The Library: A Place of Hope
Madison Park: A Place of Hope is a newly published memoir by our Aspen Institute colleague Dr. Eric L. Motley about the lessons he learned from growing up in Madison Park, Alabama, a small town outside of Montgomery that was founded by freed slaves in 1880. Motley vividly and eloquently recounts stories of the values and morals that shaped him and the lessons he learned about “self-determination, hope, and unceasing belief” from the people of Madison Park.
One of those stories is an account of making weekly visits to the Montgomery County Public Library. In the chapter titled, “The Book of Knowledge,” Motley describes a specific trip to the library and the surprising encounter he had there. This multi-layered story illustrates the complexity of experiences surrounding public libraries and their history in the United States and reminds us of the personal connections that public libraries enable. Motley's story and subsequent reflection also remind us that everyone does not experience the library in the same ways, and that vigilance is needed to ensure that all members of the community feel welcome and empowered at the library.
Eric Motley’s narrative highlights the library experience of a young boy from a community with a rich history born of our nation's greatest tragedy, and how the library became a place where he found hope. We are pleased to be able to share Motley’s story with the Library Vision community.
Excerpted from Eric L. Motley, Madison Park: A Place of Hope, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan/HarperCollins, pp. 133-136.
The weekly trips to the library about which I was speaking were pure joy for me. By my childish standards, the old Montgomery Public Library downtown rivaled the great Library of Alexandria--my intellectual holy of holies I'd learned about in school. The Montgomery Library was a magnificent cathedral of information, a grand temple of imagination and story. Since my grandparents had been forced to make do without an abundance of books, they taught me to appreciate their worth. Daddy, and occasionally our kind neighbors who drove me instead, didn't understand why I loved books as much as I did. But my own delight was sufficient reward. Daddy must have believed that the library was to me what a playground was to most kids.
I don't recollect Daddy ever getting out of the car, although he and Mama had graduated from high school and were highly literate. Perhaps he didn't enter the library out of shyness, or maybe it stemmed from his memory of the not-so-distant past when the library was off limits to him because of his race. As he'd pull into the circular curb drop off, he would ask in his slow, deliberate tempo, "How long will you be today?"
"A little over an hour," I said--my standard reply--even though I almost always stayed longer.
"There's no rush. Take as long as you need. Read every book you can till closing."
Only the Lord and the librarians know how often I tried to take him at his word!
I never knew what unusual fact, what teasing photograph, whose quaint story I might stumble onto. I'd begin in Poetry and select armloads of books by familiar authors, often to the librarians' whispers: "There's the Motley boy." They knew I had a mental map of the shelves and often turned up in esoteric sections such as Medieval History and Classical Greek Mythology, where few others went. I'd then put my satchel and a stack of unread books on a long wooden table-the same one every week-establishing "the Motley, boy's" place, as comfortably as if it were our family room.
One Saturday, after rambling about on the third floor, I found my way back to my table on the main floor. Situating myself with a note book and pencil to copy passages, a dictionary and thesaurus, I began to read one of the several dozen books I'd piled up. Suddenly my concentration broke. My eyes were drawn from the page to an older fragile-looking white man, seated at a table across from me. He was in a wheelchair, with a black attendant at his side. We three were the only ones in the main floor reading room. He moved delicately, as thought to avoid a provocation of pain. With bright, piercing eyes hooded by heavy brows, he struck me as a man bearing heavy burdens.
I returned to my reading. But sneaking a glance now and then, I'd find Wheelchair Man flipping pages casually, as though he didn't
know what he was looking for. Our eyes met awkwardly several times. I knew him from somewhere! Once, nodding, as if to say, "Good-day," he seemed as curious about me as I was about him. Perhaps he saw in me, Nameless Black Boy lost in wonder at the library, the embodiment of a time that was no more. Maybe he thought of me as the the future's promise. Maybe, he was pondering poet John Greenleaf Whittier's lines, "Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: it might have been."
As closing time approached, the loud reshelving of books at the circulation desk gradually ceased. The silence added a reverential quality to the nonverbal rapport that had developed between the Wheelchair Man and me. Suddenly I knew why he seemed so familiar.
As I gathered my books and walked to the circulation desk, we nodded-a parting benediction. I was so eager to tell Daddy, I took the stairs two at a time, and headed to the car)where he'd been waiting for two hours. At the sight of me bounding down the steps, he flashed one of his rare smiles and stubbed out the cigarette. I opened the door to his usual questions-"What have you been up to in there? Find any good books today? Any Robert Frost?"
"Yes, sirr" I answered.
I was struggling to keep the lid on my surprise. Finally, unable to hold back any longer, I laid my satchel on the rear seat and blurted out, "You'll never guess who was in the library; who kept looking at me today."
Wanting to share in my excitement, Daddy managed a dramatic pause before asking, "Someone special?"
"Yes, sir," I said emphatically. "It was Governor George Wallace!"
"Do you mean the George Wallace?" he asked.
"Isn't that something? You just came face to face with one of the most notorious former segregationists in the country."
"Some people believe he learned that he had to get the support of black voters to win elections," Daddy said. "But I think he changed his mind about black people after a gunman tried to assassinate him in 1972 when he was running for president. It put him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life and made him understand suffering for the first time."
"Do you realize," Daddy asked, "that if you'd been born ten years earlier, at the start of Wallace's first term, you wouldn't even be allowed in this library? Now, you can sit at the same table with him. Sometimes justice comes slowly, but it always comes."
It was probably the most he ever said to me about racism.
I'm not certain how Daddy passed the time on those long Saturday afternoons while he sat in the car. He brought nothing to read and never turned on the radio, worried that it would run down the battery of our old Pontiac LeMans. I imagine he sat, smoking Winston cigarettes, thinking and watching. Whenever I asked him how he'd passed the time, he'd say in his quiet voice, turning the key in the ignition, "Just thinking--a lot to think about, you know."
The older I got, the more this time at the library took on greater significance than satisfying my curiosity. It's quite likely that as he waited in the car, he was pondering my future. Deep within Daddy was this abiding conviction that we are saved by hope, an idea affirmed by evidence at major turning points in time. He took advantage of opportunities to educate me about the inexorability of historical change as long as those who yearned for it kept the faith. As with his talk about Wallace, he didn't erupt into an angry diatribe about the nefarious acts of a former segregationist or gloat over the fact that Wallace came to suffer as he had caused others to suffer. Instead he used the occasion to celebrate the fact that now I could freely use the same library from which Wallace would have banned me. As I came to adopt that same hope, my grandparents' dream for me to go to college became my mission.
Eric L. Motley, Ph.D., is an executive vice president at the Aspen Institute, responsible for Institutional Advancement and governance.