became registered voters thanks to the Citizenship School movement. Clark came to national prominence, becoming the SCLC's director of education and teaching and the first woman to gain a position on the SCLC board. Clark worked closely with other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, including Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois. Washington and Clark both emphasized the importance of self-improvement before the importance of institutional reforms. DuBois and Clark agreed on the emphasis of education as the most important approach to the civil rights movement.

U.S. President Jimmy Carter awarded Clark a Living Legacy Award in 1979. She penned two memoirs: Echo in My Soul, and Ready from Within: Septima Clark and the Civil Rights Movement, which won the American Book Award. Clark died December 15, 1987. At the time of her death, she was awarded the SCLC's highest award, the Drum Major for Justice Award.

Everybody dies, but not everyone has lived."

C.S. Lewis

High achievers tend to be risk averse rule followers. To be fair, this is usually for good reason. Following the rules and staying within pre-set boundaries tends to pay off, or at least that is what we are socialized to believe. I agree that we owe it to the other humans with whom we share space to engage in prosocial and cooperative behavior. Society would not function properly if we did not. However, being a good citizen and living life in a manner that pushes past artificial limitations are not mutually exclusive.

We must be willing to take risks that are consistent with our purpose and/or calling. As an anonymous philosopher once said, “Your current safe boundaries were once unknown frontiers.” In other words, someone had to do it first. Someone had to invent a mechanism with four wheels and a motor that could carry people from one place to another at a time when most people were traveling by foot or horse. Someone had to invent a machine that could keep itself in the air and propel itself thousands of miles at a time when automobile production was in its nascent stages. Someone had to become the first female medical doctor at a time when women were generally not permitted to be educated. In short, someone has to both have the vision to see what others do not, as well as the courage to act upon it.

I challenge you to ask yourself if there is something in your heart that you feel called to do, but haven’t because of fear—fear of failure, judgment, disappointment, embarrassment or shame. I dare say that we all have a dream that we have buried in the recesses of our hearts and have tried to ignore because we are afraid of where the journey of exploration of that dream will take us.

What if the people who invented the first car and the first airplane abandoned their invention efforts because they were afraid of failure or other people’s judgment? It is probable that eventually someone would have developed a prototype for their invention, but their specific contributions and unique insights would be lost and their legacy would be omitted from the annals of history.

There is a time for everything under the sun: a time to study fastidiously, a time to diligently labor, and a time to quietly prepare, but if your heart is telling you that it is time to stand up, step out and do more, do not ignore that message. In trying to convince yourself that you are satisfied with the status quo, you may be limiting yourself from realizing your fullest potential and depriving the world of the blessing of who you truly are.

Monthly Words of Encouragement

World Changers of the Month Archive

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