Coveted pedestal on the bumpy road to freedom

By Tom W. Phillips

They didn’t see it, all those who deserved to. It simply took too long and they were unable to wait.

Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, John Brown, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Huddie Ledbetter.

All Klan members, past and present. The wheelchair-bound governor who rallied the people of his state to prevent black children from attending school. The ancient senator who kept the secret of his daughter with a black woman to the end of his days.

All those who died in the slave ships or were simply worked to death after they landed. They who were whipped and chased across the countryside by dogs and jailed and hanged, their bodies stoned and burned for the amusement of all.

The nameless, faceless ones who worked the Underground Railroad by night, counseling those who fled to “follow the drinkin’ gourd,” the Big Dipper by which could be located the North Star. This they would follow along that “bumpy road to freedom,” ever northward to the free states and hope.

The hope of Huck Finn’s Jim, who vowed to get his wife and children back from a distant plantation even as he was chased down the Mississippi River by bounty hunters. His was an imaginary hope, only a story based upon a thousand realities in a time and place Mark Twain, at personal and professional risk, criticized so eloquently, perpetuating the same lifelong hope that people would eventually come to their senses.

Some will say, I am sure, the old folks saw it from their places in the sky and that will be a comfort to them, I suppose. Personally I wouldn’t figure on it; I can only add it to my list of gratitudes, glad for the privilege of being alive to see it.

Glad for such an improbable possibility to come to fruition in my lifetime. In the South in the early ’60s, it appeared to me all but impossible.

Undeserving I may be, who only pays lip service to social injustice and maneuvers safely around the periphery of man’s inhumanity to man the world over. I who complain bitterly to those who care fractionally less and who are no more directly involved, being taken up with matters of more consuming interest.

I have seen a man who is half-black and a woman contend for a position in the world to which many have aspired.

I have seen a man who is half-white survive long enough to gain the nomination of his political party in a bid for the presidency of the United States and wondered if half acceptance was the result.

Shortly before I was born, and even during my lifetime, neither the man nor the woman was afforded the privilege of voting or the freedom to be. They now stand poised to step to the highest pedestal in the land.

One will be chosen, but both will have won. The coveted pedestal, it seems — and indeed one would hope — stands at the end of that “bumpy road to freedom …”

— Tom W. Phillips is a writer living on San Juan Island.