Sunday, February 8, 2015

History and Memory

Mercury File Photo
Newstell Marable speaks to Pottstown Borough Council
For the last two weeks, I have been involved, one way or the other, with exploring the life and legacy of Newstell Marable, the long-time President of the Pottstown Chapter of the NAACP, who died Jan. 21 at the age of 84.

And in doing so, I have found myself musing on the relationship between history and memory.

History, as they say, is written by the victors and although that analogy mostly applies to military history, the grain of truth remains.

For those who live through it, history may not be how they remember, or it may be different than most people think of it because of a personal memory or experience.

Here's an example:

I was speaking to Newstell's widow Millicent recently, and we were talking about Newstell growing up in the south 80 years ago, the Civil Rights era and how what was happening nationally was also happening locally.

Among the many examples of she offered of Newstell standing up against discrimination and prejudice, she mentioned in passing his efforts to get a workers social club High Street, associated with the former Doehler-Jarvis plant, to admit African-Americans.

I reflected on the fact that it was ironic how a union, frequently considered the traditional foil of conservative views, would oppose inclusion of black workers.

But she corrected me, saying "well they weren't all like that. The UAW was pretty good. They provided three buses that we took down to Washington for the march."

"Which march was that?" I asked absent-mindedly.

"The March on Washington," she replied without any change of expression.

"The one where Dr. King spoke?" I asked, eyes widening.

"Yes, we were right at the corner of the reflecting pool."

"What was it like?" I asked, suddenly more focused.
Some of the photos on display at Newstell's service Saturday

"I just remember how quiet it was, how respectful everyone was being," Millicent replied. "One fellow got hit in the head with a sign, and he was bleeding. I know it hurt, but he didn't get upset."

That march happened on a hot August day, a year before I was born.

For me, it will never be anything but history; inspiring history to be sure.

King was a wonderful writer, one of those uncommon people who can marry intellect, education and passion into a single, undeniable narrative.

And he was an even better speaker. He knew how to use rhythm, repetition and intonation to turn words into music to reach into you beyond your reason, to something deeper.

I made sure when they were young that my son and whichever of his friends I could corral, watched video of King delivering his most famous speech. I wanted them to know why they were home from school that day. I wanted them to understand how important this was.

But although it can bring tears to my eyes, and reaches forward in time with its message, it is still history for me; a thing apart, something that happened before I was born and was experienced only by others.

For Newstell Marable and his wife Millicent though, it is memory. It has the ineffable quality unique to them and their personal experience.

This gives greater texture to the anecdote the Rev. Vernon Ross mentioned during Saturday's memorial service at Bethel AME Church; how after every service, Newstell would come up to Ross and say "still living the dream reverend."

For Newstell and others of that era, I was realizing this was not an pat phrase to utter, but a recognition of and re-dedication to something they had experienced in their lives. For them, that phrase is a reminder of how hot it was that day in Washington, those neighbors who rode the bus with them, how they felt when they first heard the speakers that day.

That will never be written in a history book, and is lost with the death of each holder of those memories.

But it is as important.

Because without those personal experiences of the people who pushed Civil Rights forward in this country, that history would have been written by someone else.
The flag on display Saturday recognized Newstell's service 
in the U.S. Army.

And as I thought about the stories she told me -- having a fire hose turned on them when they marched outside Sunnybrook Pool to protest its exclusion of blacks; being chased out the back door of a Boyertown church when they spoke up against the Ku Klux Klan; being barred entrance to a social club until a white person came along to take her inside -- I realized that just as we are now losing most of the generation for whom World War II was an experience to be remembered instead of a history to be learned, Newstell's death marks a milestone in the march of the history of Civil Rights as well.

It has made me realize that we are now losing those for whom the fight for Civil Rights was not a reason for a holiday, but a reason to get up in the morning.

And while the history will remain, the memories will not

Still, Saturday was an opportunity to pass some of those memories along.

At his memorial Newstell's sister, Margaret Seltman, wisely observed "I can't tell you the things about Newstell that you know, but I can tell you what I know."

"She talked about how Newstell was like the wind. "You don't see it, but when you see the trees all bend, you know its been there. That's what Newie was like."

She said when they were growing up in Alabama, three siblings would ride to church on the same bike: "Me on the seat, Juanita on the handlebars and Newie standing up, pumping the pedals."

"Now THAT is an image that suits Newstell," I thought to myself, "pushing progress forward and taking others with him."

And Bishop Everett Debnam, from Invictus Ministries, likened Newstell to snow saying, like snow, Newstell's love and desire to help others "just falls where it will."

That seemed right too.

So in a lot of ways, Newstell Marable was an elemental force, like the wind or the snow, something you can neither avoid nor deny if you are in its path.

And Ross was right too when he said "we need more like him."

After all, there's still more history to be made.

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