We are all grateful for saintly men, like Martin Luther King Junior, because of their passion, courage and willingness to serve. We can never repay these heroes enough for the sacrifices they make for us. Though unknown to most, my sister, Diane, who died in 1997 of cancer, was a saint in my life and quite a few others. Considering her devotion to Martin Luther King Jr.'s cause, I can't help but wonder if she's turning somersaults in heaven on the eve of this historic Inauguration Day. She was always profoundly political and deeply aware of injustice.
Twelve years my senior and, as they say, a hard act to follow: Diane was as beautiful an inward person as she was outwardly (at only 12 years she was offered a screen test to play Elizabeth Taylor as a child!) But she was not just a hero to me, she was a mini hero in the early Civil Rights Movement, one of the many college students who went summer after summer to Mississippi in the early 60's to participate in non-violent struggle for justice inspired, largely, by Martin Luther King Junior and other African Americans in leadership.
She and several of her friends were given the task of riding into small Mississippi towns, dressed in their Sunday best: hats and white gloves were not optional. They would rent a highly visible car and park in front of African American churches, where they would attend for worship. What's so courageous about that, you might ask?
My sister and her student friends associated closely with African Americans who were known to be Civil Right's workers, according to the Klan enough of an offense to compel them to kill three male student Civil Rights Workers just months before. And three little girls were murdered in a church bombing, just prior to Diane's arrival in Mississippi.
No one knew if young white women attending a black church would be a deterrent to more bombings, but my sister and her cohorts were willing to take the chance that they could help their African American brothers and sisters worship in relative security. When I see photos or documentaries about the Freedom Summers my sister participated in, I see no college women dressed in hats and gloves on their way to church.
The young white people I see are famous icons such as Joan Baez or Bob Dylan, who spent comparatively little time in the south, but must have garnered much needed publicity for the cause when they joined marches and protests. Women walking into church arm in arm with their black cohorts are hardly as interesting as Bobbie and Joanie leading everyone in singing "We Shall Overcome" as police aim the fire hoses at protesters. The behind-the-scenes heroes go forgotten and many have died or are reaching old age.
Now we celebrate new heroes, especially a new one, who is largely untested and yet is riding on the hopes and dreams of our troubled country. We are on the eve of the Inauguration of Barack Obama! My sister, alas, is not alive to see this milestone, for which she is indirectly responsible by way of her small but not too small acts of heroism.
There are so many unsung heroes in the struggle for human rights all over the world and Martin Luther King Day is a wonderful day to thank them by some act of service, however small, especially if it might even slip by the radar unnoticed. But on any given day these small acts accumulate to tip the balance toward hope and reconciliation in this country and worldwide. A small act will not only change your world; it might change your life.
My sister went on to become an attorney and worked for justice behind the scenes for The Equal Rights Amendment, and for rural poor and farm workers through California Rural Legal Assistance. She once had the dubious honor of debating Conservative activist Phyllis Schafly over the Equal Rights Amendment in Saint Louis, Missouri.
But above all, Diane was an angel to me: an encourager, a wise friend, an advocate for my best interests and a person of great joie de vivre. I believe she was as imperfect as the rest of us, just as Martin Luther King was, and Barack Obama most probably is. The difference between the average person and a hero or saint -- is not perfection, but the willingness to act in courageous love before perfection is achieved. All this for the higher good. . .
I will celebrate this day by bringing food and warm clothing to my local Neighborhood House, a resource for people in need. Have you an idea to celebrate MLK Day?
(All creative content copyright by Claire Nail 2009)