Courage: How it can change the narrative

charles loveRecently, I attended a lecture by a noted author Bryan Stevenson at Berry College. During this lecture, there were some powerful moments. Mr. Stevenson has written a book called “Just Mercy” that focuses on social justice, and is the director of the Equal Justice Initiative.

He spoke on four central principles: Be close to what we want to change, change the narrative, be hopeful, and be uncomfortable. He told the Berry students and adults of the need for more American citizens to take a stand on what is right and not what is based on political ideologies. He spoke of some very courageous people in his life.

My view on courage takes a very personal twist.

I was raised on a farm in a rural area of Northeast Arkansas. My grandfather, Levi Ruffin, and his wife, Ruth Ruffin, had an impact on my development as a person. My view on courage began in the early 1950s on a 45-acre farm that Levi had built in the middle of the woods.

Levi and Ruth had worked as sharecroppers. He decided to move his family from Missouri to Cash, Arkansas, in Craighead County. He settled on the Cache River, cut trees and dynamited tree trunks to clear about 45 acres of rich farm land. My mother and four siblings lived with my grandparents on this property.

If any of you are familiar with southern political structure in the ’50s, you know the county sheriff was “the man.” My grandfather had built a reputation as a man of integrity among the few black families in Cash and had the ability to deliver the black vote during elections. He had two sons, one of whom drank a lot. That son was often incarcerated, but not charged, and allowed to sober up over the weekend and return to work Monday.

The sheriff felt he had leverage on my grandfather and used this to keep him delivering votes.

My grandfather took me to most places that he went to do business, and I learned a lot by watching him, including courage. He always told me to never to hold my head down when talking to white people and to shake their hand and look them in the eye. In those days, you were expected to take a subservient position when dealing with white people.

When farmers went to have their cotton ginned, the owner of the gin would separate the seed from the cotton and give it back. With my grandfather, they paid for the cotton but kept the seed. One day, I guess my grandfather must have thought that if he kept his seed, he would not have to buy much for next year’s crop.

Levi wore overalls with all of these pockets where he kept a pencil, his glasses, and a pipe, along with some other things that I could not distinguish. He owned his own land and grew most of the things we used; he did not have to be dependent on others to feed his family or care for them. His overalls smelled of fresh dirt and cotton … well, I guess you would say smelled like farm.

On this particular day, he must have thought of all that he had endured — starting as a sharecropper in Popular Bluff, Missouri, and deciding to leave that life and migrate first to Clover Bend, Arkansas, and then to Cash to have his own farm. As I stood next to him, clinging to those smelly overalls, he faced the owner of the gin and asked that he get his cotton seed after his cotton was processed.

This must have taken the owner by surprise and he called two other white gentlemen over and repeated that Levi had asked for his seed. There we were, standing in the center of a semi-circle of three white men looking as though we had shot someone. The look was “how dare you” as Levi stood with his head up and looking them in the eyes. The owner, looking very upset, said “We don’t give seed back to farmers, boy.”

Levi probably knew that he was risking a lot by taking this stand — the safety of his family, the land that he had worked so hard to clear to become one of the best farms in the area — but his dignity was far more important. The gin owner finally relented, but said Levi was not to bring any more cotton to be processed there.

After that, he looked down at a frightened young black child and said, “Son, it ain’t going to be easy from now on.” He was right.

The sheriff visited my grandfather and said that he could no longer let my uncle be placed in jail without being booked or posting bail. I remember night riders coming to the edge of our farm, shining lights in our windows and throwing bricks through them. My grandfather would sit up all night with his shotgun across his lap to protect us, and then rise early in the morning to work the farm. My uncle joined the Army.

These events went on for some time until my grandfather was worn out. He finally sold the farm — from what I learned later, for much less than it was worth — and moved us into town. But I still remember clinging to those overalls as he demanded what white farmers were getting, to protect his dignity. I saw courage.

As Americans, we must take a stand, even when it stretches our resolve and makes us uncomfortable. Do what is right, even against the odds. Even when it may seem like we are outnumbered, face our fears, as Levi must have done. It was worth the risk to my grandfather, to keep his self-worth.

As we face the divisions of race and social and economic injustice, we all have to be close to what we want to change, keep hope, change the narrative and be uncomfortable. What is our dignity worth?

Courage, it comes in many forms. Mine was watching Levi stand, even if he stood alone, for what he believed and knew was right.

Charles Love is co-chair of the North Rome Community Action Committee and a former officer of the Urban League of the Southeast U.S. He writes for the website MOVE GEORGIA FORWARD. Readers may contact him at MoveGeorgiaForward@gmail.com.

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