I love pure country music. There, I said it and for me, that’s Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, George Jones, Vince Gill, Barbara Mandrell, Conway Twitty and Ronnie Millsaps. If you will notice, almost half of the folks on my list have gone on to the great Opry in the sky.
When George Jones sang “Who’s going to fill their shoes,” I sang along and he needn’t have worried. There’s a new “hat act“ and interestingly named group to fill every country station from here to Amarillo (trust me, I checked) and only time will tell if they’re making us feel what they feel inside. Nevertheless, this week I’m asking the “Who’s going to fill their shoes” question in the civil rights giants category.
Three of my heroes, Dr. Maya Angelou, Ms. Ruby Dee and Mr. John Seigenthaler, died and the hole they left seems bigger than the Grand Canyon. Mr. Seigenthaler was the only one I had an opportunity to meet but all three made enormous personal sacrifices to make the world better and I’m grateful.
During a 2011 conference in Washington, DC, Mr. Seigenthaler shared many of his life stories with the student participants at the International Association of Methodist Schools and Colleges triennial conference. I wondered how they would react and respond to this white-haired 80-something year old icon. Heck, I wondered if they even knew or cared who he was. I had met him years before at USAToday and he was the reason I was there instead of at the adult sessions. He artfully used his grandson’s questions to tell painful yet poignant stories.
He talked about his decision to work with/for John and Robert Kennedy. He described being sent to rescue the Freedom Riders and the brutal beating he got for being a white man trying to dismantle segregation. He reminded us of the power of the pen and why it has to be used responsibly.
As someone who grew up in Haywood County, Tennessee in the rural South during the Movement and whose home was often filled with “workcampers—Caucasian college students from the North and other “outside agitators” who helped African Americans register to vote—I understood what courage and sacrifice looked like in the faces and decisions of our neighbors, family and friends. When parents sent innocent children into the newly desegregated schools and stood in the sun for days and months to get registered and slept in tents during the winter after they did, surely they knew their legacy was being passed on to us.
When Ms. Dee refused to take one-dimensional roles that demeaned African Americans, she fully understood she’d probably never get the fame and salary she deserved, yet she never wavered from her commitment to equality and equity. When Dr. Angelou insisted on having her own story, she paved a path of justice and dignity for us. When Mr. Seigenthaler insisted that the First Amendment be taught, respected and honored, he knew and understood its power to right societal wrongs.
I believe we are all born to greatness whether our names are Angelou, Dee, Bond Hopson or Seigenthaler, but it takes fortitude, prayer and heart to live great lives amidst turmoil, injustice and strife. My friends, whether we stand or sit for a cause, for God’s sake, let it be a mighty and righteous one because the time is now and the shoes to be filled are ours. I pray we will have the faith, wisdom, insight and courage to fill our own and share a hand and a pair or two along the way.
Be blessed and keep shining!