[The words of this sonnet are printed below.]
I am posting this poem in honor of Rep. John Lewis and the Rev. C. T. Vivian who both died in Atlanta on July 17, 2020. This is a sonnet in free verse form that I wrote when I heard that my neighbor, the author and activist, Grace Paley, had died. I know people in Atlanta are feeling this kind of loss of someone near and dear to them, and throughout America and the world.
I was only thirteen when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. I participated in the march of protest, grief and rage through my small town in Ohio, but at the time my impression of the Civil Rights Movement came through my friends and through snippets on national television news. I could name only three or four Civil Rights Movement leaders.
I learned more in high school and college but it wasn’t until the late 1980s that John Lewis, C. T. Vivian and so many other inspiring heroes came alive to me when I watched Eyes on the Prize. (You can stream all fourteen episodes and download a study guide for free by clicking here. I highly recommend it as important historical background to the movement for social, economic and environmental justice today, and as a deeply moving experience.)
The women of the movement whom I had not known particularly moved me, including Diane Nash, Myrlie Evers and Fanny Lou Hamer, among others. Many more men stood out for me, as well besides Lewis and Vivian, like the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. The intensity and intimacy of Eyes on the Prize made these all feel near and dear to me, the way I felt about Grace.
We have lost two at once now and feel that grief, but Lewis and Vivian died with hope in their hearts because at this very moment people as heroic and inspiring as they were are rising in a movement that is fighting not only for individual issues like defunding police or climate legislation but for what King called “a revolution of values,” a “restructuring of society” built on social, economic and environmental justice. It is fighting for the survival of our democracy and democratic ideals, and for the survival of humanity and all living species.
This is the greatest social movement the world has ever seen and the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement and Peace Movement and all the liberation movements of the mid-Twentieth Century are the reason it exists. We owe them much, so it is important to take the time now to honor them and grieve their loss and let their memory inspire us to carry on the struggle, giving our all as they gave theirs.
I was lucky enough to serve for many years as the pastor in the Vermont village where Grace Paley lived. We worked on peace and justice campaigns together and we shared poetry (although she was disgusted by my choice of the sonnet form, which is why I disguised “In the Shadow of Absence” as free verse—for my excuse for writing sonnets click here).
I loved most our regular casual encounters at the Post Office or concerts or Town Meeting because even when she was struggling she was full of warmth and love and light.
One of my favorite stories about her was told at her memorial service in the Thetford Hill church. Someone found her late in her life bending over and backing out of a public restroom. It was a comic position, and knowing her sense of humor the person laughed and asked her what she was doing. She said her feet had been all muddy and she was cleaning the floor as she came out so that an underpaid custodian would not have to do it. It was a matter to her of both courtesy and justice. She was generous-hearted, truly great hearted, and I am among the masses that miss her. Continue reading