I’m writing this in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. and all others who stand up for what they believe.
My father’s parents weren’t particularly “green”. Although they were fairly frugal, as so many of their generation were, they loved to keep their thermostat set at about 72° F (22.2° C) all year long. The A/C was on constantly in the summer, and the heater blasted away day and night in the winter. They wore polyester clothes, drank a Coke every day at lunch, drove huge gas guzzling cars (again with the A/C blasting), and generally didn’t think much more about the environment than that there should be one. So how did they teach me anything about sustainable design?
The short answer is, nothing – and everything. The long answer is this…
In 1963, at the height of the civil rights era, my grandparents stood their ground and did the right thing. They aren’t famous, and you’re not likely to read about them in a textbook. They quietly went about their lives afterwards, and didn’t discuss it much unless asked, but what they did was inspiring.
My grandfather was the minister to a large, affluent church in Jackson, Mississippi at the time. He had been there for some time, and was well liked, but racial tensions in the South were high, and he had been told not to discuss or preach about civil rights. Although he was very active with an interracial ministers group, and worked with a nearby “negro” college, he kept his sermons about civil rights subtle. My grandmother also felt strongly about civil rights, and joined an interracial prayer group, which was an illegal and dangerous thing to do at the time. They were in correspondence with Martin Luther King, Jr. and his wife, amongst other civil rights activists. Still, their actions ran mostly under the radar, and life remained fairly comfortable for them.
That all changed the Sunday two young, African American women came to worship at the church. Theirs was a coordinated effort, happening at several churches. A gentle, but pointed, attempt to integrate the communities. As my grandfather preached his sermon, unbeknownst to him, the women were turned away and told they could not worship there. When my grandfather found out later, he was incensed, as was my grandmother. The next Sunday, my grandfather gave a fiery sermon, letting his congregation know that the church was God’s house, and no one should be turned away, especially for the color of their skin. Although many in the congregation agreed with him, a powerful and vocal group did not. My grandfather was given the opportunity to, essentially, renounce his position on civil rights and agree not to bring it up again. He refused, and shortly thereafter, he acquired the distinction of being the only minister in Jackson, MI to be fired for standing up for civil rights. He and my grandmother were left without income, home (it belonged to the church), or much in the way of prospects. For awhile, things were quite difficult for them.
What my grandparents didn’t know at that bleak time was the enormous gift they had just given to a granddaughter who was still years from making her appearance on this earth. Everything I needed to know about “doing the right thing” I learned from what they did. Their actions taught me about strength of character, and how important it is to do things that, at the time, aren’t convenient, easy, or popular, but still, at their core, very necessary.
I have faced my share of quizzical faces, shaken heads, and downright naysayers in my 8 years of working in sustainable design, but nothing I will do will ever approach the bravery my grandparents showed. Yet their actions made it possible for me to take that leap of faith, skip the high paying “decorator’ career track, and do what I truly believed in.
I miss you Poppy and Grandmommy. Thank you so much. I hope you would be proud of me.
P.S. Please read this post from Treehugger to see another take on the connections between sustainability and the civil rights movement. Bonus video of MLK’s full “I Have a Dream” speech.