As Black History Month ends and we have learned more about black religious leaders, scientists, politicians, professors, film directors, sports figures, journalists, poets and authors, among many other professions, those of other ethnicities have had an opportunity to reflect on how learning of the strife of an oppressed group changed the trajectory of their own lives. Writing It Real member Jean Peelen’s essay records such a journey and will inspire us all to think about the ways in which social movements helped us find our life’s direction.
In Honor of Mr. Alfred Scott
by Jean Peelen
I spent most of my life suppressing the urge to be great. I grew up in an era and at an economic level where the primary check on unacceptable behavior was, “Who do you think you are?” Expressed aspirations or unconventional behavior were greeted as an attack on the norm, thus an attack on the family and the values held by the immediate community. I understood that if these thoughts or this behavior continued, my well being, my security, my being loved and accepted would be in jeopardy. It never occurred to me to wonder how the thoughts of an eight-year-old could possibly be so worrisome.
I grew up thinking that to stand out, to be different, was unacceptable. There was one exception to the rule. It was okay to stand out through achievement, as long as you didn’t act arrogant about it. An all “A” report card was great, but being the only student in the school to vote for the Democrat in the mock student presidential election was not okay. Winning honors in the piano competition was fine, but racing around on my bike long into the time when my friends were experimenting with eye shadow was not okay.
When I was eighteen and attending a small church-related college in the Midwest, I wrote my parents a letter that I now read as the pitiful wail of a trapped spirit. “I don’t want to get married and have children and live in the suburbs!” I wrote. “I want to do something in the world, something that matters, something that adds to humankind!” My dad wrote back: “Your mother and I completely understand. You will do something in the world. When you marry, you will be a moral guide to your children.” Even as a naïve 17- year old, I understood the circularity of that.
Now, it may be important to know that I was at this church college because I had lied to my parents. I had two choices about college: I could go to the local teacher’s college (my parents’ first choice because I could then live at home with them in New Jersey); or, I could go to a church college far away in what seemed to me, at seventeen, to be an exotic place called Michigan. The only way I saw to get to Michigan to widen my world was to lie about my goals, thus I told my parents I wanted to be a missionary.
I was a rising junior at the college and watching all the girls around me move ever more quickly toward their Mrs. degree. The not-so-light joke of the time was that the Mrs. was the degree of choice for all of us. I was not moved toward that direction. I had hardly dated, didn’t much know what men were about, couldn’t imagine committing my life to the service of one, and had longings, pulls, desires, to be someone.
Discouraged by my parents and friends points of view, and feeling hopeless, I quit college and went home. I got a job as a secretary and lived with my parents. I closed down my world and tried to shut down my longings. When the nice young man I had been dating at college asked me to marry him, I said yes. It was what I was supposed to do.
I expended an incredible amount of energy over the next twelve years keeping my unruly self under control. The early 1960s passed me by because I was busy fitting in by being married and having children. The Peggy Lee song “Is That All There Is?” played through my mind unbidden as I was nursing my children and teaching Sunday school. I was going to be normal if it killed me.
For me, it was the civil rights movement that blasted me out of my quest for normality. I was a minister’s wife in Mobile, Alabama when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Riots threatened and the church leaders in Mobile, black and white, searched for ways to reach out, to calm, to grow, to understand. Meanwhile, in my husband’s church, it was discovered that the uncle of Coretta Scott King, Mr. Alfred Scott, had “insinuated himself into our midst” (our midst being the middle of an all-white church) by being the church janitor for forty years. He revealed himself by asking for time off to go to the funeral.
Immediately there were more than rumblings of “Fire him!” or “If we had known…,” and “There is a viper in our bosom!” Many felt that Mr. Scott had purposely hidden his connection to Dr. King. Most of the people, until this event, hadn’t known Mr. Scott’s last name, because, in the practice of white people in the South at that time, servants were known by first name only. For forty years, the church members had only known Mr. Scott as Alfred.
That event was my road to Damascus experience. The utter evil of the system overwhelmed me. The bravery of the civil rights leaders humbled me. Dr. King had lived for far more than himself. He had no desire to be normal and every desire to be a shining leader to free his people from hatred, disrespect, and violence. Alfred Scott had just imperiled his forty-year job to honor and support Dr. King and his family. Many, many people, male and female, were giving their hearts, time, energy, and yes, even their lives to the great purpose of human understanding. They were not striving to be normal. They didn’t give a damn about normality. They had a larger reason for living.
Mr. Scott did not get fired, and he came back and completed putting his children through college before he retired. I don’t doubt that his final years there were even less comfortable than his first forty, given the new suspicion and distrust that took residence in the church. Nevertheless, he did what he needed to do. He was a hero to me.
And now I knew what I needed to do. I took to the streets in the civil rights movement. I became passionate and active about the rights and roles of women. I went back to college and got my degree. I worked on the McGovern campaign. I dragged my kids to rock concerts, and political organization meetings and parties. I got divorced from the lovely man who had not bargained for the “me” I was becoming. I went to law school and worked three jobs to support my family. And, I became a civil rights lawyer. For the next twenty years, I wrote Federal policy on issues about the desegregation of public schools, the rights of girls to play sports, and the rights of kids with disabilities in the public schools. My parents and church and community tried to do right by me, but Mr. Alfred Scott taught me what made life worth living.
I have six granddaughters. They range in age from sixteen to twenty-seven—young women who live in an age in which the world has become dangerous at both a personal and a global level. Six young women who have been told by society generally and by every advertising message they see, to be “normal,” and to obey authority, the law, and tradition.
I no longer think these are valid messages to give to our grandchildren. It is the pressure to fit in that leads, at an individual level, to the tamping down of passion and the lack of motivation to be an agent of love – an agent of change. It is unquestioning obedience to authority that allows all forms of oppression to thrive.
I have watched my granddaughters grow up as thinking individuals, only slightly affected by the pressures to fit in. I see them flowering as independent, confident, giving, unique women. One is involved in electoral politics, three or four participate in national marches and protests, one travels to another country to build schools, another moves to South Africa for a wonderful job opportunity.
I am so proud of them. Of course, their mothers deserve credit for the daughters they raised, but it has been, and still is, my job to model for them, to provide for them an alternative to “fitting in.” With the help of Mr. Alfred Scott, I created new visions for them of who they could be in the world.
My grandchildren love me and are proud of who I am. So, if anyone ever says to one of them, “Who do you think you are?” they can simply say, “I am my grandmother’s granddaughter.”