Monday, March 14, 2011

What My Grandmother Taught Me: Vigilance

"We, the people." It is a very eloquent beginning. But when that document [the Preamble to the US Constitution] was completed on the seventeenth of September in 1787 I was not included in that "We, the people." I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake. But through the process of amendment, interpretation and court decision I have finally been included in "We, the people."

Congresswoman Barbara C. Jordan (D-TX)

Statement made before the House Committee on the Judiciary, July 25, 1974



     Today is my Grandmother Fannie’s birthday! If she had not surrendered to “being older than dirt” in the summer of 2001, she would be 103 years old. She was born in southeastern Oklahoma on March 14, 1908—four months following Oklahoma’s statehood; three months after the passage of Oklahoma’s first law sanctioning discrimination (Senate Bill One). Our love of all things Oklahoma was instilled in us—me, my siblings, and my cousins—by our Grandmother. The same can be said of our love for history, poetry, family, and our vigilance.

     Long before we were born, Grandmother was a beautician—a hairdresser, an artist of beauty. I really don’t think she liked being a hairdresser, but she didn’t like cleaning other people’s toilets either. There weren’t many opportunities for young women back then. There were even less for “Negro” women. Growing up and watching Grandmother wander around her kitchen like it was some foreign land, I would chuckle at the thought of her being anybody’s maid. Actually, I pity the genteel woman who hired Fannie Lewis to keep their house. Some folks just aren’t cut out for some types of work.

     They say that there is a silver lining in every cloud; you just have to look for it. The silver lining for the cloud we know as World War II would be the employment opportunities that opened up for women and African Americans. For Oklahoma that silver lining can be further defined as Tinker Field Air Force Base. In 1940 Oklahoma City business and political leaders learned that the War Department was planning to locate a supply depot in the central part of the country. They began work immediately—acquiring land, garnering public support, and no doubt using a little political savvy and influence to ensure that the facility would be located in Oklahoma City.

     The first official announcement that the Air Force would build a depot at Oklahoma City came on April 8, 1941. On June 25, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802. The order banned discrimination against racial and ethnic minorities in the government and defense industries. The order resulted in part from pressure placed on Roosevelt by the African American labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph. Talk about timing! President Roosevelt’s order was the first significant presidential action on behalf of African American civil rights since Reconstruction.

     Although the provisions of 8802 were theoretically sound, we all know that they were not fully put into practice. But Executive Order 8802 was most definitely a wedge—a foot in the door; an affirmative action—that hundreds of Oklahoma African Americans embraced. One of those fortunate folks was my grandmother, Fannie Lewis Burleigh (nee, Smith). Unfortunately many of the African Americans and women hired were relegated to janitorial and helper positions that were far beneath their qualifications and education—but the security and stability of government service, their hopes for a better day, and their desire to do their part for the war effort made these injustices endurable.

     Vigilance; “the price of liberty”, “the price of freedom.” Each year at Thanksgiving, I pull out Grandmother’s copy of the 1942 memorial book for Tinker Field’s Oklahoma City Air Service Command – Maintenance Division. I share this with my young relatives—least they forget “from whence we came”, least they forget that “life has not been a crystal stair”, least they forget about the “stony road that has been trod.” I am vigilant because I remember life before Affirmative Action, the EEOC, and the Oklahoma Human Rights Commission. I remember the 6-year-old freckled faced girl who chastised me for using too much soap, because she thought I had washed the palms of my hands white. I remember the merchants in my hometown that opened their doors to their African American patrons after regular hours so as not to offend their Caucasian patrons. I remember every person who recoiled in fear that the black would rub off.

     So; to illustrate to my grandchildren and cousins why I am passionate about history and feel that I have a responsibility to be forever vigilant, I pull out the Tinker yearbook. Personnel photos of the military personnel are shown first, followed by the civilian workforce who are shown by employment sections and then divided further—white employees in alphabetical order, followed by African American employees in alphabetical order. Are the whites separated from the blacks, because someone feared that the black would rub off—even in a photo? No, they are separate to indicate subservience. They are separated to imply, “you may be here, but you will never BE HERE.” “You may have your foot in the door, but you better check yourself.”

     I would be lying if I said that I can’t believe that in 2011 we still have attacks on affirmative action programs, perceived preferential treatment, and loathing of set asides for women the size of a peanut. There will always be those who have no concept of sharing, of compassion, of true equality. Grandmother Fannie called these folks small-minded evil doers. When I think of the slaveholders who felt that slavery was morally right, I think of small-minded evil doers.

     My grandmother’s words feel my consciousness, when I hear others bemoaning equal opportunity, affirmative action, and set asides—especially women, because it means that they have forgotten from whence we came. It means that they have drunk the Kool-Aid and stumbled down the rabbit hole. In some cases, it means that they have sold out for personal gain or glory and it saddens me. It will be very interesting to hear Governor Mary Fallin’s thoughts on SJR 15 and the proposed state question that Oklahoma Republican legislators have crafted for the November 2012 ballot.

     Oklahoma SJR 15 is Oklahoma’s 21st Century version of Senate Bill One. Don’t take my word for it, read the bill that is now before the House. When I think of Senator Rob Johnson’s bill, the first word that comes to mind is onerous. At First Reading before the Oklahoma Senate, SJR 15 was introduced as a proposed constitutional amendment concerning judicial appointments. It was amended by substitute in the Judiciary Committee on 2/28/2011; the substitute language prohibits certain preferential treatment (or as they say, "It will not allow special treatment or discrimination based on race or sex"). If you intentions were good, WHY THE TRICKERY?

     Vigilance! SJR 15 is screaming loud and clear. Oklahoma’s Republican legislators are screaming loud and clear, “You better check yourself—who do you think you are?” Vigilance. It’s time for the decent folk of Oklahoma to start screaming—and let’s be LOUD & CLEAR! You taught me well, Grandmother! Happy Birthday!

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