National Public Radio’s Michele Norris said activism comes in many forms, and judging from the 340 people dining on steak to pay for well-deserved scholarships it was clear her message matched the occasion.
Norris, longtime host of “All Things Considered,” visited UCM Tuesday to host another program – this year’s Freedom Scholarship Dinner. Fourteen students were awarded scholarships thanks to the activism of people from the surrounding community, city, airbase and university. Ticket sales pay for the scholarships.
“Sometimes activism whispers,” Norris said. “Sometimes activism is just doing your job better than anyone expected you to. Sometimes activism is quietly standing up to a system that expects one thing and says, ‘You know what? I can be something else.’”
She didn’t have to read directly from her 2010 family memoir, “The Grace of Silence,” to get her message across – small-scale activism can be effective. Her family practiced a sort of silent activism. They chose silence in dealing with racial hatred to prevent anger and resentment from spilling over into the next generation.
Her father moved from Birmingham, Ala., to Minnesota after being shot and arrested in 1946 trying to attend a class on the Constitution. She said black servicemen at the time gathered for the classes to ensure their ability to vote.
Her grandmother traveled a six-state region in the Midwest in the 1940s and 1950s to demonstrate how to use pancake mix dressed as Aunt Jemima. She chose to speak eloquently in newspaper stories rather than as her stereotype.
But Norris said it took years for these stories to emerge, surfacing during mealtime conversations shortly after Barack Obama was elected president.
“Anger is not the place I landed,” she said. “I landed in a place called wonder because I realized I was raised by a group of men who had a lot of reasons to be angry at the world and they decided not to be. They decided to show America what it could be by showing America what they could be.
“They decided to respond with ambition. They decided to give their children their ambitions instead of a steady diet of anger.”
Anger would have been a justifiable response at the time, a time when black veterans were being treated savagely.
Norris saw two hands rise when she asked if anyone had heard of Isaac Woodard. The same year Norris’ father was shot in 1946, Woodard, a World War II veteran, was beaten blind in South Carolina for talking back to a white bus driver. This incident led President Harry Truman to integrate the armed forces.
Woodard’s obscurity is indicative of how black people responded to such cruelty. Many chose silence, like Norris’ father – thus the title of her book, “The Grace of Silence.”
“When I ask this question I never see more than three or four hands go up, which is amazing to me because Isaac Woodard is a man who helped change the course of history,” she said. “A president saw what happened to him and took decisive action and yet most of us have never heard of Isaac Woodard.
“We don’t know these stories because they didn’t tell these stories. My father never told these stories.”
At first I wondered why Norris was chosen as the keynote speaker. Why a journalist? Was she there to shamelessly hawk a book? Well, her family’s story and her message of small-scale activism were inspiring and complemented the occasion well.
As she spoke, I looked around the room and across my table and saw small-scale activism everywhere. Sitting across from me was a UCM student, Preston Moore. He volunteers for Students Excelling Together, which organizes study halls and tutoring.
Sitting next to me was Penny Lund, of Community Engagement, which coordinated the dinner and serves as a hub for all things diversity-related. Lund helped me understand the slideshow projected on several screens during the dinner. The photos were from Monday’s MLK Day of Service. She told me some 240 mostly student volunteers hit several different agencies in the area to lend a hand for the day.
And she told me that the Freedom Scholarship Dinner was the culmination of 1½ weeks of service and programs in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It’s an amazing thing that deserves the community’s full attention.
To close her talk, Norris introduced her Race Card Project. She’s been printing postcards on which she invites people to write a single six-word sentence about race.
And she shared some of the responses:
“My great-great-grandfather owned slaves.”
“It matters, like it or not.”
“But I voted for Barack Obama.”
“Underneath we all taste like chicken.”
“Black woman, white man, golden children.”
“Start with kids and mix well.”
“Let us all live sweetly together.”