The people in history I find most inspiring are those who stand up for their fellow human beings, individuals who use their power, their influence, their resources, their determination to make life better for others. Particularly admirable is Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist and Nazi Party member who saved the lives of the 1,200 Jews on his “list” by employing them in his factories instead of sending them to the camps. Similarly inspirational are the Four Chaplains who worked tirelessly on the torpedoed SS Dorchester helping troops to lifeboats. After they gave up their own life jackets, Reverend George Fox, Rabbi Alexander Goode, Father John Washington, and Reverend Clark Poling linked arms, together offering prayers and singing hymns as they went down with the ship.
Examples of those who stand up for others, however, are not relegated to history books or Wikipedia entries. Neighbors helping neighbors, children protecting classmates from playground bullies, athletes at any level aiding rivals in distress – it would behoove more of us to emulate comparable spirit and service.
Such is the case of British physicist Jessica Wade. Even after careful reading of her bio info, I was able to glean only that her field of research includes materials and plastic electronics. More clearly, I noted the 34-year-old, London-based scientist attended Queen Elizabeth’s Birthday Honors at Buckingham Palace in 2019 to receive the British Empire Medal for her efforts in supporting other scientists.
Jessica Wade determined several years ago to stand up for a group of long-ignored scientists. Still in her twenties, she began researching and writing Wikipedia entries about the discoveries and achievements of largely-unknown women and minority scientists – 1,600 of them! When challenged by elite Wikipedia contributors who felt her articles highlighted scientists not well-enough known for inclusion, her point was made. Coupled with her drive for gender-equality in the field of science as well as mentorships to increase the presence of girls and women in STEM, Jessica Wade leads the charge to lift up others in her profession.
Then there are those individuals who stand up for themselves – who refuse to accept lack of respect and dignity – and, in doing so, symbolize a call to action for their fellow citizens. Rosa Parks accomplished just that in 1955 when she declined to relinquish her seat on a crowded bus to a white man. Her refusal to accept the disrespect and indignity of bus segregation inspired the year-long Montgomery Bus Boycott, bolstering the fledgling civil rights movement.
Right here in Urbana lived a lady who predated Rosa Parks in standing up for herself. As detailed earlier this year in the UDC, Bessie Strawther was the wife of Ohio’s Strawberry King, James Strawther, and the mother of seven children. Her son Henry, assigned to a segregated infantry unit, died fighting the Germans just a few weeks before World War 1 ended. Private Strawther was buried in France, far from his home in Urbana. Continued pressure on Congress finally resulted in 1929 legislation funding two-week, all-expense-paid trips for Gold Star Mothers to visit the graves of their boys.
Upon her arrival in New York, Bessie learned the trips to Europe would be segregated. The white mothers were to sail on luxury liners and stay in expensive hotels. Accommodations provided for Bessie and the other mothers of sons in the segregated military units included cargo ships and second-rate lodging. Outraged mothers signed a statement: “We…are insulted by the implication that we are not fit to travel with other bereaved ones.” Bessie Strawther protested by immediately returning to Urbana: “I do not want to disgrace my son and my race.” Four years later, this Gold Star Mother did indeed stand at the grave of her son, who had died defending freedom and democracy. Bessie forever cherished the warm welcome and open arms of the French people during her visit.
It is worth remembering that Rosa Parks sat down in order to stand up to segregation. I was reminded of that fact two weekends ago as I watched the New York City Marathon.
What a sight – some 50,000 athletes racing through the five boroughs of New York! How exciting – both the men’s victor and the women’s victor won their debut Big Apple marathons!
Commemoration and celebration were also on tap: it was the 50th anniversary of the “Six Who Sat.” Until the 1970s, women were not permitted to run distance races in the United States. Doctors warned that such exertion might damage a woman’s reproductive system – that certain internal organs might even fall out! When that ban was lifted in 1972, six women runners entered the race: Lynn Blackstone, Pat Barrett, Liz Franceschini, Nina Kuscsik, Cathy Miller, and Jane Muhrcke.
The women, however, were subject to a separate-but-equal regulation. They were required to start the race ten minutes before the men runners. All six of them protested the inequality by sitting right on the starting line, waiting for the ten minutes to pass. The women did indeed run with the men that day – and in every New York Marathon since – their reproductive organs intact!
Standing up for ourselves and others is a social action that can serve to unite us. If we find ways to cheer each other on, if we support ourselves and one another with respect and dignity, we might very well lessen the divisiveness we have experienced for far too long.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.