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Old 10-11-2004, 10:26 AM
DeniseJJ DeniseJJ is offline
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Lightbulb 'I look at us and I am ashamed’

'I look at us and I am ashamed’

By Kathryn Tucker Windham
Special to The Star

I wish you had known my father. Born in 1866, the year after the War Between the States ended, he was the oldest of nine sons of a dirt-poor Marengo County farmer. Growing up in those hard Reconstruction times, he had little opportunity for education: he went to school only three months in his entire life. But he learned to read, and he always said that if you can read, you can learn anything you want to know. All his life he read.

Despite his lack of formal education, he grew up to be president of the bank, chairman of the county school board, superintendent of the Sunday school, Master of the Masonic Lodge and the great storyteller.

He taught me many lessons: You can’t run with the dogs without getting fleas; it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission; things aren’t important, people are; always remember who you are.

Perhaps the most important lesson he taught me was when I was about seven or eight years old. I had gone out into the country with him to see a farmer who did business with the bank.

I played in the clean-swept front yard, swinging in an old tire hung by frayed rope from the limb of an oak tree, while my father talked business with the farmer inside the house.

In a little while he came out on the porch and called, “Kathryn, come on in. They’ve invited us to eat dinner with them.”

I went in. I had never seen such poverty before. The house was almost bare of furniture. There were no pictures on the walls, no curtains, no books, no beauty anywhere.

We ate in the kitchen on a long table with benches down both sides. There was no tablecloth, no napkins, only the essential implements to eat with.

The father went to the back porch and bellowed to call his three sons in from the field. The boys washed their face and hands in the enameled pan by the well on the porch. They left their shoes by the well and came in to eat.

Our host asked my father to say the blessing, and we all stood until he had finished thanking God. The dinner, as I recall, was mainly peas and cornbread. I don’t remember the menu well, but I will never forget the flies, swarms of flies that came in through the open, unscreened windows and doors.

As soon as we had thanked the family for their hospitality and had got in the car, my father said to me, “I want you to remember what I am saying. We had dinner today with good people. You are not one bit better than they are; you’re just used to better things.”

Many of us today are used to better things. God has blessed us so richly. I look at us and I am ashamed.

Ashamed of our failure to use our blessings to improve the lives of our fellow Alabamians.

Ashamed that we have become insensitive to our escalating criminal population, to the over-crowding of our prisons and jails and to the accompanying problems of understaffing. Seemingly safe with our burglar bars and security systems and even gated conclaves, we have failed to provide leadership in combating the twin causes of criminal activity — poverty and lack of education.

And as we have paid scant attention as our state builds new prisons instead of investing in childcare, in vocational education, in basic reading programs and in community-oriented recreation, including the arts.

I am ashamed that we permit greedy developers to foul our streams, rape our woodlands and even pollute the very air we breathe.

I am ashamed that we have barely noticed as public housing projects have deteriorated, becoming prime sites for drug dealers and for gang warfare.

Ashamed that far too many of our fellow citizens live in sub-standard dwellings lacking running water, sewage systems, even electricity. The heat of summer invades their shabby rooms. Their roofs leak. The bitter winds of winter howl through the cracks … and then there are those thousands of Alabamians who have no homes at all.

I am ashamed that we, with our health insurance and our stock portfolios, are removed by the plights of people who have no insurance, who cannot afford any medical care, who cannot even buy the medicines they need.

I am ashamed that we permit lawsuits against the state to drag on for years, draining off millions of tax dollars for legal fees and court costs, dollars that are needed for education, health care, housing, libraries, the arts. We should have avoided those suits by doing what was right in the first place!

I am ashamed that we have failed to support public education, ashamed that we appear unconcerned when our students continue to fall below the minimum national average on test scores. Our youngsters are not dumb. Something is wrong, very wrong, when thousands of our adults, many of them high school graduates, cannot read well enough to fill out job applications or to understand simple printed instructions.

And, yes, I am ashamed and angry that we pay athletic coaches sinfully more than we pay teachers, and that we invest unbelievably more money in sports facilities than we do in classroom instruction.

I am ashamed of our archaic tax structure. I find no reason to boast that Alabama’s property taxes are among the lowest, possibly the very lowest, in the nation when we have adults who cannot read, teen-agers dealing in drugs, families without homes, prisons that are a disgrace, sick people who cannot afford medical treatment.

And it galls me that we allow large landowners to pay a pittance on their valuable holdings. And that we even create legal loopholes so that some businesses and corporations pay not one penny in taxes while our system of sales taxes falls most heavily on our poor, draining their pockets of what little money they have.

Let me digress, as Southern storytellers are want to do. I am a yellow dog Democrat, and yet I want to praise our Republican governor, Gov. Bob Riley, who dared to promote changes in our tax laws. His proposals in the Amendment One election would have moved Alabama from the bottom of the deck to a position of leadership and pride. I didn’t know it was possible to admire a Republican as much as I admire Gov. Riley. It took a rare combination of vision, trust, dedication and just plain guts for him to sponsor Amendment One. It failed. So did we. I am ashamed.

Now, well into my 86th year, I am ashamed of the growing list of my own shortcomings and failures. My father’s words, “You’re not a bit better than they are, you’re just used to better things,” haunt me. So many problems so little time.

Yet I am hopeful. I know, I do not have much time left. Our home state embraces us all with her beauty — rugged mountains, white sandy beaches, gently rolling prairies, streams with their Indian names — her music, her art, her food, her stories, her laughter and her people, her amazing assortment of people.

I know that the talents of people can build Alabama into the great state it should and will be.

God has given us many blessings. He expects us to use them well.

We don’t have to continue to be ashamed. God bless us all!

Author and storyteller Kathryn Tucker Windham is a resident of Selma. She has written numerous books, including, “13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey,” “Alabama, One Big Front Porch,” and “Odd-egg Editor.” This essay adapted from remarks she made in August at the AlabamaAcademy of Honor.
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Old 10-11-2004, 12:15 PM
ragland ragland is offline

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Amen Sista!!!
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Old 10-11-2004, 12:55 PM
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MrsWest11 MrsWest11 is offline
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I 2nd that! Wow...this hit a bunch of nails on their heads...
Thanks for posting this, Denise.

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Old 10-12-2004, 10:50 AM
Mrs.J. Mrs.J. is offline
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well said...
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Old 10-13-2004, 08:07 AM
E1950 E1950 is offline
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I third that!!! very well said.
Work like you don't need the money.
Love like you've never been hurt.
And dance like no one is watching.

may the lord bless you and keep you Num 6:24
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Old 10-13-2004, 12:43 PM
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angelntn angelntn is offline
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Now if someone "important" would listen!!!!!!!
Waiting on my "soulmate"
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Old 10-13-2004, 04:30 PM
ragland ragland is offline

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I AM IMPORTANT!!!! *grin*
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Old 10-13-2004, 04:36 PM
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stevesboo23 stevesboo23 is offline
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Very well said!!!
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Old 10-23-2004, 10:14 PM
GSPack GSPack is offline
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Yahraaah for her!!!! Now if the B'new would plaster this on its ront page of the News paper!!!
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