Wednesday, 23 January 2019

The Quiet Activist?

Icons - The Greatest Person of the Twentieth Century ( BBC TV)

It shows that I have a certain mindset: I watched aspects of this BBC TV series 'The Greatest Person' and became really involved, but only in the areas which interested me. It will come as no surprise to my brother that I didn’t watch the ‘Greatest Sportsperson’ but I did watch other episodes. For instance I saw the ‘Greatest Entertainers’ of the C20th and the ‘Greatest Leaders’ of the C20th. But the episode which I saw in real time - thus enabling me to vote online - was ‘The Greatest Activists of the Twentieth Century’.

I sense there is a pattern emerging here and it must reflect my personality. I do go to some political meetings and always seem to know the answers to political questions at our local pub quiz. Hence my appreciation of the ‘Greatest Leaders’ episode in this mini-series.
Of the four (Roosevelt, Churchill,Mandela and Thatcher) I had the least knowledge about FD Roosevelt. And it struck me that our own current Labour leadership could bring about a new deal for the impoverished and hard-working folk of England - those with little hope in their lives. This is after nine years of an austerity budget in the UK. In England, especially, public services have been cut to skeletal provision. 

But back to 'The Greatest People.' In choosing the greatest leader of C20th many would, I'm sure, vote for Winston Churchill who saw off the Nazi threat - despite other MPs' calls for appeasement - in the second world war. Of the four nominated I certainly didn’t favour Margaret Thatcher but, if I’d watched the programme in real time, my vote would have gone to Nelson Mandela. 

And this is where the pattern in my thinking starts. Mandela fought for an oppressed people and suffered greatly whilst being imprisoned. FDR was disabled through polio. Churchill was also imprisoned early in his life - but not for the 27 years Mandela endured. There is sacrifice, imprisonment, pain, disability and a care for ordinary people’s hard luck in the three leaders I favoured: FDR, Churchill and Mandela. Without Churchill where would Britain have been? But without Mandela...

Next up was the feature on entertainers. As Oliver Cromwell found - if you ban entertainment and Christmas you won’t be popular. People need fun, chance to forget their hard lives and relaxation. For David Bowie I scored highly but slightly behind Charlie Chaplin, who had a dreadful early life but later entertained others with his famous on-screen depiction of a down-on-his-luck tramp. Chaplin’s ‘The Great Dictator’ was surely a work ahead of its time, when cinema was still in kindergarten? However, if I’d watched this BBC offering in real time my vote would have gone to Billie Holliday. Again she had a difficult, unsettled early life but rose up and out of degradation. She survived, through her own efforts, to be a great singer and brought a song about killings in the deep south to a much wider audience. Of course I’m talking about her rendering of ‘Strange Fruit', a song about the lynchings of black people in parts of the USA (after the abolition of slavery). We may not have heard of Abel Meeropol, aka Lewis Allan, who wrote the poem 'Strange Fruit' but Holliday's thin, strained voice perfectly captures the mood of the subject. My vote would have gone to her. Marilyn Monroe - like Thatcher in the category above - wouldn’t have been favoured.

Finally I did manage to watch ‘Greatest Activists’ while it was being broadcast. It brought a tear to my eye when I relearned the trials of the lives of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. The quiet dignity of Gandhi's walk to the sea to make salt is moving and astounding in its effectiveness. 

Dr King and Mahatma Gandhi fought not for greatness for themselves but, again, to lift an oppressed people out of subjugation. Likewise Emmeline Pankhurst and her warriors brought about the votes for women in 1918. She too was imprisoned for her beliefs and wanted change for others - not self-glory.

The pattern in my voting, it seems, is to favour those who have suffered themselves and brought about change for, or greater understanding of, an oppressed people. In the C20th the most oppressed were women - they were second-class citizens in the UK until 1928 when all could vote in elections - and black men, women and children the world over. Whether we look at South Africa and Mandela’s vision for ‘one man, one vote’ or the USA where Martin Luther King fought against segregation or Gandhi who wanted freedom from starvation and oppression from British rule for the Indian sub-continent, people of colour have had to fight for rights the rest of us take for granted. In the USA segregation meant African-Americans were not allowed to use public water fountains when they were thirsty nor to go to public theatres nor cinemas. That's as segregated as the Jews were in late 1930s Berlin. Although, unlike the persecution of Jews and gypsies under Nazism, African-Americans and non-whites followed signs to where they could legally walk, talk, eat and rest.

But as for the activists: FDR was disabled as was another nominated activist, Helen Keller, who was deaf and blind from the age of eighteen months. Despite her difficulties she campaigned for the rights of the disabled all her life. And Tanni-Grey Thompson, I’m glad to say, was included in the ‘The Greatest Sportspeople’. She is one of the faces of paralympic sport, fighting for the rights of the disabled to show how they too can compete and participate. 

In my own small way I have tried to work in the field of the disabled and the have-nots. I was a teacher of special needs children for over thirty years and had to overcome opposition and lack of funding in special needs education to get children the provision they needed. My charity interests concern schooling for girls in Sierra Leone. Without an education the girls may fall pregnant in their teens and be stuck doing domestic chores in a country devastated by war and ebola. Education is a liberator. And my concerns are for people of colour and those pushed to one side. Oppression of people through religion eg Jews or through political beliefs is at one horrifying level. In theory, if being persecuted you could change your religion or vote for another candidate. It's a long shot under repressive regimes but it might save your skin. (Although I know the registration of Jews in Nazi-occupied lands included knowledge of parents' and grandparents' religion. Changing to being a non-Jew was not viable. A handful of Jews in Berlin survived because they didn't register and passed themselves off as non-Jew throughout the war.) But to oppress people because of something they can never change - a disability or the colour of their skin - is an even deeper wickedness. 

The pattern in my favouring people who have fought against the oppression and suffering of others shows where my interests lie: the little tramp ie Chaplin, ‘Strange Fruit’ the lynchings of the blacks ie Billie Holliday, getting black people the vote and suffering imprisonment ie Mandela, getting women the vote and likewise enduring imprisonment ie Pankhurst. And being shot down in pursuit of freedom for the oppressed ie King and Gandhi. They died for others. 
These are the people I admire. 

Someone else can vote for the sportsmen and women! My concerns are for the have-nots. And how I admire the trailblazers who put their own lives and well-being on the line for the liberation of others. A fascinating series but it’s made me wonder whether I’m a quiet activist...If there can be such a thing! 

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