Everyday People, Everyday Stars
Everybody is a star
Who can rain and chase the dust away?
Everybody wants to shine
Who will come out on a cloudy day?
‘Til the sun that loves you brown
When the system tries to bring you down
Never had to shine at night
You don’t need darkness to do what you think is right
“Everybody Is A Star” by Sly & The Family Stone (Video)
Photo by Peter Pettus
On January 18th, just two days before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I finally finished reading The King Era trilogy by Taylor Branch, nearly 3,000 pages of powerful stories about the Civil Rights Movement, including countless tales of uncommon sacrifice by common people. That epic #RockThoseReads journey gave me a chance to reflect more deeply on the meaning of justice, of dignity and respect, of freedom, and of love. If you’ve read the trilogy—or if you lived through those times—surely you can relate.
By the time Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, he had become an icon, the most famous leader of that era. He had helped inspire, mobilize, instruct, and shame the nation toward positive change. Over time, he has received the lion’s share of credit for the resulting social transformation. But what The King Era trilogy helped me better understand was the great debt we owe to the many other talented leaders in that movement. Movements, The King Era shows us, cannot not be reduced to the renowned contributions of their official headliners; rather, movements are built by the cumulative, faithful actions of everyday people . . . everyday stars.
In fact, some of the most compelling drivers of the Civil Rights Movement were never groomed for formal leadership positions; many were swept up unexpectedly, even reluctantly. There were scores of leaders who worked for little or no pay, whose photos never graced the covers of magazines or newspapers. But their stories, forgotten by many, are no less instructive, their lives no less valuable. From elementary-school students just starting out in the world to senior citizens who risked everything they had worked for over decades, those leaders may have never appeared on TV or in a movie, their speeches were never recorded and their relentless acts of courage and selfless concern for others will never be celebrated at ceremonies attended by the glitterati. No magnificent statues will ever bear their likenesses. These were everyday people who braved sharp-toothed attack dogs, who were knocked to the ground by high-power water cannons, who stared into the barrels of guns held by neighbors whose sense of their own worth rested on a false, crumbling premise.
There are no holidays named after those unsung champions of justice. But their stories, if we choose to read and learn from them, remind us that sacrifice and hardship are often essential ingredients in the recipe for equity. In order to root out persistent injustices, including the glaring educational inequities of today, we needn’t wait for, seek out, or try to create the next “King-like” leader to show us the way. What we need is to struggle, to get uncomfortable, terribly uncomfortable—so uncomfortable with injustice that we have no choice but step up, step forward, and play our respective roles . . . like those everyday stars.
Nowadays, a call to struggle for justice sounds, to many ears, like fingernails on a chalkboard. Having been taught, directly and indirectly, that a sensible life trajectory includes a quest for ever-greater comfort and, if we really know what’s good for us, the holy grail of luxury, we’ll tweet a quote by our favorite freedom fighter of old, but taking action—meaningful, sustained action—against injustice ourselves—that would be awkward. Why, we might even get in trouble!
But thank God, just about anything we learn can also be unlearned. Love can conquer hatred, apathy can give way to concern, selfishness can surrender to sacrifice. And when it comes to today’s injustices, we can reteach ourselves (and teach others) to move from disinterest and disdain to dedication and discomfort.
- We should be extremely uncomfortable knowing that, for many years, thousands of our young people have been illegally deprived of school libraries and school librarians.
- We should have a hard time sleeping at night knowing that we pack our public-school classrooms with 34 (sometimes more) students, many of whom need lots of personalized attention in order to succeed, while schools down the street, flush with cash, have one teacher for every 12-15 students.
- Our stomachs should be in knots when we neither recognize nor cultivate the brilliance of our young people, robbing so many of our students of the chance to take even basic chemistry, physics, music, and art–never mind honors and Advanced Placement (AP) courses, the kind of transcript trophies that can make or break a college application. (Our “elite” public schools, serving wealthier students (on average), enjoy dozens of AP courses and electives.)
- It should give us chills that we ‘parachute’ people with literally just a few weeks of crash-course, summer-school teacher training into Harlem and other predominantly Black and Brown communities, handing them full responsibility for teaching our children as they “learn on the job.” (Like fast-food, fast-track teachers are cheap, filling, and sometimes even fortified with pedagogical “vitamins and minerals,” but our children need and deserve the instructional equivalent of exquisite gourmet feasts, meals requiring extensive preparation and skills honed and proven through apprenticeships with master chefs.) By the same token, the fact that there are educators who, however they came to teach our children, have proven themselves unable to teach them well, should also be a source of great pain.
- We should wear like the itchiest of sweater the sad truth that we spend far more time boosting the social-media “buzz” about hot television shows and the playoffs than we do building a buzz about the thousands of young people in Harlem who need mentors.
And those are just a few of many, many examples. Yet we remain comfortable.
During the Civil Rights Movement, many people watched from the sidelines, but our everyday stars gave ‘til it hurt, often literally; nowadays, it can be a struggle to get many of us to even pay attention to educational inequities, never mind participating in public meetings about education or giving a couple of hours a week as a volunteer tutor in an afterschool program for children or an English-as-a-second-language class for adult immigrants. Yes, indeed—we have become quite comfortable.
We must take the time to acknowledge and learn from the outstanding contributions and, yes, the failings of our iconic ancestors. But we should never let their towering pedestals, the ones that we’ve built for them, obscure our view of ourselves, of each other, as everyday movement builders with both the awesome power and the sacred responsibility to sacrifice comfort in the pursuit of justice and equity—like the everyday stars we are.
Selected “Reads” About Everyday Stars of the Civil Rights Movement:
Books to Celebrate the Everyday Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement (Jan. 1, 2013)
My Soul is Rested: Movement Days in the Deep South Remembered (1983)
Origins of the Civil Rights Movement (1984)
Remembering the Everyday Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement (Aug. 27, 2013)
The Eyes on the Prize Reader (1991)
The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It (1987)
Unsung Hero of Civil Rights: Claudette Colvin (Aug. 28, 2013)
(by Joe Rogers, Jr. – January 27, 2014)