Commentary: My mother's liberal legacy

When the various and sundry messes in the State Bureau of Investigation started coming to the fore, I reminded my mother about that time, at the height of the Vietnam War, when she was "under surveillance." Actually, it was only once that I know of, but it happened on the Capitol grounds in downtown Raleigh, at a peace demonstration. There, among the youthful, long-haired demonstrators was my mother and a group of her friends from Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, led by the late and legendarily liberal Rev. Bill Finlator.

I was a whippersnapper of a reporter. I may have been in school, or perhaps I was working part-time here at The N&O. But I felt empowered enough by the pen to walk up to one of the SBI agents, who was photographing the crowd.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

"You'll have to ask the director."

"But that's my mother over there."

"You'll have to ask the director."

"I really don't think she's a danger to society. She doesn't have a record. Well, some Guy Lombardo, but not a criminal record."

The man in the blue suit was growing impatient. He said again, "You'll have to ask the director."

It was not her first, nor would it be her last, demonstration. In most all cases, she was part of the Pullen crowd, a mix of N.C. State and Meredith College folks, plus others from West Raleigh who found a muse in Finlator and a passion in the causes of civil rights, women's rights and opposition to the war.

The files told the story. After my mother, Ruth Byers Jenkins, died Aug. 5 at the age of 91, I went through two big filing cabinets in her home, stuffed with letters from kinfolk, or those from famous or semi-famous people to me owing to encounters I'd had with them through working for newspapers.

But most of them were about the issues of the day, or rather of her days. "Read this!" was atop a number of pieces related to racial injustice, local stories most of them, dating to the late 1940s, when she and my father moved to Raleigh. Sometimes these were Finlator sermons, other times articles about court cases or beatings or incidents of discrimination that sickened her and my father, to the point where she'd join a march or a protest.

She was an unlikely demonstrator, perhaps, born and raised in the foothills of North Carolina, a conservative region if ever there was one. But she remembered the Great Depression, and the poor families walking down the street who were so grateful that her mother had asked them into dinner. That made her a Roosevelt Democrat. She knew war, having lost two brothers during World War II. That made her wary of Vietnam and the shaky justifications from Lyndon Johnson's White House. And she was aware even in her time of the inequalities of opportunity for women. She marched for them, too, and voted for women who made their way to a ballot (Beverly Perdue and Kay Hagan were to be the last ones).

For her politics, she was unapologetic. "Why are people ashamed to say they're liberals?" she'd ask now and then. "They should be ashamed for being ashamed."

The files never stopped. She added environmentalism and conservation to her causes in the last few years, was adamant about recycling and wanted the car stopped if some litter was spotted by the side of the road.

When kinfolk or friends not of her political persuasion came to call, she would defer to their conservative opinions out of a sense of graciousness. But only to a point. One made the mistake of criticizing the New Deal at dinner. "Your ancestors got jobs because of Franklin Roosevelt," she told him. "That's really the reason you got the opportunity to go to college and be a success." He wisely steered the conversation to the lima beans.

We are all the product of our backgrounds, of our experiences, including our associations with people whose opinions and commitments we share. The best among us, be they liberal or conservative or somewhere in between, are where they are in their beliefs out of well-grounded conscience.

Mama was buried on a lovely hillside in Shelby. Presiding at the service was the Rev. Nancy Petty. She is, of course, the senior pastor at Pullen Memorial.

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