The Ruth Badger Pixley Professor of Social Sciences
“I was not there, yet I was there.” So begins Ernest Gaines’ powerful novel, A Lesson Before Dying. It’s the first book we read in my Politics and Arts class. In it we examine political concepts and themes as explored in classic and contemporary literature, music, and film. We meet characters struggling to make sense of their lives, searching for meaning and means by which to make a difference in this world. From the innocence lost among those fighting and dying on the “Western Front” in WWI to the tragic emptiness of Willy Lomann’s futile pursuit of the American Dream, we encounter women and men who stride or stumble forward, and who live, as we all must, with the consequences of their actions.
“I was not there, yet I was there.” First lines can make all the difference in a book. In the classic cartoon strip, Peanuts, most of us have probably been amused observing Snoopy perched on top of his doghouse, hunched over a typewriter, all creativity frozen in place, with the words in the balloon hanging above him, “It was a dark and stormy night. . . .” So much possibility, and yet. . . nothing.
He had the opening. He knew he could grab the audience. He had even stolen the line from the list of the top 100 best opening lines of all time. But there he sits. Stuck. Opening line in place, but a dog in search of a story. And maybe that was the problem.
Not so for Ernest Gaines. His opening line introduces us to the characters of his novel, but also to the realities of his own life. Indeed, to the realities of the lives of all black Americans living in the deep south in the pre-civil rights era. On its surface, A Lesson Before Dying, tells the story of two black men, seemingly linked together only by their race, but in this case that is more than enough.
Slow-witted Jefferson has been wrongfully accused and convicted of the robbery and murder of a white shopkeeper. Gaines doesn’t skirt around with any question of Jefferson’s innocence. It’s a fact. Jefferson was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but he’s not a murderer. But there is no room for such facts in the courtrooms of the deep south at this point in our nation’s life. The outcome of his trial is certain, pre-ordained by history and culture. He is sentenced to death by electrocution. Gaines’ opening line first refers to the fact that his second character, the black school teacher and the novel’s narrator, Grant Wiggins, had not been in that courtroom. “I was not there,” he said, “yet I was there. He did not have to be there physically to know what would happen. He knew that it could have been any black man, any crime, any day, and he would still have known the outcome.
Now, Grant is an interesting character. He’s the most educated black person in the parrish, and so he possesses some status in the community, although he basically sees this as only a burden. The novel tells the story of Grant’s reluctant role in the transformation of Jefferson from victim to victor, of how Grant teaches Jefferson to turn his anger into passion and purpose, to find meaning in his life and his death even in the offensive shadow of the electric chair. But this outcome could hardly have been predicted. There is absolutely nothing in Grant that would enable us to believe that he’s prepared to take on this challenge, to teach, to lead, if you will. His own apathy and anger rival those of Jefferson’s. His days as a teacher of the black children of the parrish are spent on trivial lessons, sums and spelling, endless recitation of Bible verses that promise deliverance and presuppose a God whose existence he actually doubts. Grant is a man who goes through the motions of his life, holding out little hope for his own future, let alone that of his students. He has been privileged with an education—the promised ticket of opportunity in the United States—but Grant’s own life is as caged in, his own choices are just as limited, as those that imprison Jefferson.
Grant is no eager volunteer. He is essentially forced into the assignment through the sheer will of his aunt, the woman who raised him, who loves him with a fierceness unparalleled, and who knows every single button to push to goad and guilt him into what she sees as his responsibility to her and to the community. He has told her countless times how much he hates teaching, his life. She had never listened to him before. She would not hear him now.
His aunt was on errand of mercy, but Grant wanted no part of it. You see, in his closing remarks Jefferson’s own defense lawyer in some misguided attempt to “save” Jefferson from the electric chair tried to convince the all-white jury that they ought not even to waste any effort on killing him. Such a sentence was actually beneath them. Gaines wrote,
Gentlemen of the jury, look at him—look at this. Do you see a man sitting here?. . .Look at the shape of his skull, this face as flat as the palm of my hand. . .Do you see a modicum of intelligence?’’. . .No, gentlemen, this skull holds no plans. What you see here is a thing that acts on command. A thing to hold the handle of a plow, a thing to load your bales of cotton. . .Ask him to name the months of the year, . . .to quote a passage from the Constitution. . . .What justice would there be to take his life? Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.”
A hog. The word reverberated throughout the courtroom and pierced the already aching heart of Jefferson’s godmother. She would lose her boy. She knew it. Everyone in the courtroom knew it. But she turned to her friend, Grant’s aunt, and begged for one last chance for Jefferson. “The law got him,” she said. “It gonna kill him. I know that. But I don’t want them to kill no hog. I want a man to go to that chair, on his own two feet.”
This is what they wanted Grant to teach Jefferson. To be a man. They expected this angry, frustrated, self-hating teacher to make Jefferson into a man--when he had no idea himself--when everything around him screamed at him his own second-class status. This was the lesson before dying and it becomes the lesson of a lifetime, belonging to both Jefferson and Grant. In the midst of inhumanity, they somehow discover the humane, first in each other, then in the community that surrounds them and loves them with a grace that leaves them both in awe. Each man finds dignity and meaning, one in learning how to die, the other in learning how to live.
Every student who has read this novel has been greatly affected by it. These 21st century students, mostly white, nevertheless still identify with the struggles of two black men bound in another time and place. They are, after all, the struggles of every single one of us: to discover our identity, to understand the responsibility we have to one another, to create purpose and meaning in our life, to make a difference in this world, to face death with dignity. What a privilege it is for me to listen as they meet these characters—and themselves—in our discussions.
Several years ago, Sandy Astin and his colleagues at the Higher Education Research Institution released their findings of a study that stated the national freshman survey no longer reported that “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” is a primary objective among students for their college educations. That goal, which ranked first in the late 1960s, had slipped to eighth place. The most important goal for freshmen today is to become well-off financially. Based on those results, then, researchers did not expect students to care very much about the “big questions” in life—you know, the ones that keep you debating late into the night over frosty cold beverages. But they were wrong. Further examination demonstrated that there is a high level of interest in just those types of questions—the ones that examine meaning and purpose, justice and opportunity among college students. Astin’s study showed that 76% of college students report that they are searching for ways to engage and give back, to lead and serve in their lives. But of that huge number so motivated, more than half reveal that their professors never provide the opportunities to discuss such things in the classroom.
Astin could not disguise his concern. “It’s dangerous,” he said, “to have a society of people who don’t look inward, who have a one-sided focus on the material exterior.” He continued, “Making sense and meaning and purpose of your studies and your life ought to be at the core of a liberal education.”
Here at Illinois College we have the obligation not to indoctrinate, but to explore. If we claim, as we do in our mission statement, to produce students who lead “fulfilling lives of leadership and service” then what happens here must help prepare you to do just that. It is not peripheral to our activities; it the heart and soul of who we are. If our work together resembles too much of a college version of Grant’s sums and spellings, recitations of one sort or another, then we fail miserably. In our small classrooms here there must be room for the biggest of questions. By thinking and speaking, by leading and serving, by using our reason and expanding our hearts, we seek to affirm that we are morally responsible persons who have a profound stake in the way the world goes.
But I can’t leave you only to the lessons of literature as rich and illuminating as they are.
Another of the courses that I teach is Constitutional Law. The French student of American culture, Alexis de Toqueville, got it absolutely right when he commented that in the United States there is hardly a political question that does not inevitably become a judicial one. In the 20th century, the most important political and judicial question had to be Brown v. the Board of Education, the case that ended segregation in our public schools and unleashed a revolution in race relations in this country.
Brown had so much going for it. First, the NAACP, that is, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was determined to present a case that would frame the issue of “separate but equal” solely on the basis of separation, of segregation. They would find no victory in a decision that ordered states to make black schools equal. The states would simply ignore the ruling and black children would continue to lag far behind in their vastly inferior schools. Brown could meet this threshold.
Second, Earl Warren was the type of leader that could channel both his political and judicial ambitions on just such a question of social justice. New to the court, this was his chance to make his indelible mark as the high court’s Chief Justice and he did what he needed to do to convince other justices that this was the right course and now was the right time. He would settle for nothing less than a unanimous decision. He would allow no refuge for the segregationists in a divided opinion. The Warren Court would speak with one voice.
Third, the NAACP had the right man to argue the case, to stand before the highest court in the land and unflinchingly demand that our laws and policies finally match our rhetoric, that separation in and of itself was inherently unconstitutional. That man was Thurgood Marshall.
But my interest here is really not about the leadership of the NAACP, or of Earl Warren, or even of Thurgood Marshall. No, this story is really all about the leadership of Charles Hamilton Houston and I suspect that only a few of you may have ever heard his name. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that “[e]very revolution was first a thought in one man’s mind.” I submit to you that Charles Hamilton Houston is the leader to whom Americans should look when trying to understand how the efforts of one person can multiply in such a way as to reshape the possibilities of an entire nation.
Charles Hamilton Houston grew up with more advantages than many black children his age. His father was a prominent lawyer in Washington and much was expected of Charlie. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Amherst and took a teaching position at the nation’s foremost black college, Howard University. But then WWI intervened and while he did become an officer, he was never more than a black officer. In the service of his country, Charlie learned that there was a “special brand of army justice for blacks,” a brand that included Jim Crow laws, unrelenting humiliation, and even lynching. Houston wrote later “that he would never again get caught without knowing something about [his] rights and if. . .[he] got through this war, [he] would study law and use [his] time fighting for men who could not strike back.”
That pledge would prove to be the battle of his life. For much of his career Charles Hamilton Houston moved between teaching at the Howard University Law School and directing the legal affairs of the growing civil rights group, the NAACP, sometimes trying to balance the obligations of both at the same time. The relationship between the two were integral to his plans. For Houston, the key to the advancement of his people was education and he believed that the tool that could most effectively deliver on that was the law. His blueprint for success was brilliant.
First, make the Howard Law School as good as or better than any law school in the country. Secure its accreditation and abolish its night school program. There could be no part-time approach to the full-time work this revolution would require.
Second, hold the students in that law school to the highest academic standards imaginable and train them to be the foot soldiers in his vision of the future. Houston boldly proclaimed to his students: “A lawyer,” he said, “is either a social engineer or. . .a parasite on society.” And the job of this social engineer? It was to be “a highly skilled, perceptive, sensitive lawyer who understood the full potential of the Constitution” and who was prepared to use it to solve community problems and improve the lives of underprivileged citizens. The Constitution, he argued, could be employed by lawyers to promote justice and opportunity and to secure the full rights of citizenship for black citizens that simply had “no chance” by any other political means.
Third, slowly, and methodically, build a body of case law that would lead the Court to the biggest question of all, the one they would ultimately, definitively, and affirmatively answer in Brown v. the Board of Education: “Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race. . .deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities?”
Charles Hamilton Houston, lawyer, visionary, leader died in the spring of 1950, four years before Brown v. Board of Education was decided. He never lived to see the Supreme Court deliver on the promise of equal citizenship that he knew assuredly was somewhere in his copy of the Constitution. He literally worked himself to death. His eulogist said that Charles Houston’s civil rights work “stopped only when his body could no longer keep pace with his will and his spirit.”
In 1954, Thurgood Marshall would make good on his teacher’s greatest desire. The large cadre of lawyers who had worked for so long were jubilant in their reaction to the decision. But in the midst of their celebration Thurgood Marshall knew just who was missing. They never would have been there, none of this would have happened but for the vision and determination of their teacher and leader, Charles Hamilton Houston. To quote Marshall, Houston was “the engineer of it all.” To paraphrase Ernest Gaines: He was not there, yet he was there.
Finally, let me tell you about my choice of a political leader. Her name is Megan Badasch and she graduated with a major in political science from Illinois College in 1999. At her best (and by her own admission), Megan was a “B” student. More often, she hovered in the “C” range. And yet, I believe that Megan Badasch is exactly the type of student that we treasure in our classes and take pride in as an alumna of this College. Long before our current mission statement had taken shape, it had already shaped Megan. She spent the summer before her junior year on a study trip with another college just because she wanted to learn more about Vietnam. The next summer, she sold her car, and maxxed out whatever awards she could put together to go back to Vietnam to work with children and women there. When someone laughed at her and told her she simply didn’t have the grades to win an internship with the CIA, Megan applied anyway and got the internship. Back in Illinois she worked tirelessly on an unsuccessful campaign. Her candidate lost, but Megan didn’t. Bitten by the campaign bug, she connected with the right people who could take her to what political consultants call “the show.” She wanted to work on a presidential campaign and she wanted her candidate to win. She did. Feel free to enjoy the irony when I tell you that she was a key player in the 2004 reelection of George W. Bush. Really. Five years out of Illinois College and Megan was already at the table. Never doubt the power of the liberal arts or of a strong woman armed with them to do battle in this world.
But even with all that, Megan was not particularly happy. American politics had descended to sound bites, oppositional research, way too much money, and only nominal lip service to the power of the people. What is a feisty woman to do in the face of such vulgarity? She took some time off. She read and talked with friends and thought, really thought, about what she wanted to do with her life.
This past September, she returned to campus, still and always the Megan I loved having in class. I invited her to speak with my students and she gave them all the background that I just shared with you. But then she told them how and why she lives her life now. For the last few years she has been based in Jordan, working with the International Republican Institution and cooperating with its Democratic counterpart to teach fledgling candidates in the Middle East the tools needed for real democracy there, how to listen to and learn from their people, and how to reflect and act on their people’s needs.
One week before she returned to campus, Megan Badasch, my former advisee and student, had flown to Afghanistan to meet with ten candidates running in the recent Parliament election. They were all women. Some sat before her in traditional Muslim garb. Some had traveled long distances to meet with her from villages still under the control of the Taliban. Their very lives were at risk by making the journey. Their very lives were at risk by standing for election. And there was Megan, in a bullet-proof vest, but with sleeves rolled up, ready to do the work necessary to help them become leaders in their own nation.
She told us she can’t wait to go back.
What a scene, don’t you think? A room full of women, convinced of possibility and promise and ready to lead and serve. Trust me. I am a teacher. Some in this room might even say I am only a teacher. But when Megan told me that story for the first time, I knew in my heart and my soul: “I was not there, yet I was there.”
When Megan graduated from IC, she gave me a thank you card. On the front is inscribed the following African proverb, “If we stand tall, it is because we stand on the backs of those who have gone before us.” It’s a pretty nice sentiment to give to a professor on graduation day. I certainly owed much to my own teachers. But I also knew there was something not expressed in that proverb that was just as true.
For all we do to lift your eyes and ambitions high above what you had planned for your lives, I know something else. You may stand on our backs to build that knowledge and set those goals, but we are privileged beyond measure to stand at the feet of the giants we know you can become.
Megan Badasch is one of our giants. But she is only one. I am convinced that this room is full of them.
When Dean Marshall invited me to talk this morning, he admitted that he had run out of money for the really good convo speakers. But, he said, trying to win me over, this would be a chance for me to explain why a leadership program at Illinois College is such a natural fit. He was right. I entitled my remarks this morning, “Looking for Leaders in All the Right Places” and I knew exactly where to find them.