Courage and history

My GF and I read and enjoyed To Kill a Mockingbird a while ago (notes here, here and here – final instalment on its way). So as I was reading through Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, it was interesting to see a powerful parallel.

When no one else would, William Seward defended a man who likely had some form of mental challenge, who was accused of killing four people. Goodwin writes:

When the trial opened, no lawyer was willing to take Freeman’s case. The citizens of Auburn had threatened violence against any member of the bar who dared to defend the cold-blooded murderer. When the court asked, “Will anyone defend this man?” a “death-like stillness pervaded the crowded room,” until Seward rose, his voice strong with emotion, and said, “May it please the court, I shall remain counsel for the prisoner until his death!” …

In his summation, he pleaded with the jury not to be influenced by the color of the accused man’s skin. “He is still your brother, and mine … Hold him then to be a man.” … 

“In due time, gentlemen of the jury,”, Seward concluded, “when I shall have paid the debt of nature, my remains will rest here in your midst, with those of my kindred and neighbours. It is very possible they may be unhonored, neglected, spurned! But, perhaps years hence, when the passion and excitement which now agitate this community shall have passed away, some wandering stranger, some lone exile, some Indian, some negro, may erect over them a humble stone, and thereon this epitaph, ‘He was Faithful!'” More than a century afterwards, visitors to Seward’s grave at the Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn would find those very words engraved on his tombstone. 

I’m reminded of something TNC wrote, in Between the world and me:

Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance – no matter how improved – as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children. Our triumphs can never compensate for this. Perhaps our triumphs are not even the point.

Posthumous recognition cannot be the sole reason for Seward’s courage, and cannot validate the suffering of Freeman if he was unjustly abused in the prison system. They were real people, with lives every bit as real as ours. But we can still remember a courageous step.


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