WHY LIBERAL VALUES MATTER
Rev. Manuel Holland
June 19, 2016
The primaries are finally over and when the conventions are held we will know who the official candidates for President will be. We also know that there will be candidates on the ballot for a number of other offices. It is our challenge to let all those who seek our votes know that liberal values matter. This morning I be will referring to a number of experiences from my childhood which I think may help to show why liberal values matter so much. Among the values that matter are those of the 2nd principle supported by Unitarian Universalists; justice, equity and compassion. Some of you will have heard me mention some of my childhood experience and I hope you will forgive my repeating them. Out of curiosity, I will ask how many of you were NOT here on September 23, 2011, almost five years ago. On that day I mentioned some of the experiences I will talk about today. My father was born in 1900 about seven miles out of Franklin, N.C., between Highlands and Franklin. He was the first of 14 children. He was 19 when he and my mother were married. From 1921 to 1936 they had 8 children. I was born in 1930.
In his late teens my father learned how to set dynamite charges and began a career as blaster. Most of his work was in mining; he did some construction work. In 1925 he was on Stone Mountain, GA preparing the site for the sculptures which are now the Confederate Memorial. In 1937 his application to work at Star Gold Mines in Grass Valley was approved. At that time we were living in a cabin near where he was born. He hastily built a plywood shelter for the bed of a Ford B-Model Pick-up. One of Dad’s brothers and his wife and two children joined us. Both families crowded into the pick-up along with some of their possessions. Dad, my mother, a one year old daughter, and a three year old daughter rode in the cab. It took over two weeks of long days of driving, often going into the night, to get to our destination. My uncle and his family were dropped off where he had a job waiting for him and we continued north to Grass Valley. We arrived toward the end of April. My 7th birthday was the 9th of May.
Things went well for a few months. Then the medical supervisor of the mine told Dad that he could no longer work at the mine. Eighteen years as a blaster in mines and other sites had virtually destroyed his lungs. There was no choice but to look for work as migrant laborers. We loaded up our few possessions and headed south on the main highway.
From August 1937 to October 1938 we traveled from Grass Valley as far south as Bakersfield. We gathered walnuts, picked prunes, picked cotton, cut huge bunches of seedless Thompson Grapes put them on trays to become sun dried raisons, to name a few of the crops we helped to harvest. Mother and Dad kept me and two of my older brothers in public schools. We changed schools seven times that year. My oldest brother was 16 and he and Dad worked in the fields while we were in school. Often we joined them after school and always during weekends.
Increasingly Dad’s health deteriorated. In August a doctor in a clinic in Bakersfield told him that he had only a few weeks to live. His lung capacity was less than 25% of what it had been. We were preparing to return to school, even though we had almost completely worn out our clothing. Word got to the Salvation Army and one of their workers arrived at the tent we were renting in a migrant labor camp and presented us with a large bundle of clothing which had been freshly laundered and ironed. It was a wonderful gift to us. Among the clothes was a pair of coveralls which almost fitted me. I proudly wore those coveralls on the first day of school. Compassion matters. In the last migrant labor camp where we stayed there was a family in a nearby tent with a number of children and a very warm and generous mother who did her cooking on an inverted oil drum fueled with wood gathered from nearby orchards. When her children gathered around for burritos she often included me as if I were another member of the family. She knew about Dad’s health and that was one way for her to express her compassion. Compassion matters.
I thought of that mother some years ago when I read Mother Theresa’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in which she told the story near the end of the address about her taking some rice to a very needy family of the Hindu faith. She gave the rice to the mother who then divided it in half and took one half with her as she went out the back entrance of their shelter. When she asked what she had done and she gestured to the Muslim family next door and she said “They are hungry, too.” Compassion matters.
Liberal values matter. Compassion, justice, and equity matter and we will be challenged to defend them in the months ahead. Compassion must over-ride the fear and paranoia which would keep us from welcoming thousands of refugees. Compassion and justice must overcome the prejudice and intolerance which would encourage the deportation of millions of undocumented persons. Compassion, Justice and Equity must prevail in the efforts to have a national minimum wage of at least $15.00 an hour. Liberal values matter.
In October of 1938 Dad died. A California Social Worker visited with Mother and, after determining that our relatives in North Carolina would assist us if we returned, she arranged for the State to pay for our transportation and some other expenses and we returned to North Carolina. Not long after we returned my oldest brother was accepted in the Civilian Conservation Corps, another wonderful program of the President Franklin D. Roosevelt Administration. It permitted my brother to send by government check a monthly allotment to my mother, the only income she had. When President Roosevelt chose the members of his Cabinet he had the wisdom to choose Francis Perkins to be Secretary of Labor. She was the first woman to serve on a President’s Cabinet. Under her leadership came the formation of the Social Security Program, the minimum wage and many other programs based on liberal values. So much was accomplished in the midst of the worst depression this nation has ever known. Credit also must be given to labor union leaders John L. Lewis, Walter Reuther, Philip Randolph. It would be wonderful to have Francis Perkins and those leaders come back and tell us how vital liberal values were to their efforts.
It would also be wonderful to have my father come back. Even though I only remember a few years of his life, I can imagine what he might say. He might say:
For 19 years I practiced my trade as a blaster. From Copper Hill, Tennessee I helped remove copper which may have been in the bright pennies you put in your children’s stockings on Christmas morning. In Clinch Valley Tennessee I helped mine zinc which was essential for the bronze in so many statues you have admired. I helped clear the way for the memorial on Stone Mountain which millions have visited. Near Hazleton, Pennsylvania I worked deep underground breaking loose the hard coal which burned so brightly and so cleanly and which gave off much more heat than soft coal for homes, locomotives and power plants. At the Star Gold Mines in Grass Valley, California, for a few precious months, I broke loose the rocks which bore the gold which may be in your wedding rings. Then it was over and without pension, without medical benefits, without Social Security for my family, for the next 15 months I and my sons attempted to provide as best we could for a mother, four sons and two daughters.
On the last day of my father’s life he began to hemorrhage violently. Mother, with the help of my older brothers, took my sisters and ran to the little camp store and rental office where there was a telephone. They left me in the tent with Dad. After a few minutes Dad got up from his bed and stumbled by me, saying as he went by “Make something of yourself, Son.” He fell to the dirt floor of the tent, struggled for moments and died.
Make something of yourself. Is not that the spoken or unspoken aspiration of most fathers and mothers and grandparents? Liberal values matter because they make those aspirations more likely to become realities. Pre-school programs for all children, universal health care, tuition–free college education all could make it much more likely that many children would make something of themselves. Liberal values matter. Why have I spent so much time discussing what happened almost 80 years ago? Simply because millions of Americans face problems as challenging, or more so, as my family faced. From Hilton Head Island to all parts of our country there are those who live in extreme poverty in spite of their best efforts to improve their lives. Our second principle challenges us to show compassion, to seek justice, and to work for equity. As individuals and as a Congregation may we accept that challenge.