Submitted by Charles Sackrey
I was raised in Texas as a Southern Baptist and, of course, I came to know about how a person’s actions might “give witness” to some element in that brand of Christianity. The word became ingrained in my mind and, despite long ago falling from grace into atheism, it remained for me an urgent piece of loaded language. Now, when I see or read about some commanding witness on behalf of what I believe, such as those described below, it always helps me to keep on keeping on.
Some witnesses are so powerful that they take the breath away and ripple and resonate through the body politic from then on. On April 28, 1967 in Houston, Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted to fight in Vietnam on the grounds that, as he put it, “I ain’t got nothing against those Viet Congs.” And, “No Viet Cong ever called me a nigger.” He was found guilty, fined $10,000 dollars and stripped of his heavyweight title by the boxing commissions in every state. It’s hard to overestimate the lasting and profound effect of his action on many of us millions of Americans who shared his antipathy to that vile and misbegotten war. When that beautiful, proud black man from Kentucky stood his ground in Houston he strengthened our own commitments, however frail and small in comparison, against the U.S. war machine.
Between 1977-1982, for a year with a friend, then alone after that, I published a small left-wing quarterly magazine that mixed fiction, poetry, and commentary. As I put together the 1980 winter issue, I came across the account (the source of which I have lost) of an action by an English boy of 14, Henry Eaton. Henry was arrested in 1794 for publicly resisting the government’s repressive measures in response to the clamor for democratic rights stirred up by the French Revolution. For his crime of advocating democracy, fourteen year old Henry Eaton was brought before the prime minister himself, William Pitt, the Younger. As he stood in the front of Pitt, and I quote:
Henry Eaton did enter into a political harangue in which he used very harsh language against Mr. Pitt, upbraiding him with having taxed the people [rather than the rich and powerful] to an enormous extent.
Thank you, Henry Eaton, cheeky boy of fourteen years, for being in my memory and urging me onward when I hesitate to take action simply because I am afraid. And, pardon me when I have so often held back and watched the others do my work for me.
Recently, while I was watching the movie, “North Country,” I decided to write this article. The movie tells the story of Lois Jenson, a Minnesota woman who in 1975 went to work at a huge taconite mine. She was one of the very few women who worked there, and they all faced unceasing, degrading, and often violent harassment from most of the male miners. With colossal courage, she challenged the men, at the mine and in the court. In doing that, she became a pariah in a community which refused to admit the sordid treatment of the women in the mine. Lois Jenson ultimately prevailed, and the story of what she did and its effects are detailed in Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler, in their book, Class Action: The Story of Lois Jenson and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law (2003). If you have any stirrings inside for the democratic rights of women, or for anyone else, you probably can’t watch this movie without feeling a persistent itch to do something about it.
The importance of giving witness is that such actions are always noticed by others — whether what you do shakes the whole world or just a few people who pass by and read the sign you’re holding. Of course your enemies will turn away in disgust, or will respond with harsh words and sometimes evens harsher actions. Yet, your hand in the air will undoubtedly energize your allies because it will confirm their own convictions and actions. More important, taking a stand will likely have its greatest impact on those still on the side of the fray, knowing that things need to be done but yet can’t see themselves as the ones doing them.
Each of us, on our way to political action, has to start somewhere, and that beginning is always fraught with doubt, embarrassment, and the fear of offending friends, family, strangers, co-workers, and the boss. But, all this bad stuff doesn’t win the day because taking that first step – joining a phone bank, writing a letter to the editor, making a sign for a rally, marching in one — always feels so damned good. And, that is why the second step is already on the way.
If we are going to salvage a democratic culture from what we have now, we need a great and growing mass of witnesses spreading the word about democracy with their bold actions, encouraging, enlivening and urging each other forward. The truth is that there isn’t any other way to get it done.