From the editor: The power of decision

James E. Mattson | 01/12/2017

Is this the year?

Statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International (STTI) headquarters will be closed Monday, 16 January, for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial was officially dedicated on 28 August 2011, the 48th anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Its design was inspired by a line from that speech: “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”

James MattsonStill to this day, when I think of Martin Luther King, my mental recorder replays a portion of his “I Have a Dream” speech, and I hear his voice rising in prophetic tones above the crowd of more than a quarter million that had gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial, flowed around the reflecting pool to the east, and spilled onto the National Mall.

“I have a dream,” he declared, “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’ … I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.”

Although we call it the “I Have a Dream” speech, the portion of his speech in which he expressed hope that states in America’s Deep South known for oppression of blacks would one day be known for brotherhood, freedom, and justice was a departure from his prepared remarks. The addition was prompted, it is said, by gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who shouted, “Tell them about the dream!” As we observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day here in the United States, we celebrate progress made in fulfilling that dream while we acknowledge that the journey is not complete.

King’s place in American history did not begin, however, with the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It wasn’t on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that day in August that he first found his voice and stirred the soul and conscience of a nation. No, King’s personal journey of advocating for social justice began much earlier, and one of his first public steps on that journey was taken in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955.

I’ve been reading David Garrow’s Bearing the Cross, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of King. For some reason, even before finishing the book, I found myself drawn back to the first chapter and its account of the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. Maybe it’s because of my recent relocation to Arkansas, an Upper South state, and my proximity to places prominent in the history of the nation’s Civil Rights Movement—places I only read about or viewed on TV while growing up in the Upper Midwest—that I wanted to learn more about and establish a better mental timeline of those events.

Statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.The boycott was launched in response to a decision by Rosa Parks not to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus to make room for a white man. As always, the first 10 rows of seats, reserved for whites, had become filled as the bus proceeded on its route. Parks shared Row 11 with one man and two women, all black. Segregation rules in Montgomery required that all four get up and move to the back to make room for the one white man, as no black was allowed to sit in the same row as a white. When the bus driver told the blacks to move further back, three complied, but Parks, who had just gotten off work from her job as a tailor’s assistant in a local department store and was tired, remained seated.

“I had not thought about it and I had taken no previous resolution until it happened,” Parks recalled later, “and then I simply decided that I would not get up” (Garrow, 2004, chap. 1, para. 4, location 68). Wrote Garrow (2004) of Parks’ decision process, “The moment had come, and she had the courage to say no” (chap. 1, para. 4, location 74).

She was arrested and jailed, and Montgomery’s black community, which accounted for 75 percent of the city’s bus passengers, decided to boycott travel on the city’s bus line for one day. The success of that one-day boycott inspired its participants to continue the boycott for another 381 days, which ended with integration of Montgomery’s buses. The power of decision.

A central figure in leading the extended boycott was King, a young black Montgomery pastor. Though fully persuaded of the boycott’s merits, King hesitated at first to get involved. He had a newborn daughter and church responsibilities demanded his attention, but he agreed to let the church building be used for a planning meeting. Later, when asked to lead the prolonged bus boycott, he ventured, “Well, if you think I can render some service, I will” (Garrow, 2004, chap. 1, location 321). With those two tentative steps, the reluctant warrior began his journey to destiny. On 21 December 1956, after urging the boycott’s participants to “move from protest to reconciliation” (Garrow, 2004, location 1718), King was the first to pay his fare on the first bus operating when the boycott ended. The power of decision.

Little Rock
Less than a year later, the Little Rock Crisis unfolded when nine black students tested the nation’s will to enforce the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education that school segregation was unconstitutional by entering Little Rock Central High School. In 1927, when the school was built, it was described in The New York Times as the most expensive high school in the United States at that time, and the National Institute of Architects named it America's most beautiful.

Above its entrance stood four robed figures—two female and two male—named Ambition, Personality, Opportunity, and Preparation, that promised to develop and provide those attributes for all students entering the classical structure. In 1957, however, nearly 100 years after the War Between the States ended slavery, the school became a symbol of the ugliest in American education—segregation based on the color of one's skin.

Initially denied admission by the Arkansas National Guard, under order of the governor, the nine students gained access after President Eisenhower ordered the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army to intervene and then federalized the state’s National Guard to sustain his order. (Still in operation, Little Rock Central High is now the site of a National Park Service Visitor Center that documents events surrounding the school’s forced integration.)

Location of Martin Luther King speechElizabeth Jacoway, PhD, chronicles events surrounding the crisis in a 2007 book titled Turn Away Thy Son. One of the “Little Rock Nine” was Elizabeth Eckford. At age 15, she was among other students enrolled in an all-black high school who were asked if they would be willing to help pioneer desegregation at all-white Central High. Although she aspired to do daring things, Eckford didn’t raise her hand at that time because she felt such an important decision required careful deliberation. But after thinking about it all summer, she was among the nine who walked into Central High, past the taunts and threats of those opposing her, and into history, a walk captured in an iconic photo. The power of decision.

Decisions. We make them every day. Even routine decisions have lasting effect, but then there are those that, as described in Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” make all the difference—if not in the world at large, in the lives of individual people.

Influencing change
In her 2015 biennial call to action, President Cathy Catrambone, PhD, RN, FAAN, outlined four areas—advocacy, policy, philanthropy, and lifelong learning—where members of the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International can make a difference. In addressing one of those areas—advocacy—Anne Hofmeyer, PhD, RN, of the University of South Australia, observes, “It is up to us, members of STTI, to identify the causes, issues, or areas of need that matter to us and discern how, through advocacy, we can effect influence that raises awareness and advances change.”

Donna Helen Crisp, JD, MSN, RN, PMHCNS-BC, takes it a step further in “Warrior nurses protect patients.” Focusing on patient safety, she states: “Change is needed. Since nurses are the largest group of medical clinicians in a hospital system, they can improve patient safety and affect public awareness. Right now.”

It’s 2017, the beginning of a new year. Is there a decision you’ve been contemplating for a long time that could make a positive change in your life, in the lives of your patients, or in the lives of others? Is this the year?

James E. Mattson is editor of Reflections on Nursing Leadership.

Garrow, D. (2004). Bearing the cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Kindle format. New York, NY: William Morrow.

Jacoway, E. (2007). Turn away thy son: Little Rock, the crisis that shocked the nation. Fayetteville, AR: The University of Arkansas Press. 

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