Wednesday, June 6, 2012

"There is always something you can do. Always"

It’s the morning after and I feel lousy. Too much adrenaline during the day on Tuesday and too little sleep that night. The extra free drink as part of Art Bar’s Tuesday night special didn’t help.

But oddly enough, I don’t feel dispirited.

As I sort through my conflicted feelings, pithy slogans and ready-made analyses escape me. When people ask me how I feel, my mind spirals back to two distinct memories.

 The first involves a trip to Chile in 2004, visiting my daughter during her junior-year-abroad while in college. We were in a rural area that Nov. 2, and news from the United States was sketchy. It wasn’t until the next morning that I found out that President George W. Bush had been re-elected. I went into a deep funk, questioning the intelligence of the American people and wondering where my country was headed.

But over time the forces of history —ever patient, ever unpredictable, and always larger than one individual or one event— reasserted their power.

Four years later, we elected the first African American President of the United States. No matter one’s opinion of Barack Obama, that accomplishment — for him personally, and for our country in general— can never be taken away. Obama’s election was a living reminder of Martin Luther King Jr’s dictum: “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

Today, we are in the midst of that arc, and it is unclear when it will bend. Yes, Scott Walker won the recall election. But I have no doubt that in time history will expose Walker for what he is — a dictatorial, mean-spirited and ruthless politician who, in the end, is a little more than a pawn of the rich and privileged.

The second memory that comes to mind is closer to home.

On June 4, 2011 — almost a year to the day before the recall election — former NAACP Youth Council member Mary Arms proudly carried an “I Love My Public Schools” placard as she crossed Milwaukee’s 16th Street Viaduct. Next to her, long-time friend Betty Martin carried a sign that linked Milwaukee’s Open Housing marches of the 1960s and Walker’s attacks on public education, asking: “1967, Fair Housing After 200 nights. 2011, How Long for Education Rights?”

The viaduct is the same bridge that Arms and Martin crossed 44 years earlier during Milwaukee’s civil rights era, to be greeted by thousands of angry whites shouting racial epithets and, in some cases, hurling rocks and beer bottles. In June of 2011, however, the bridge was testament to the reality that while change can take decades, change will come.

That day, Arms and Martin were in the forefront of a multiracial display that is not necessarily the norm in Milwaukee. Instead of jeering whites threatening civil rights marchers, there were African-Americans, whites and Latinos, young children and grey-haired veterans, ministers and teachers joining together under the slogan: “We Are One Milwaukee and Our Kids Count.”

“People used to ask us during open housing, ‘How long you guys going to march?’” Arms recalled. “‘Until we get what we want,’ we’d reply. And that’s the spirit we need today.”

In an interview in her dining room in the fall of 2011, Arms talked about the significance of both the civil rights movement and the fight against the Walker agenda. She shows the same positive spirit she had as a teenage member of the NAACP Youth Council.

Arms learned at a young age not to be afraid of political turmoil, and over time she has seen her share of political ups and downs. Born in 1950 in Belzoni, Mississippi, Arms’ family moved to Milwaukee when she was two, but she returned to Belzoni every summer for much of her youth. Civil rights icons were a part of Arms’ daily life when she visited her relatives, often stopping by her grandfather or uncle’s home.

“We were supposed to stay with Granny and help with gardening and things,” she says. “But I also remember all these people, you know like Fannie Lou Hamer, Medgar Evers. And my grandfather wasn’t afraid to house the Freedom Bus Riders at his farm."

After Milwaukee’s Open Housing marches, decades quickly sped by as Arms raised five children and helped with her 12 grandchildren. Her health could be better, and she eagerly waits the day she can retire from her office job at a local hospital.

Reflecting on decades of history, Arms does not have any easy answers. She isn’t on the inside of political deliberations on how best to counter Gov. Walker and the Republican agenda, and is not committed to one particular tactic over another. But she is proud to have been a foot soldier in struggles spanning a half century, well aware that it is the people on the ground that keep a movement alive.

As a foot soldier, Arms says, she has learned one essential lesson: “You just got to keep on, make sure you keep that fire going. There’s always something you can do. Always.”

— — —This blog is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project. 

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