Sep. 25, 2012

No Difference

by Shel Silverstein

Small as a peanut,
Big as a giant,
We're all the same size
When we turn off the light.

Rich as a sultan,
Poor as a mite,
We're all worth the same
When we turn off the light.

Red, black or orange,
Yellow or white,
We all look the same
When we turn off the light.

So maybe the way
To make everything right
Is for God to just reach out
And turn off the light!

"No Difference" by Shel Silverstein, from Where the Sidewalk Ends. © Harper Collins, 1974. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of the man who said, "Most men are a little better than their circumstances give them a chance to be." That's the novelist William Faulkner (books by this author), born in New Albany, Mississippi (1897). He liked to get up early, eat a breakfast of eggs and broiled steak and lots of coffee, and then take his tobacco and pipe and go to his study. He took off the doorknob and carried it inside with him, where he wrote his novels by hand on large sheets of paper, and then typed them out with two fingers on an old Underwood portable. He was prolific this way — in a four-year span, he published some of his best novels: Sartoris (1929), The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Sanctuary (1931), and Light in August (1932). In 1949, he won the Nobel Prize in literature.

On this day in 1957, nine African-American students were successfully registered at Little Rock Central High School, breaking the state's longstanding policy of segregation. Arkansas was one of the most segregated states in the country, alongside Mississippi and Alabama. The students, dubbed the Little Rock Nine, had been chosen by the NAACP based on good grades and behavior, and were asked not to respond to any taunts or threats for fear that things might escalate. Just weeks earlier, Governor Orval Faubus had mobilized the state's National Guard to blockade the children from entering the all-white school. When they approached the school, the students and black journalists covering the event were chased and harassed while the National Guard stood by and did nothing.

Media coverage of the event focused national attention on Little Rock. Armed with the recent Brown v. Board of Education decision, Thurgood Marshall and other lawyers for the NAACP took the case to court and successfully had the governor's policy ruled unconstitutional.

After spending weeks in failed attempts to negotiate with Faubus, President Dwight Eisenhower federalized the state's entire National Guard, taking power away from the governor, and sent federal troops to Little Rock to open the blockade. An angry mob heckled and spat at the students as members of the Screaming Eagles 101st Airborne Division escorted them through the school's front doors.

Although the soldiers remained in the school for the rest of the year, the nine black students were taunted, humiliated, and abused. Melba Pattillo had acid thrown into her face and fireballs thrown into her bathroom stall. Minnejean Brown was suspended for defending herself against an angry mob of boys, prompting some white students to circulate cards reading "One down, eight to go." It would be 15 years after the first students were registered before all of Arkansas' schools would finally become integrated. The desegregation battle at Little Rock is widely seen as one of the most significant moments in the Civil Rights movement. In 1999, the original nine students were invited to Washington and awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for their service, the nation's highest civilian honor.

Today is the birthday of the poet, cartoonist, playwright, and songwriter Shel Silverstein (books by this author), born Sheldon Allan Silverstein, to a Jewish family in Chicago (1930). As a kid, he wanted to play baseball or be popular with girls, but he couldn't play ball and he couldn't dance. "Luckily, the girls didn't want me," he said. "Not much I could do about that. So I started to draw and to write." The creative habit stuck, and after high school, he bounced around to several colleges studying art until bad grades forced him to move on.

At 23, he was drafted into the Army during the Korean War, and he published a series of cartoons for the Pacific Stars and Stripes. After the war, those strips got him work as a freelance cartoonist. He took a job writing an illustrated travelogue for Playboy, where he reported from exotic locales like Paris, the Haight-Ashbury district, and a New Jersey nudist colony. He contributed to the magazine for the next 20 years, and in 1961, he published his first book of new adult material, Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book. It was his new editor that first suggested that he try to write for children. Silverstein took some convincing, but he would go on to write some of the most enduring children's books of our time — books such as Lafcadio: The Lion Who Shot Back (1963), about a lion who eats hunters, and The Giving Tree (1964), which challenged people's expectations of children's literature, with serious and sometimes sad subject matter. They were enormously successful with young and old alike. His illustrated book of children's poetry Where the Sidewalk Ends is one of the best-selling volumes of poetry of all time.

While in his 50s, Silverstein took up writing for the stage, and also wrote many successful songs, including the No. 1 Johnny Cash hit "A Boy Named Sue." He never cared much for the limelight, and rarely gave interviews, preferring to let his work speak for itself. He said: "If you want to find out what a writer or a cartoonist really feels, look at his work [...] If your work is weak and lacking so that it needs explanation, it isn't enough, it isn't clear enough. Make it so good and so clear that it doesn't need any further explanation."

On this day in 1981, Sandra Day O'Connor was sworn in as a justice in the Supreme Court of the United States, becoming the first woman to hold that office. O'Connor was born to a ranching family in El Paso, Texas (1930), and as a young girl remembers shooting coyotes that threatened the family herd. Determined not to have the same fate as her father, who dreamed of attending college but never made it, O'Connor moved in with her grandmother in the city to attend school. She went on to Stanford University, graduated in 1952 at the top of her class, but she couldn't find a law firm that would give her a job. "It was very frustrating," she said, "because my male classmates weren't having any problems. No one would even speak to me." Not one to give up, she tracked down an attorney in Northern California whom she'd heard once had a female staffer, and she convinced him to let her work four months for free until a paying job opened up. She married and later moved to Arizona where she opened up her own law practice with a male partner, taking low-paying cases, until she got involved with the Republican Party. She rose through the ranks quickly and within a few years found herself Majority Leader of the Arizona State Senate, the first American woman to ever hold such a position.

In 1979, O'Connor was appointed to the Arizona Court of Appeals, and two years later, when President Reagan needed to fulfill his campaign promise to appoint a woman to the Supreme Court, O'Connor was tapped. She had deep reservations about accepting the position. She later said, "If I stumbled badly in doing the job, I think it would have made life more difficult for women, and that was a great concern of mine [...]" Pro-life and religious conservatives vehemently opposed her appointment, fearing that she wouldn't vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, but she was confirmed by unanimous vote. O'Connor often voted with the conservative wing of the court, but built a reputation for being pragmatic, and through the latter part of her career often cast the swing vote in undecided cases, including the controversial Bush v. Gore decision in 2000. Upon retiring in 2006, she set up a popular online curriculum called ourcourts.org to foster understanding of civics among young people. She is a frequent public speaker and passionate advocate for judicial independence.

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