Shame, Regret, and Never-Too-Late
I was wobbling a bit in my determination to go to my second Moral Monday this week. Standing around listening to an hour and a half of speeches wasn’t calling me. (Though certainly I wanted to contribute again to the protest against what the NC General Assembly is doing to women, blacks, the poor, and the unemployed.)
And then my brother Harry Payne, who works for the North Carolina Justice Center, called. He wanted me to help hold up a sign. A very large one.
Suddenly, my moral obligation became a party. Just the extra boost I needed to skip out of the office for a good cause.
My fight-for-justice credentials are far from impeccable anyway. I was twenty-one before I woke up. Prior to that, I’d made a number of large blunders: didn’t notice that segregation was evil, idly figured the government knew what it was doing in Viet Nam. And then there’s one that I’ve never admitted to anyone until now. This may be the boldest admission I’ll ever make: when cafeteria employees struck for higher wages while I was a student at Duke, I actually filled in two or three shifts serving in the dorm cafeteria. I had not given the pay rate of cafeteria workers a single thought; I just thought it would be fun, interesting and, though I had enough money, I didn’t mind a few extra dollars to cover my vending machine snacks. I am very much ashamed of this.
On the other hand, I haven’t been ashamed that I didn’t take part in the famous 1968 Duke Vigil, where the West Campus in front of the chapel became a day-and-night blanket city of protesting students. That whole scene irked me; I thought it was providing a noble excuse to cut classes and have furtive sex on the quad. Worst of all, it was messy and involved a (rude) sit-in in the university president’s house. In retrospect, I should have been sitting out there on the quad between classes, supporting better pay, visibly respecting MLK (as I certainly did internally), and picking up litter if it bothered me so badly.
This week, standing out on the grassy Raleigh plaza with a Racial Justice sign, I noted the number of clerical collars in the crowd and remembered skirting the edge of the vigil (no doubt in a skirt) to go take a poorly attended test in a religion course. My classroom's windows at the Div. School looked out on that protest. Coinciding with this memory, I got a sharp cramp in my chest. Conflicted feelings or a mere heart attack? Wasn’t the latter, I’m happy to say.
Leaving the Moral Monday site, I paused to speak with Cy King, 90 years old and in a wheelchair at the edge of the crowd. A steadfast peace activist since his return from service in World War II, he said he’d been in so many poorly attended demonstrations…and it was a pleasure to be now a part of one that was drawing such a crowd.
Moral Mondays are now gathering stalwarts like King and relative newbies like me. A good sign. As the chant says, “The people/ united / will not be defeated…!”