“’Tis the times’ plague when madmen lead the blind.” —Gloucester in Shakespeare’s King Lear
It has been a couple of weeks, and I still can’t get out of my mind Maureen Dowd’s April 16 column in The New York Times, “When the Mad Lead the Blind.”
In today’s world, who are the mad and who are the blind?
What comes to my mind is that some of the people who hold political positions of power are mad. They are in positions of immense responsibility but lack the wisdom and grace to fulfill the promise of their title. Those who have good intentions—not the mad but those who don’t have the wherewithal to persuade, build coalitions, and execute plans—will hopefully have short terms in office avoiding catastrophic damage. However, it is those who are mad who will hang on to their positions, seeing every position as just another rung on their quest for dominating power. These officials have no regard for the impact of their decisions on citizens and the ideals of the nation.
Why do we elect people who are mad? Is this not a vote against our own wellbeing? Do we elect people who are mad because we are blind to who they really are? Acting as if we are blind to such people’s true nature makes us vulnerable to their maniacal actions. Willful blindness is a transgression paid for by retribution down the line.
We should not be surprised when some officials attempt to enact unconscionable policies that would have been unimaginable just a decade ago. These bold actions are just the tip of the iceberg because these elected and appointed officials believe that the citizenry is blind to who they are and to the purposes of their actions.
Imposters abound, using rhetorical tools that sound as if they are protectors of the electorate all the while spewing words that increase contempt and polarization among groups of people. When a candidate vilifies any group with no regard for the consequences of their message, you will know that this candidate is mad. More than party affiliation, charisma, or credentials, history tells us that it’s the character of the person that will foretell the kind of leader or representative that person will be.
Perhaps more than the sighted, blind people can discern if a person has empathy as well as a moral pale beyond which they will not tread. A yardstick to measure and a thermometer to test the degree of madness of potential leaders and elected officials is to listen to how they imagine the nation can restore a sense of unity; how they imagine creating cooperation among governing bodies; and how they imagine defusing bitter conflicts at home and abroad with compassion, justice, reason, and love.
For our own sake, we must believe that we can overcome the shame that some of our elected officials are creating when they enact punishing and disgraceful policies aimed at stifling freedom and rolling back progress for everyone, not just some. Rather than being discouraged by the actions of those who foment conflict indicating that they have no human compassion or moral compass, we need to do our due diligence in preparation for our next opportunity to choose.
We must not be blind. We must see who among the prospective elected officials are mad.
I just finished listening on Audible to April Ryan’s book, Black Women Will Save The World: An Anthem. #BlackWomenWillSaveTheWorld. This is a powerful and emotional reflection on the toils and unwavering leadership of Black women in a world in which our contributions are not valued and, in fact, our very selves often are devalued.
This book made me think about those women—“hidden figures” —who, over the decades, have provided the very foundation for all the successes of subsequent generations of Black families. One such group of “hidden figures” is the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion from World War II.
The 6888th was a unique U.S. Army unit that had the distinction of being the only all-female, African American battalion to serve in the European Theater of Operations during World War II. Made up of 855 women—824 enlisted and 31 officers—this Women’s Army Corps Battalion was commissioned in Europe between February 1945 and March 1946, and was led by 26-year-old Major Charity Adams.
The specific mission of the 6888th was to sort and clear a multi-year backlog of mail for the American Army, Navy, Air Force, the Red Cross, and uniformed civilian specialists who were stationed in Europe. This represented seven million people awaiting mail.
In February 1945, the first contingent of the 6888th embarked from Camp Shank, New York, to sail for Britain. They survived close encounters with Nazi U-boats and arrived in Glasgow, Scotland, where a German V-1 rocket exploded near the dock. The second contingent of 6888th soldiers docked in March 1945 in Gourock, Scotland.
Upon arrival by train in Birmingham, England, the Battalion confronted warehouses stacked to the ceiling with letters and packages. They endured inhumane working conditions, including dark, unheated, rat-infested aircraft hangars with broken windows and air raids. Despite these conditions, the Battalion created a new mail tracking system, worked three separate 8-hour shifts, 7 days a week to process an average of 65,000 parcels per shift (which is 195,000 daily), and cleared the 6-month backlog of mail in 3 months.
After resolving the immense mail backlog in Birmingham, the 6888th Battalion sailed to France for their next assignment in Rouen. They encountered undelivered mail dating back two to three years, which the Battalion again successfully processed and cleared in just three months.
Upon concluding their final assignment in Paris, the last of the Battalion returned to the United States by ship and was disbanded in March 1946 at Fort Dix, New Jersey. There were no parades, public appreciation, or official recognition of their accomplishments.
Adhering to the motto, “No mail, low morale,” the Battalion provided essential support to the U.S. military in the European Theater of Operations by linking service members to their loved ones back home. The 6888th achieved unprecedented success and efficiency in solving the military’s postal problems. The Battalion was the largest contingent of African American women to ever serve overseas, dispelling stereotypes and representing a change in racial and gender roles in the military.
It was not until nearly 80 years later that the 6888th received the well-deserved recognition for their service to the United States. In March 2022, the Battalion became the only women’s military unit to be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, which was first awarded to General George Washington in 1776.
The 6888th has a very special significance for me. My mother, Private First Class Annie Knight (Jordan), was one of those brave Battalion soldiers. As kids, my siblings and I always knew that she was in the Women’s Army Corps (something about which she was extremely proud). She mentioned to us that she did Morse code. We just thought of that as being like another language of sorts. It was not until Fall 2022 that we understood that her enlistment classification was not military postal worker. In fact, mom was in a special category called “Cryptographic Code Compiler.” Cryptographers, also known as code breakers, were secretly trained to crack code that provided intelligence information for the Army. Very little is known of the Black women who served in this capacity.
As I learned more about the 6888th, I began to think about how many ”hidden figures” there are and wonder how we might ensure that their stories are shared and their legacies known. I asked questions like, “What inspired these 855 African American women to enlist and pursue the 6888th?” “What gave them the internal fortitude to take on unknown ventures in a dangerous foreign land?” “What made them so different?” and “How did that very difference change the course of their lives post-military service and influence their legacies?”
So, in 2022, I became a first-time podcaster: NextUs818 Podcast is a reflective platform for connecting past successes with future progress in the African American community. There are many African American heroes—some known and many unsung men and women—who helped build this country. Some were the first or only in their fields of endeavor, like the 6888th. Yet little is known about how their unique journeys influenced the trajectory of their familial legacies…such as their children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews. The NextUs818 Podcast introduces the multi-generational descendants of these heroes. On the first and third Wednesdays of each month, I interview descendants of an African American hero and explore family lore, traditions, and values, and how the descendant’s journey was directly impacted.
The inaugural season of the NextUS818 Podcast features the descendants of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion. Now 14 episodes in, 4 themes have emerged to help me better understand what inspired the 6888th soldiers and how their service has influenced subsequent generations: patriotism, fearlessness, adventurousness, and unwavering commitment to lifelong learning.
Patriotism: Despite the rampant racial and gender discrimination of early 1940s America, these women were exceptionally patriotic. With the country at war, they felt that it was their DUTY to contribute to the war efforts against the Hitler regime. They eagerly embraced this chance to serve.
Fearlessness: The notion of a young African American woman going into war zones would be darn right scary, even today. Yet these brave women exhibited a remarkable degree of fearlessness.
Adventurousness: Not only did these women demonstrate fearlessness, but they were excited to explore the unknown. As kids, mom always spoke about her adventures, especially once the Battalion moved on to France. In all the stories I heard about the women, they saw serving in the Army as a way of giving them broad exposure and opening post-military opportunities otherwise unavailable to them.
In the NextUs818 Podcast, I enjoy hearing the stories of the soldiers’ civilian lives after World War II. The women of the 6888th were college graduates, teachers, nurses, college deans, and entrepreneurs. As important, they influenced the trajectory of their children and grandchildren who, among other things, are PhDs, physicians, engineers, lawyers, educators, professional musicians, and financial and advertising executives. All of the descendants with whom I have spoken emphasize that their successes are directly attributable to the foundation laid by the women of the 6888th. From them, they learned how to be focused, tenacious, and how to persevere under adverse circumstances. They learned how to survive and thrive. So when we are tempted to live in the moment and think we got here solely on our merit, we must never forget those shoulders on which we stand!
Five final notes:
Fort Lee Redesignation: The U.S. Department of Defense has made a commitment to rename military bases named after individuals associated with the Confederacy and other dark periods in American history. On April 27, 2023, Fort Robert E. Lee will be renamed “Fort Gregg–Adams” in honor of two trailblazing African American officers: Retired Lt. General Arthur Gregg and the late Lt. Col. Charity Adams (commander of the 6888th Battalion).
6888th Legacy Tour: A group of 6888th descendants and advocates will return to Scotland, England, and France, walking on the grounds where the brave soldiers made history as part of an upcoming 6888th Legacy Tour.
Carmen Jordan-Cox, PhD, is a retired university vice president and judge/magistrate. Currently, she is producer and host of NextUs818 Podcast and a freelance curator of stories about descendants of World War II soldiers.
Have you noticed how words that we once thought had universal or generally understood meanings now seldom stand alone? These words are introduced by adjectives that can reduce or inflate the impact of what we used to think they meant. In effect, adjectives make words endlessly adaptable.
For example, I’ve been struck by the way adjectives transform and mask what we thought we understood about history, friendship, love, information, and truth:
Honest History, Revisionist History, Pseudo History
True Friendship, Trustworthy Friendship
True Love, Unconditional Love
Real Information, Factual Error, Fake News
My Truth, Your Truth, Whole Truth
Depending on how language is used, it can enhance, minimize, or even destroy what we might think of as objective reality. And just what is objective reality?
It’s important to take notice of words and adjectives, who is using them, and what the user is trying to achieve. In a world of spin and confusion, look and listen for how language is used to support a particular point of view—whether your own or one that might diverge in part or in whole. Ask who benefits and who is harmed as a result. Be wary of adjectives that obscure reality.
As analysts continue to study and parse the results of the 2022 midterm elections, I hope that in the final analysis there will be a consensus that young adults have the kind of civic power to tip the scales in closely contested elections.
Voices from every sector need to be loud and clear in giving younger voters the credit they deserve for their interest and enthusiasm during this cycle of elections. They didn’t just vote. Youth-led organizations worked hard to mobilize their peers because they understand that their future depends on the vote and who is elected.
While many older adults had tunnel vision about inflation, younger voters seem to have been more motivated by a broader range of issues that could be described as rights and values supported by a democratic community. Nothing seems to energize people to act more than the fear od something being taken away.
Much credit is due to those organizations that provide the infrastructure for providing pathways for youth to exhibit high civic engagement. These organizations must be supported with donations in order to sustain and increase the type of youth engagement that we’ve seen in 2022. Following are just a few such national organizations–I encourage you to find your state and local organizations, as well:
Co-written by Caryn McTighe Musil and Gwen Dungy, this post is inspired by Richard Oberacker’s lyrics from “Everything Happens” from the musical Bandstand.
Regardless of the outcomes of the midterms on November 8, for many it will be a catastrophe. Everyone will have their theories and ideas to explain why the results happened as they did. Some people will say there were not enough of this kind or that who voted, or a candidate’s campaign was the problem, or the election was stolen, or it was fate.
Any reason as to why/is a reason you supply.
Whatever our stand on the election, “It just happens/Everything happens.”
Once that result happens, then what do we do?
It is a fact….
And the only sane response is to adjust Not to wish it hadn’t happened When it must
The challenge to some of us who believe agency is a critical dimension of being a responsible citizen is that Oberacker’s lyrics at first glance seem to suggest no one can effect change. Or it doesn’t matter what you do. “Everything happens,” he writes, insinuating perhaps that we can only be passive recipients of what is whirling around us. But is that what his lyrics are saying?
He ends his song this way:
What matters when things happen Is what happens after.
It turns out that Oberacker is not giving away agency. Instead, he is asking us to exercise it. While you can’t change what has already happened, it takes agency—individual and collective– to influence what happens next. Regardless of whether you see the results as a catastrophe or not, it takes work to move forward in a positive direction or deny the negative impact of what we thought was a catastrophe. Instead of giving in to what happens, we are called to exercise action in response to it, whether in our favor or not.
Once the election results are in, we need to think about what happens. Now what? What will you do?
Caryn McTighe Musil is a Distinguished Fellow at the American Association of Colleges and Universities.
November 2022 could be the last chance to exercise the freedom to vote. A decade ago, this statement would surely be described as hyperbole. Not today.
The upcoming elections may be the most significant that current generations will ever experience.
Why is this the case? After all, these are midterms, not the general election.
I will share just a few of the reasons why the midterms this year are more important than at any time I can remember. In addition to the fact that every seat in the House of Representatives is on the line, the impact of state and local politics will reverberate across the nation.
For example, have you noticed how frequently we hear the terms “states’ rights” and “state sovereignty” these days? The crystal-clear message is that regardless of who is president of the country and who represents you in Congress, when it comes down to what decisions will impact you most, they will be the decisions of those who are elected to your county, local, and statewide positions.
For example, who will be your state’s Attorney General? Who will be your Secretary of State? Who will be your Superintendent of Public Schools? What do candidates for these offices represent? Learn about the candidates and know that your vote does make a difference.
In years past, voting for members of the school board was often a toss-up because one could assume that all the candidates would have similar ideas about the value of education and a healthy regard for educators or they would not be running for the school board. Today, who is on your school board really matters. For the sake of our children’s future, we must elect school board members who have a healthy respect for knowledge and who understand the value of civil debate.
This is no time to dwell on the past or merely worry about the future. I urge you to enhance the here and now and protect the future by VOTING.
The epiphany I experienced upon announcing my wish to write a book on student affairs and social movements became a goal to pursue. (read part 1: Student Affairs and Social Change)
Despite feeling discouraged because of the initial reception to my book idea, I kept talking with people about the dream.
On a bright spring day in 2000, I had breakfast with Bud Thomas and John Blackburn at the hotel across the street from the NASPA office on Connecticut Avenue. They wanted to talk about their plans as Board members of the NASPA Foundation.
After discussions about the business of the NASPA Foundation, the conversation turned to their experiences as chief student affairs administrators at the University of Maryland College Park and the University of Alabama, respectively.
The student affairs and civil rights book had not been on my mind at this breakfast meeting. However, when John Blackburn said that he was the Dean in Student Affairs from 1956 to 1969 at the University of Alabama, it was as if a door opened that I had been trying to enter. John and I had several conversations after this pivotal breakfast meeting.
I learned that during the fraught months and days around integrating southern universities, John was literally on the front lines. In fact, he played a major role in the relatively peaceful entrance of James Hood and Vivian Malone as the first African American students to integrate the University of Alabama. While Governor George Wallace was blocking the doors, John Blackburn was setting up the student leadership social infrastructure to bring Hood and Malone into the academic community of the University.
When I told John about the thoughts I had about a book on the experiences of student affairs administrators during the civil rights era, he told me that the only way my idea would have legs was if I had conversations not only with him but with a sterling group of senior and retired chief student affairs officers such as James J. Rhatigan, now vice president emeritus of student affairs at Wichita State University; James Appleton, now president emeritus at University of the Redlands; and Dave Ambler, now vice chancellor emeritus at University of Kansas.
What I heard during these conversations made it impossible not to follow through on this project. This book had to be written. I floundered for a while about how to move forward in making the book a reality. I talked with some of my professors at Drew University about how to get started. I talked with NASPA staff and Board members about what such an undertaking would require. Unlike my initial conversations about the idea at the beginning of the year, these new conversations were much more encouraging because I had the support of some of the most respected senior administrators in the field of student affairs.
Energized and motivated, on the afternoon of Wednesday, May 3, 2000, I made a phone call to NASPA Historian Kathryn Nemeth Tuttle. Hearing my enthusiasm for this publication, she graciously agreed to help find a way to further explore the idea even though she was busy working on her dissertation at the time. She said that two of her colleagues, Lisa Wolf-Wendel and Susan B. Twombly, might have interest in this topic as well. She gave me their phone numbers and I could feel the momentum of my intentions.
With a lot of hope, faith, and hard work on the part of the authors and others, three years after my phone call on May 3, 2000, the book, Reflecting Back, Looking Forward: Civil Rights and Student Affairs was published by NASPA in 2004 marking the 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision to outlaw segregation in public schools.
This historically rich and relevant book includes 18 first-person narratives from senior student affairs administrators, current and retired, from all over the country and from all types of colleges and universities.
In addition to recording the history of the remembered experiences of Student Affairs professionals, the hope was that there would be lessons learned that would be helpful to Student Affairs professionals today and in the future.
Even though the political and judicial environments are different in many aspects today, there are lessons to be studied and learned from the narratives in this book. An example of the climate in which student affairs professionals are working today is the court decision to charge Oberlin College and Conservatory $36.59 million for punitive damages as a result of a 2016 protest that Oberlin students staged at a local bakery. The College argued unsuccessfully that they should not be held liable for failing to censor the speech of its students.
I sincerely appreciate all those who made contributions to this work through sharing their personal experiences related to student activism. And I will be forever indebted to Lisa Wolf-Wendel who took the lead in working with her co-authors—Susan B. Twombly, Kathryn Nemeth Tuttle, Kelly Ward, and Joy L. Gaston-Gayles*—and for the entire team’s incredible contribution to higher education. I also appreciate the team’s pressing the project forward with the urgency necessitated by gathering the stories from these student affairs leaders while they were still here to tell them first-hand. In addition to the passing of so many of those featured in the book, we also lost co-author Kelly Ward to a tragic accident in 2018.
The lessons I learned from this experience are, first, to dare to take the initiative to pursue your ideas and, second, to have faith that your power of will can motivate others to share your dream and make it a reality.
* Lisa Wolf-Wendel is currently Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Studies and Professor of Higher Education Administration in the School of Education at the University of Kansas. Susan B. Twombly is Professor and Chair of the Department of Educational Leadership & Policy Studies in the School of Education and Human Sciences at the University of Kansas. Kathryn Tuttle is Associate Vice Provost Emerita at the University of Kansas. At the time of her passing, Kelly Ward was Vice Provost for Faculty Development and Professor of Higher Education at Washington State University. Joy L. Gaston-Gayles is Professor & Senior Advisor for the Advancement of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at North Carolina State College of Education.
I think the first time I felt a sense of communal pride was in Miss Johnson’s first-grade classroom. The first thing students did to start the day was to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Surrounded by pale green walls, we stood beside our desks and faced the right corner of the classroom where the U.S. flag was extended from a brown bracket just above the blackboard. With our right hands over our hearts, in unison, we recited the Pledge.
We didn’t know why we recited the Pledge, and we didn’t know what all the words meant. We understood that it was important to speak loudly and enunciate every word clearly. When we recited the final words “with liberty and justice for all,” there was an exclamation mark in our voices, and I felt particularly strong and proud to be a part of something special.
Because we were too young to understand the effects of stratifications, there was no reason for us not to believe that we were just like everyone else. We were not aware that our race and our location in segregated spaces all over the South, in particular, meant that the promises of liberty and justice for all did not apply to us and people who looked like us.
I’m glad we didn’t know our places in the social and justice hierarchies. If we had known, I believe that it would have broken our spirit and dampened our desire to aspire to something that might seem out of reach.
Because we didn’t know the reality of the lie about liberty and justice for all, we believed our family and teachers when they told us that if we studied and worked hard, we could be anything that we wanted to be.
Breaking news about gun-related devastation, proliferation of hate crimes, waves of roll backs on previously sanctioned rights, revelations from the January 6 Select Committee hearings, television ads of extreme political candidates, and on and on.
We’re constantly accosted by the sound and fury of idiots. We want the sound and fury to signify nothing, but as we can see from recent Supreme Court opinions and laws being enacted in states, it’s clear that the sound and fury have power.
One way to wake up from this shared nightmare is for everyone to vote for those political candidates who seem to be the most sane from your point of view. This, then is a different kind of power—not the “reckless and abusive” kind wielded by the sound and fury. Instead, as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., put it, “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”
Political engagement is necessary to continue progressing toward the realization of our shared national ideals—the dream, as it were.