Ten years ago, I had the chance to hear Minnijean Brown Trickey encourage everyone to take the road less comfortable.
The name might not ring a bell. After all, it’s been 60 years since the Little Rock Nine made their way to high school accompanied by the 101st Airborne. Sixty years since a tooth-and-nail battle to bring black students to an all-white school, in the face of every obstacle that could be erected. It’s a faceoff that’s become iconic – an image, a newsreel, a chapter in a history book.
Suddenly, for one night, it became flesh-and-blood. And as Minnijean spoke of what she had seen and done, an entire audience asked itself “What would I have done then? Could I have been as strong?” No one doubted the right thing to do, or even that it still needed to be done – but that first step seemed so long, toward a world of uncertainty and danger and arrest.
Minnijean, who once spilled chili “accidentally on purpose” on another student that harassed her, was gentle in response.
“Everyone is conflicted,” she said, in words that I took down at the time for The Emporia Gazette. “You might have to get kicked out of a few things. And you might find out how strong and courageous you are because you got kicked out of a few things. … It’s not about being arrested. It’s about being able to sleep at night.”
Self-respect. But not wholly self-reliance. Everyone is scared, she insisted. Everyone wants someone braver to help them be less scared.
Everyone needs everyone.
True then. True now.
When I first saw the news out of Charlottesville, I couldn’t find the words to meet it. It still seems unreal. Or maybe too real, the unwanted made undeniable. Torches and Nazi flags. Naked hate. Death, cold and real.
Some of us are lucky; we don’t have to think about this sort of hate on a daily basis. But like a mouse in the walls, not seeing it doesn’t mean it’s not there. And like those rodents, by the time you have to see it, the problem has grown.
It also becomes a wake-up call.
We’re a nation that argues. We always have been, even if the present time feels especially vicious. But if there’s anything I’ve seen mass agreement on from left, right, up, down, and all around, it’s that this evil has no place here. No, it’s not unanimous, sadly. But my goodness, there are a lot of us.
Enough to call evil by its name. Enough to stand.
This is the evil that friends and family fought as troops on the battlefield.
This is the evil that my English grandparents fought as workers in the factory.
This is the evil that has defined evil for four generations of authors, moviemakers, playwrights, and more.
This is the evil that sleeps beneath the human soul, waiting for an opportunity.
And it must be opposed.
Don’t misunderstand. I’m a First Amendment absolutist. Fred Phelps had the same right to speak as Martin Luther King, Jr. This is a country where one has wide latitude to speak evil and hate and horror if they will.
But the rest of us have the freedom not to listen.
The rest of us have the freedom to argue, and to oppose, and to ridicule. (Evil hates ridicule.)
The rest of us have the freedom to say not on my property. Not on my website. Not on my dime.
And when hateful speech becomes harmful action, an entire nation must be ready to show that actions have consequences.
This is not a comfortable duty we’re called to. Awareness never is. Confrontation never is. The first step toward better is as long as it was in 1957.
And as necessary.
Everyone wants someone braver to help them, Minnijean said. We can be each other’s someone.
And then, perhaps, we can all sleep a little better at night.