Everyday People, Everyday Stars

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

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)


NY Amsterdam News: “Literacy Across Harlem Holiday Book Drive opens for the season”

NY Amsterdam News

EXCERPT: “Some say it takes a village; we say it takes a Harlem!” said Joe Rogers Jr., the founder and facilitator of Total Equity Now. The second annual Literacy Across Harlem Holiday Book Drive is here. All 11 decorated book-donation boxes have been delivered to the sites participating in this year’s holiday book drive. Over the next three weeks, Harlemites are being asked to fill them with hundreds of “new and like-new reading gifts,” said Rogers.

Read more at Amsterdam News.




The Cross-Examiner: “A March to Enhance Literacy in Harlem”

Cross-Examiner Logo

EXCERPT: Tony Edwards, 51, of Harlem, came to the march with “Down These Mean Streets,” a Piri Thomas book that recounts the adolescence of a Puerto Rican boy growing up in Spanish Harlem. Edwards said he brought this book because he thought readers would be able to relate to its story. “I grew up in different parts of Harlem and I saw what happens when you are not educated; you end up trapped in the streets,” Edwards said.

Read more at CrossExaminer.tumblr.com


New York Daily News: Total Equity Now ‘Literacy Across Harlem’ book drive aims to spread word(s) to children in time for holidays

TEN T-shirt With Holiday Book Drive Box Materials

EXCERPT: The love of literature that fueled the Harlem Renaissance and inspired great works of art in the 1920s and ’30s is alive and well and being recaptured as the first Literacy Across Harlem Holiday book drive gets under way. Customers in cafes, bakeries and bookstores, and visitors to three uptown community boards are being urged to donate new and “like-new” books that will be distributed as Christmas gifts to the neighborhood’s neediest kids and families.

Read more at NY Daily News.


DNAinfo.com: “Harlem Group Wants to Boost the Popularity of Reading”


EXCERPT: “If we have a built-in day every single month when we and our neighbors are thinking about literacy, it’s a simple but symbolically powerful step that could build a critical mass,” said Rogers. The idea is that by seeing members of the community with books it will influence young people and adults about the importance of reading as well as normalize it as something that should be a part of everyone’s life.


Read more at DNAinfo.com.


Examiner.com: “Harlem Wants a Literacy Across Harlem Day Every Month”

Examiner Logo

EXCERPT: Total Equity Now (TEN) is so serious about rebuilding Harlem’s culture of literacy that it has declared the first day of every month as Literacy Across Harlem Day, starting Sep. 1, 2012. This latest initiative springs from the success of TEN’s inaugural Literacy Across Harlem March this past July. During the march, participants donated new and gently used books to support and celebrate literacy.


Read more at Examiner.com.


Daily News: First-ever ‘Literacy Across Harlem’ March Brings New Message to 14th Annual Harlem Book Fair”

Bible and Children's Book

EXCERPT: Dozens of uptown residents held their favorite books high on Saturday as they marched from points in East, Central and West Harlem and met at 135th St. and Lenox Ave., where they placed donated books on the main stage of the annual Harlem Book Fair. It was the 14th installment of the event, but the march was a first.

Read more at NY Daily News.