Friday, September 24, 2010

Acting Courageously

Recently, I visited Atlanta, GA where the Carter Presidential Library sets, serene and peaceful inside a busy city, not far from the Capitol buildings and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s childhood home. Stately oaks surround the library grounds, shielding guests from the sun’s brutish ways. At the entrance, fountains spill cool water and mask the sounds of traffic.

No modern-day security checkpoints impede one’s progress into the library and its exhibits. No roped lanes transform the visitor into a rat in its maze. The single officer on duty says, “Welcome” and directs guests to the gift shop where another employee collects an admissions fee and points the way to the theater for a film about Carter’s life and career.

Beyond the film, there are exhibits about Carter and his family, notably his dad, the inspiration for Carter to pursue a life dedicated to leaving his part of the world better than he found it. To this end, Carter campaigned to be governor of Georgia and President of the United States. His wife, Rosalynn, campaigned to improve the conditions for citizens who are disabled—not by a loss of limb or Traumatic Brain Injury as many war veterans are, not by debilitating disease; rather by a disease that carries few outward signs: mental illness. Hand in hand, President and Mrs. Carter have built homes for the homeless; they have helped stamp out death and injury from the guinea worm and mosquitoes. Truly, their lives and their service to the nation and the world should humble all of us.

In addition to the Carters’ story, the Presidential Library was host to one of the Smithsonian Institution’s Traveling Exhibitions (SITE), Freedom’s Sisters. This was a high point of the library for me; each of the twenty women featured is a paradigm for courage and conviction.

Originally prepared by the Cincinnati Museum Center, Freedom’s Sisters provides biographies and photographs about the lives of twenty women significant to the advance of freedom, enfranchisement, civil liberties, equality, and knowledge. They all resemble Shirley Chisholm, one of the ladies featured, who described herself as “unbought and unbossed.” Each lady shook off the restraints of conventional wisdom, accepted practice, tradition, and submission to carve a role for herself large enough to make a difference in the world in her own lifetime and for generations to come.

Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King are three of these women. Each displayed grace in a crisis and thereby led thousands. Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Sonia Sanchez and Frances Watkins Harper are three more. Each of these women wrote, Wells-Barnett using newspaper and lectures to expose the terrorist action of lynching; Sanchez preferred poetry, and Harper wrote both poetry and prose to express and explain the needs of the African-American citizens. Harper’s words are worth carving into one’s heart and spirit; she said, “I know that no nation can gain its full measure of enlightenment and happiness if one-half of it is free and the other half is fettered.” How eloquent and how true. The chains that still bind some in our nation and world beg to be broken and so they must be by contemporary Freedom’s Sisters.

Will you be a sister or a brother of Freedom? Will you live courageously and with conviction, refusing to accept common practice for a higher moral plane?