One of the major themes in Civil Rights Journey is dealing with adversity. In my case the adversity was polio; and as it turned out, while a difficult experience, it had a major influence in shaping my character. I believe was in part responsible for my getting involved in the civil rights movement. Looking back on the experience now, I even wonder whether adversity is the right word. The positives far outweigh the negatives, and I have been extremely fortunate to have lived a relatively normal adult life as far as physical health goes. A question many people ask me after reading the book is, “You, polio? I would have never dreamed…”
But adversity is a very real part of human experience. We all experience it to one degree or another. In the case of Embry and me, in 1969 we lost our first child, Katherine, weeks before what would have been her first birthday. She was born with a heart defect, which we were told was relatively minor and could be corrected with surgery. She did not survive the operation. We were in no way prepared for this loss—not that you can ever be prepared for the loss of a child at any age. That’s adversity.
My guess is that if you dig deep enough you are going to find adversity in the lives of everyone you know, not to mention your own life. It may not be as dramatic as some, but is nonetheless very real—depression, a learning disability, loss of a good friend, loneliness, a difficult childhood, substance abuse, poor health, divorce, business failure, career disappointments: the list is very long. And most of us will experience death very personally at some point with the loss of our parents or a sibling. And in the end, of course, we all die.
You might say that how we deal with adversity is one of the main themes in any life story. It is certainly grist for the mill for most novels and short stories. In a way, we thrive on it. How we deal with it determines who we are, what we are made of, what our lives are really all about. It is at the heart of almost all religions—trying to make sense out of a world that is at its core so fundamentally hard for so many people.
The summer after my freshman year in college, I was head boys counselor for Camp Easter Seal, a camp for “crippled children” in Middle Tennessee. There was not a child in that camp whose disabilities did not far surpass anything I had experienced with my bout with polio. A good number were blind, some were deaf, several had severe birth defects, many had cerebral palsy or developmental disabilities (called “mental retardation” at the time), and some had muscular dystrophy, which meant they could barely move on their own and would not live much beyond their teenage years.
You would think that working in an environment like this would be a downer, but it was anything but. There was no moping or feeling sorry for oneself—at least none that I can remember. These children were upbeat, enthusiastic, generally happy and enjoyed the activities just as much as you would expect any “normal” kid to do. Self pity did not seem to be in their vocabulary, and feeling sorry for these kids was not part of the camp culture in any way. While few of these children would ever be able to live a “normal life” (in the sense that we understand the term) that did not stop them that summer from pursuing life to the fullest that they were able. Their experience at Camp Easter Seal was just for a few weeks out of the summer. Sometimes I wonder what happened to them the rest of the year and what their lives were like when they grew up. My guess is that most of them gave it all they had; and if you asked them about their life, they would say that it was good with some of the same caveats we all use. Talk about overcoming adversity. I will never forget the kids at Camp Easter Seal.