Monday, September 1, 2014

History's Lessons for Today's World

Remarks at the Lillian Smith Book Award Ceremony for 2014 by Charles S. Johnson, President of the Southern Regional Council

I stand before you as one who like many of you can remember a time when a gathering such as this – where people of many races come together in the same social space – was highly improbable.

Our region once labored under a brutal system of racial apartheid which carried with it its own sense of permanence and inevitability.

The idea that things in the South could ever change – or that they even should change – was an idea that found very few voices.

One of those voices was that of Lillian Smith, whose writings during that period expressed impatience with those who thought of themselves as progressive and caused them to envision a very different South – a South which truly embraced the worth of all of its citizens.  

Following her death the Southern Regional Council established an annual award in her name – to recognize authors whose work carries on the tradition of Lillian Smith, work of outstanding moral vision and literary merit and which honestly portrays the South, its people, its problems and its promise.

For the last several years this award has been presented as a partnership between the Southern Regional Council (which established the award) the University of Georgia Libraries (which house the Lillian Smith Papers) and the Georgia Center for the Book (which sponsors the Decatur Book Festival).

There are many people who work to bring this event to you every year, but I want to take this opportunity to give special recognition to our jurors who worked their way through the thirty nine books that were nominated this year.

Mary Twining Baird, Decatur, Georgia
James Taylor, Atlanta, Georgia
Constance Curry, Atlanta, Georgia
Merryl Penson, Athens, Georgia
Marcy Johnson, Hilton Head, South Carolina

We value these works of history not just for the sake of history itself but also for the lessons that history provides for the world in which we live today.

For all of those who thought we had overcome, the recent events in Sanford, in Staten Island, and in Ferguson should serve as a wake-up call.

So when Al Sharpton called on the people of Ferguson not to have a fit but, instead, to create a movement, there are probably some in this day and age who may have wondered what he was talking about. 

Fortunately, there are places to which they can turn to learn what a movement is, what it takes to make a movement successful, and to learn about those things that can stand in the way of success.

If the Black community of Ferguson is disrespected, even though it comprises a majority of the City’s population, it might have something to do with the under-representation that that community has itself created by not taking advantage of the voting rights that were secured on the streets of Selma.

The authors that we honor today have provided a valuable service not just by telling great stories and telling them well, but also by providing lessons that are highly relevant to us as we face the challenges of today’s ever-changing world.