Almost 50 years ago, Linda Katz was scared for her life. She was a Midwestern graduate student who’d driven down to Mississippi to register black people to vote.
People had already been beaten and even killed for doing that work, but she felt she needed to be there doing whatever the march organizers asked of her, and now she says the experience helped give her a more meaningful life.
She wrote to me last month, and I thought about her while I watched and read about protests around the country against police shootings of black men and boys, and for livable wages, access to jobs, immigration reform and more.
The many social-justice movements making news today are wrestling with some familiar problems and often in familiar ways: marches, sit-ins, negotiations with people in authority.
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They need good leadership, and some of the movements are still looking for that, but just as much, they need people who are willing to be a face in the crowd, to write letters, make meals or do whatever else is necessary to sustain their cause.
Katz has worked against the war in Vietnam, for women’s rights and gay rights and many other social-justice causes, and raised a son with her husband in Seattle’s Mount Baker neighborhood. Katz retired four years ago after a long career as a social worker specializing in child welfare.
She sent me a book she wrote about her friendship with Donna Jean Higgins: two white women who went down to Mississippi to participate in the civil-rights movement in the 1960s and came away with a broad commitment to social justice.
The book is “Sing Me Awake: A memoir of friendship.” Higgins, who is at the center of the book, was the head of social work at Group Health Eastside Hospital until a brain tumor cut her life short.
They met as graduate students at the University of Michigan in 1964. Katz was 20 and introverted. Higgins was 24, outgoing, outspoken and socially engaged. In 1966, Higgins took Katz to a local meeting of the Congress of Racial Equality, which was recruiting white college students to work in the South, marching, doing sit-ins and registering people to vote. Having white people involved assured media coverage.
“That made sense to Donna,” Katz said, “and it made sense to me, so I followed her on down the road.”
Beginning in 1966, they marched and worked with young men who would become movement icons — John Lewis, Andrew Young, Martin Luther King Jr. — first in Mississippi and later in the Chicago area. The experience, she said, “makes you feel like you’re not a nobody. You’re a part of history.”
In Mississippi, Katz saw white people behaving in ways she couldn’t have imagined before, and she shared the fear her black co-workers felt. “All of the people who went down there risked their lives,” she said. “They were so brave it rubs off on you.”
She told me she got more than she gave, because the work in Mississippi gave her life meaningful direction.
In 1968, the year King was assassinated, Donna went off to work for an international aid agency in Laos, then moved to Seattle. The friends kept in touch and remained politically engaged, both became active feminists and they embraced a series of other social-justice causes.
Katz moved to Seattle in 1979 because her husband had been offered a job at Weyerhaeuser.
Just before they moved, Higgins was found to have a malignant brain tumor. The idea of growing old together in the same city was crushed, and Katz began another powerful journey with her friend, caring for her as her body changed, then finally letting go.
Higgins had helped Katz find direction for her life, and the impact of the civil-rights movement in particular stayed with both of them. Even now, as some of the movement gains, such as voting rights, are being eroded, Katz said it’s important to remember what a difference the movement made.
“What happened in Ferguson,” she said, “happened every day across the South, so I think that for mental-health reasons, I have to be encouraged by a little bit of progress.”
And without her friend’s prodding, Katz has continued working to help people who need an ally. She spent 30 years as a court-appointed special advocate for children who were abused or neglected, even leading the King County program for a time. For the past five years, she has been a volunteer literacy coach at Hawthorne Elementary School, working with first-graders three afternoons a week.
You don’t always have to be at the front of the parade to make a difference. You just have to participate, and Katz has been doing that for nearly 50 years.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org