“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.
Two things coincided in my life this January. We celebrated the efforts of Martin Luther King, Jr., and I just finished reading The Help set during the start of the Civil Rights Movement. If you’re one of the few people who haven’t read the New York Times Bestseller, you may find a synopsis useful. Set in Mississippi in the early 1960’s, The Help tells the story of several black women who risked sharing their stories during those troubled times. At risk to their jobs, their families, even their own lives, these women shared both the good and the bad of their daily work situations. Two women in particular, Minny and Aibileen, take us through their challenges and heartbreaks. Skeeter, the white writer who records their stories, takes her own risks as well, and in the process loses her friends, her boyfriend, and eventually her hometown. Kathryn Stockett’s point as she tells this story seems to be that we are all the same at heart.
While reading this book, I was taken back to an uncomfortable time in my own life. While I was just a baby during the time outlined in The Help, I still faced the consequences of the Civil Rights Movement during my middle school years. The school I attended in Seattle was still undergoing busing for integration. None of the kids were happy with the situation. While we didn’t understand the reasons for the process, we did know everyone had difficulty getting along. One day in gym class, I was approached by two black girls. I was running late for class, and I was the only one left in the locker room. (At this point, I should probably state that I’m white.) The two girls were known bullies in the school, and they started hassling and picking on me. At some point, it turned physical. I was crying and trying to think of a way to get out of there, when another student walked through the locker room door. She was a big girl, heavy and slow-moving usually, but quick to come to my aid that day. She walked right up to the other two girls and told them to leave me alone. She took my arm and walked me right out of there, onto the gym floor, where she sat me down and stayed next to me for the remainder of class. For the next few weeks, she kept her eye on me whenever we were in gym class together. I was never more grateful for a friend, even though I barely knew her. Did I mention she was black?
I don’t know that I agree that we’re all the same at heart. Some of us are strong, courageous, and rebellious, just like some of the characters in Stockett’s book. Others of us are vulnerable and need help and protection. Some of us can be heroines and some of us may be victims. But all of us have the right to find out who we truly are and what we can make of ourselves – without fear for our lives, our homes, and our families. Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for that right – not just for blacks but for all of us. If, as a woman, you are looking for strong female role models, I urge you to read Stockett’s book. Her characters are both strong and vulnerable, even while facing discrimination, spousal abuse, and threats to their lives and security. And if you are among the many that need help, it’s there – although it may come from the most unlikely place. Sometimes you have to ask. Sometimes it just shows up.
All these years later I’d like to say “thank you” to my youthful heroine. Thank you for saving a scared 11-year-old. Thank you for stepping in. Thank you for having the courage to help. I hope that help has been returned to you many times over. May you prosper and continue to be amazing!