Happy July 4th, for everyone who marks the occasion, and best wishes to everyone who does not.
In addition to being Aidan’s half-birthday, today of course is the day in which people the nation over celebrate the signing of our declaration of independence from England.
In the spirit of accuracy, I will mention that I remember reading a Garry Wills book during the 1981-1982 school year in Mr. Wright’s AP U.S. History class that argued that there is no way the declaration could have been signed on July 4th because many of the signatories were not in the country.
Beyond that, the book’s more fundamental point is that the declaration, to many of its founders, was not seen then as the seminal and iconic document it has become in the subsequent 230 years. In fact, if my memory serves me, several of the key signatories did not even remember whether they had signed it as little as a decade later.
Wills’ early revisionist argument notwithstanding, July 4 has become a national date of commemoration and reflection on the themes of, as then 32-year-old Thomas Jefferson famously wrote, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
These themes have echoed loudly throughout the life of Leon Bass, and, for the tens of thousands of people who have had the good fortune to hear him present at any time during the past 30 years.
For those who have not done so, and even for those people who have had the privilege of listening to Leon a dozen times, he has now written and published a memoir, Good Enough: One Man’s Story on the price of a Dream.
It is stirring stuff.
The first part of the title refers to Leon’s interpretation of the messages he received indelibly at critical points during his young life, most notably when he was placing his life in danger as a member of the United States military to fight for the very freedoms that Jefferson articulated and to which Leon did not have access.
These indignities, which he rightly diagnoses as being caused by institutional racism, came in various forms and not just in Southern states.
As listeners have done for decades, readers of Good Enough will learn about being pointed in a different direction than his white friend when he enlisted to join the Army in Philadelphia in 1943, about having to stand for more than 100 miles in a bus in Mississippi while “white” seats stood empty because the “colored” section of the bus was already full.
His country, Leon concluded was telling him, “You’re not good enough.”
Fortunately, he had tools at his disposal to combat those messages in personal and institutional ways.
His parents, who both had roots in South Carolina, instilled in him the pride, self-respect and discipline to be angered by the abuse, but selective about when and how he fought back.
His father’s injunction to keep his hand on the plough and to get an education that nobody could take away from him served him well to channel his anger in a different direction.
This is not to say that Leon kept silent.
He writes in clear yet vivid prose about telling a white officer rather than doing as the Romans did and acquiesce to the legal segregation, as the officer would have him do, he was an American who wanted to do as the Americans did.
The chill in the room as he spoke those words drifts up from the page and grabs the reader.
This incident in which he spoke up was an example of Leon asking himself the question, “Is the price too high?”, the second part of the title, and concluding, “No.”
He had to speak, for himself, for his self-respect and for others similarly maltreated.
Leon’s experiences in the army left him, in his own words, “an angry black soldier.” But his visit in April 1945 to the Buchenwald concentration camp, where he witnessed unspeakable atrocities, expanded his worldview and helped him realize that black Americans were not the only people being oppressed.
“The blinders came off,” Leon explains in presentations when he describes the impact of his four hours in Buchenwald. While he did not yet know the form that his contribution to fight the evil of segregation and that had designed and carried out the Holocaust, he was certain that he knew he would have to make a stand.
For 34 years, that stand came in education.
After earning his degree and marrying his wife Mary, with whom he shared 53 joyful years, Leon began his time in the classroom, venturing from elementary school teacher to administrator to high school principal.
It was during the early part of his tenure that he became acquainted with the actions and philosophy of nonviolence endorsed and practiced by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., then surging into national prominence as the leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
King’s articulation of the importance of nonviolence and of his dream of a country in which people were judged by the content of their character riveted Leon, who eventually became a Quaker and a firm advocate of nonviolence.
Good Enough recounts these events and much more.
The reader is treated to all kinds of inspiring moments in Leon’s life, including the time in 1970 when he met Nina Kaleska, a Holocaust survivor who was speaking to some of Leon’s students at Benjamin Franklin High School, one of the toughest schools in the city, if not the country.
The students were not listening to Kaleska’s description of the suffering she and her relatives had endured at the hands of the Nazis-she was her family’s sole surviving member-until Leon intervened, and, for the first time since that fateful day, publicly shared what he had seen.
Moved by his support, Kaleska implored Leon to tell his story to others.
“You’ve got something to say,” she said.
So he said it.
Leon has shared his experiences throughout the United States and Canada, leaving an indelible impression on all who have the good fortune of hearing him.
Now, thanks to his tenacity and persistence, we can read Good Enough, too.
Leon and I first talked about his undertaking the project in 1998, the second year I worked at Facing History, so it is a thrill for me that he has seen the book through to its end.
Skillfully written in accessible prose, the work includes photographs and other types of visual documentation interspersed through the chapters that proceed in chronological order.
So, on this day, when we mark our founding fathers’ assertion that it was time to break ties with our colonial overlords because of their repeated suppression of our inalienable rights, I urge all of you to take the time to purchase Leon’s book and learn about this man who has devoted so much of his life toward helping the nation live up to its lofty rhetoric and to making the dream real.