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They're dead now, but they include the first African-American milk-delivery man in Gary, IN, the first black bus driver in the state of SC, the first African-American meter reader for the Baltimore Gas and Electric Company, the first black registered nurse in Kalamazoo, MI. And thousands or tens of thousands more who scored some sort of small victory -- all of them firsts -- and, in doing so, they chipped away at racism, prejudice, and segregation.

When these people died, their obituaries proudly listed these accomplishments. You probably know that if a famous person dies, a professional journalist writes the obit. But when a regular person dies, their family usually writes a few paragraphs of memories. I'd venture to say none of these accomplishments were small things to the person who tried for and then reached a goal.

Today, on the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court's (unanimous) Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision, I thought I'd talk about some other pioneers.

More details below the fold, after the orange art-nouveau typographic dingbat...

A few days ago by a fluke of fate I happened to be reading the Sunday New York Times Magazine from December 22, 2011. OK, yes, I know it was from three years ago  (it's a long story, but the short version is this: my girlfriend was cleaning her apartment and asked, "Do you want to read this magazine or should I toss it?"). There were numerous articles about famous people who died in 2011: politicians, actors, business moguls, painters, scientists, musicians, academics, dancers, inventors, authors, computer programmers, or whatever. You know, famous people. Who died. In 2011.

At the end of December, newspapers and magazines love to look back at the previous year. They write about the famous people who died. Hey, remember this person? He (or she) did some memorable things in life and then died.

One of the guys who died in 2011 came up with the idea of stackable containerized shipping in a standard size. At the origin you fill up big rectangular metal boxes that fit together perfectly on a cargo ship, then the boxes get shipped to another country, and then they're attached to a semi truck or a railroad car and delivered to the destination. You only have to load it once and empty it once. That's a brilliant idea. But I digress.

Who Remembers the Nobodies?

Sometimes a nobody is actually somebody. Sometimes someone who wasn't very famous accomplished something notable. Sometimes a person is the first one to do something. And their family remembers and proudly prints it in the obituary.

In the 2011 NY Times Magazine I came across this essay about people who were the first to do something: A First Time for Everything by Isabel Wilkerson. If you have time, read the whole thing. Here's some of what she said....

Eugene King was the first African-American milk-delivery man in the Gary, Ind., area. Eddie Koger was the first black bus driver in the state of South Carolina. Camillus Wilson was the first African-American meter reader for the Baltimore Gas and Electric Company. Nancy Hodge-Snyder was said to have “had the distinction of being the first black registered nurse in Kalamazoo.”

I scan the list, a spreadsheet of names and obituary excerpts, and cannot stop reading. How mundane the positions were, how modest the dreams had been. Added together, they somehow bear witness to how far the country has come and how it got to where it is. They speak to how many individual decisions had to be made, how many chances taken, the anxiety and second-guessing at the precise instant that each of these people was hired for whatever humble or lofty position they sought.

Here's a few more:
Jimmie Nolcox was the first black reserve sheriff deputy hired in Gibson County, Ind. Donald Dickerson was the first African-American firefighter in Statesboro, Ga. Pressie Frentress was the first black mail carrier for the Grey Iron Foundry in Saginaw, Mich. Eva McElroy was the first African-American voter-precinct inspector in San Jose, Calif. Marjorie Grevious was the first African-American woman to be licensed as a funeral director and an embalmer in the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

When they were hired, most appeared to have known they were making history. The family of Alvin Taylor of Palmetto, Fla., described him simply as “the first African-American in every appointment he attained.” A woman named Dorothy Allen in Saginaw, Mich., never knew of a black probation officer in her county, but in 1974, she applied anyway because she had a sociology degree, heard of an opening and needed the job. “Everybody knew who had which jobs,” her husband, Dempsey, said. “There could have been some judge’s nephew that wanted that job. We were shut out time and time again. But she went in there and got it.” They celebrated in Detroit that weekend, and decades later, he would put the line in her obituary: “First black probation officer in Saginaw County, Mich.”

"But she went in there and got it." Good for her.

I got to thinking.

Think What these Pioneers Had to Endure

I'm thinking that the first black meter-reader in Baltimore was surrounded by other white people (at work) and had white supervisors. I suppose all meter readers had to deal with dogs guarding the meter, but I wonder how Camillus Wilson dealt with white homeowners seeing a black person in their yard trying to read the meter. I suppose a black firefighter might have had fewer problems and would be welcomed by a person whose house was on fire, regardless of his or her skin color (you don't yell at someone who's saving your house). But each person who was the first to perform a specific job probably had to put up with some shit from co-workers or customers. Then there would be a second or third employee of color, who wouldn't get quite as much resistance.

Being the first person to do anything is hard, but the first one makes it easier for the people who follow. That's how we become a better society.

So... The Arc of the Moral Universe

Here's what Martin Luther King, Jr, wrote in 1958 (from this website: The Arc of the Moral Universe Is Long But It Bends Toward Justice):

In 1958 an article by Martin Luther King, Jr. was printed in “The Gospel Messenger” periodical. King employed the saying, and he placed it between quotation marks which signaled that it was a pre-existing aphorism:
Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross, but that same Christ arose and split history into A.D. and B.C., so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by his name. Yes, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” There is something in the universe which justifies William Cullen Bryant in saying, “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.”
He put it in quotation marks, so King knew someone else said it. In fact, according to that website a Unitarian minister and abolitionist named Theodore Parker wrote those words way back in 1857. He was writing about abolishing slavery, predicting that that goal would eventually be accomplished.

Slavery was indeed abolished (after a bloody war with many casualties, including President Lincoln), but when it was over, the arc bent in the direction of justice.

I Love That Idea of a Moral Arc Bending Toward Justice

It's a brilliant idea. Very progressive. We're gradually approaching justice. Bit by bit. We're not there yet, but we're getting closer and closer. An African-American is the first to get a job as a nurse or meter reader or funeral director (or whatever). In a job that was previously closed to African-Americans. That's a step in the right direction.

Recently I've been very encouraged by the rapid spread of marriage equality. It's even coming to fairly conservative places such as Utah, Idaho, and Arkansas, where you might not have expected it a few years ago. There will be arguments about it, and various laws passed by Republicans, and court cases, and so on, but it makes me happy that the moral arc is bending in the direction of justice for the LGBT community.

Another thing that encourages me is the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Not the most perfect law, and it has flaws, but it's a big step forward. The arc is bending towards justice.

I have to say that's why I'm a Democrat of the Progressive/Liberal persuasion. I want the country to move forward, not back. Republicans have a tendency to want things to stay the same or reverse course -- back to the good old days, as defined by their narrow viewpoint.

You don't move forward by slamming on the brake.

So on  this anniversary of Brown v. Board, let's salute the people who did things (sometimes big and sometimes small, but still notable) to move our country forward. Each of them bent the moral arc of the universe in the direction of justice.

Originally posted to Dbug on Sat May 17, 2014 at 09:57 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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