Giants Among Us

My mentor, Carolyn Goodman, lived a life that few would trade for. She lost two husbands to illness and her middle son to the Ku Klux Klan.

I met Carolyn in 1989 when I was a student in New York. She quickly became my friend and teacher through a relationship that lasted almost twenty years until her death in 2007 at the age of 91. Carolyn was a masterful storyteller, recounting her early activist years, organizing supplies with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to send to the Spaniards fighting Franco in the late thirties. She told me about, and often introduced me, to the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement (who often met in her living room), from Julian Bond to now-Congressman John Lewis to John Doar, a champion in the US Department of Justice during the tumultuous sixties. She and I traveled to Mississippi twice, to commemorate the murders of her son Andy and his two Freedom Summer colleagues, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, and the countless other women and men who literally sacrificed their lives to better our country. (link)

Throughout her whole life, even prior to the birth of her three children, Carolyn was an activist and a community organizer. Her Upper West Side apartment in Manhattan was a living museum to the fight for equality in the United States. There, leaders of many movements gathered to meet, strategize, raise money, weep, celebrate and rest. The photographs and ghosts in those rooms could literally trace all of American history from the thirties to the today.

I have so many memories of Carolyn, too many to go into here. I’ll leave you with just two.

The first is so bittersweet, as it was for Carolyn. Carolyn was so generous with her time with everyone, including reporters, during the disappearance of her son and his co-workers in 1964, to the discovery of their bodies in an earthen dam in rural Mississippi, to the ensuing investigation and then to the forty-plus years of remembrance. Almost each time she was interviewed, she would get asked the same question: “If you could do it all over again, would you still give permission to Andy to go down to Mississippi to register black voters?”

Without a pause or hint of hesitation, Carolyn would always answer yes. The reasons are so complicated and so unfathomable if you have not lost a child yourself. I took her answer then as I do today – a lesson, born of the harshest experience, that one must always do right, and teach right to others.

When the Ku Klux Klan murdered Andy, James and Michael, the Civil Rights Movement changed. It became bigger – both deeper and wider at the same time. It reached its tipping point. Not a single one of us would want to face that horrible decision – to lose a loved one’s life or advance a cause that would affect the future of literally millions of people. But because of their work, we are blessed with different times now. Today, the weapons of voter suppression are negative ads and robo calls, not firehoses, beatings and murders. Still, the lesson from Carolyn is clear. When asked, we must all choose to participate.

My second favorite memory about Carolyn is her favorite quote: “We stand upon the shoulders of giants.” Carolyn was always so cognizant of the everyday heroes in history – those who quietly acted on their consciences, for no other reason that but to do what was right.

So when you go to cast our votes this week or on November 4th, please take a moment to remember what the act of voting symbolizes, and please say a little prayer of thanks to all those who paved the way for you.


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