I was in high school in the 70s. (No snickering and calling me old, please…my daughter does enough of that. J) One day, our principal had announced something we disagreed with. I don’t recall exactly what it was but I think he cancelled one of our class events or something. Whatever it was, we were all upset. And somebody had an idea. We had to do something to show our dislike for his decision. Then somebody else suggested we stage a sit-in. This was it, I thought. Finally. A moment of protest! A moment in which we could make a passionate statement of opposition and change something we disagreed with. I was ready.
It was a small school. There were only 80 kids in my class. But to hear us talk, it was like another March on Washington. We’d show the principal he couldn’t push us around like that. Yeah…let’s go get ‘em! We’d planned it for right after homeroom let out for our first class of the day. When the bell rang for class change, we left our homerooms and went straight to our 2nd floor lockers. And we all sat down. A teacher or two tried to advise us against it. They tried reasoning with us, saying we could make things worse. We ignored them. We told them we were going to hold our ground and we refused to move. We knew just exactly what we were doing and we weren’t going to be dissuaded that easily.
After 4 minutes or so…yeah, only 4…the principal had gotten word that we were protesting and he came up the stairwell fuming. He started scolding us from one end of the hall and, as he walked to the other end, ordered us to stand up and get to class. Now! It took all of 30 seconds of being pointed to and hollered at when we broke. One, then two, then ten of us at a time started to get up. We were deflated as we headed to our classes. A bit embarrassed, too.
I giggle at us when I look back on it. It is kinda funny. Yet, there is a nugget of a gift that I discovered that day. My grandmother would have said it was gumption. That’s like saying we found the courage within ourselves. That we found our willingness to be outspoken. That courage is the same spirit that says, ‘Hey, I object to this and I’m not going to allow it to happen without trying to change it’. It’s the spirit that says ‘I’m not going to go along with this anymore’. It’s the spirit that says, ‘I’m taking a stand’. It is, I think, the same spirit that has inspired so many effective movements in the past. And it’s the same spirit that helps bring about significant and needed changes in our present.
Rosa Parks sat. She took a seat in the front of the bus, a ghastly and defiant move for a Black person in 1955. Normally relegated to the back of the bus only, Black people were not allowed in the front of a bus. But Rosa sat. She made a statement. She said, ‘No more segregation. It’s wrong’. She wasn’t the first, but she was soon joined by many others. Her civil disobedience was pivotal in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. She sat. Unmoved. Sat for a cause bigger than herself. Gumption.
The BLM protests in Kentucky hold another example. Last May, people in Louisville were protesting the killing of Breonna Taylor by police. There was a LOT of hostility and tension between the BLM protesters and the police. There was also a line of women linking arms standing between the police and BLM protestors. Standing for the protection of the protestors and standing in defiance of the police. Standing together. Standing up for something larger than themselves. Again, gumption.
Martin Luther wrote. He also sowed seeds. The seeds for the Protestant Reformation. It started in 1517 with a treatise Luther nailed to a church door. It grew into the tearing apart of an empire. One person – Martin Luther – saying no. One person standing up and being heard. One person with the inner strength necessary to call others out on their wrongdoings. One person, on behalf of something greater than himself.
Remember the Boston Tea Party? This was a significant seed planted one night in 1773. A seed that grew from colonial American anger about a tax levied by the British government. And that led to the American Revolution. It’s a seed that sprouted and culminated with independence from England for the United States.
There’s also Carter G. Woodson who initiated Negro History Week back in 1926. Carter felt that the Black population ought to be represented in American history classes. He believed that the Black race needed history, too, or the Black culture would cease to exist. And so it began. By 1929, many states were involved in the program and began teaching on the topic that one week a year. Over the years it has grown. Now we can get advanced degrees in Black Studies. And now we honor Black History for the entire month of February. Carter taught. He taught people to embrace something long overlooked. He taught because he believed in something bigger than himself.
We can sit, stand, write, toss tea into a harbor or teach. Whatever way we choose to embrace and express it. Whenever we find a wrong that we want to right. When we find this thing my grandmother called gumption and act on it. When we’re participating in something beyond ourselves.
I’m thinking back to my first sit-in. I’m trying to recall the spirit we embraced that day. It was over in a flash, but I felt it. It awakened a sense inside me that understood a path for social justice. It aroused something deep inside of me that wants to sit, stand, speak, teach and write for things bigger than myself. I know it was only four and a half minutes, but it was a good place to start.