Yesterday, December 5, 2013, I celebrated my 45th birthday.
Every year on this date, I make a point to start my day by being mindful and thankful. Thankful for having loving family and friends, and thankful for the sacrifices so many others have made so that I can live a life of freedom; though ever mindful of that fact that freedom doesn’t come for free.
December 5th is a date of significance for me NOT because it is the date of my birth, but because it is the same day the historic bus boycott in Montgomery Alabama was launched in 1955, after Rosa Parks, “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement,” refused to move to the back of the bus when she was ordered to give up her seat to a white person.
This was a seminal event in U.S. history, which ultimately led to a United States Supreme Court decision (Browder v. Gayle), that declared the Alabama and Montgomery laws requiring segregated buses to be unconstitutional.
The ripple effect of Rosa Park’s refusal to give up her seat and the subsequent Supreme Court decision catalyzed the National Civil Rights Movement that gave rise to the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King – a clergyman, activist, and one of the finest humanitarians to have every walked this Earth – until his untimely demise at the hands of a sniper at the age of 39.
If Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had survived, he would be celebrating his 85th birthday next month.
Yesterday the world lost another truly amazing leader, not due to violence, but to the cumulative effects of age. At 95 years of age at his passing, Nelson Mandela, the former South African president and Nobel Peace Prize winner, was the epitome of patience, positivity, and perseverance.
Today, I find it shocking to believe that so many do not know his story, a story of transformation; from warmongering political freedom fighter, to prisoner, to president. I mean, come on. Nelson Mandela was portrayed by Morgan Freeman in the Oscar nominated film Invictus, starring Matt Damon. And who doesn’t know Morgan Freeman or Matt Damon? Or better yet, how could one fail to witness the out pouring of love and respect for Nelson Mandela during the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.
FIFA World Cup South Africa 2010 (Official Theme Song)
With all due respect, there was a time in my life when I didn’t know who Nelson Mandela was, what he stood for, or what he sacrificed personally; namely his freedom.
Twenty-seven years ago I had never heard of Nelson Mandela, of South Africa, or apartheid. I was an 18-year old college freshman. The year was 1986. At that time I had no interest in political activism or community organization, and social justice was not part of my daily lexicon.
In the mid-1980s, there was something happening on college campuses all across our country called “the anti-apartheid movement,” which was bringing together students of different races and cultures, in a way our country had not seen since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. I was a college student attending the University of Montevallo Alabama at the time, about 20 minutes from Selma – a city made infamous for the Bloody Sunday violence in 1965 - and an hour away from Montgomery. I knew the movement was a big deal culturally. After all, I was living in the Deep South, a place with a long history of racial hatred.
Selma-to-Montgomery Civil Rights March in 1965
It has taken almost 30 years for the full appreciation of this historic awakening to fully set in.
College students across the country were self-organizing and leading protests, boycotts, sit-ins, and commandeering buildings, demanding for their schools, for corporations, and our federal government to divest, or de-invest billions of dollars in stocks, capital goods, and real estate from South Africa, to the point that the economic impact of apartheid became too costly for the South African government to continue. Thus it was subsequently dismantled.
Amid harsh financial outcomes and facing mounting political strife internationally, Nelson Mandela was granted his freedom. I remember the day he was released from 27-years in prison. CNN carried the story live.
It was a seminal moment in world history, akin to the demise of the Berlin Wall. It was February 11, 1990. I sat glued to the television in my dorm listening to a man that was humble and courageous, hopeful and gracious as he spoke before thousands of South Africans in Cape Town and to millions more by television.
“Comrades and fellow South Africans, I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all,” Mandela told tens of thousands of cheering supporters.
His smile was infectious, his words were hypnotic, and his presence was out of this world. In my mind, he became the embodiment of the best that humanity has to offer. His ability to forgive, to turn his anger, his hatred, his suffering into love, and finally, reconciliation, were a game changer for me.
It was the 1st time in my life that I understood the cliché that one person can make a difference in this world.
Today, as the world mourns the loss of Nelson Mandela, I’d like to introduce you to one of my unsung heroes, a heroine actually, that you may never have heard of. Her name is Cherri Foytlin and she is a resident of Rayne, Louisiana.
Cherri is a human rights advocate, community organizer, journalist, mother to six of the best-behaved kids I have ever met, and one of five main characters profiled in my, yet to be released, documentary film Storm Surge.
I was introduced to Cherri via Facebook in July of 2010, but didn’t meet her face to face until July of 2011. That’s when I saw her speak at a Gulf Coast Restoration Task Force meeting being facilitated by Lisa Jackson, former EPA Administrator. “We still have oil in our marshes, fishermen are out of work and it seems like everyone knows someone with cancer. It’s time to take the blinders off and see what this industry is doing to us,” argued Foytlin.
Cherri was fresh off a 1,243 mile walk from New Orleans to Washington D.C. to raise awareness of the ongoing environmental, social and economic impact of the BP Deepwater Oil Disaster, which was being compounded by lingering impacts of Hurricanes Katrina, Gustav, Rita, and Ivan, and the institutionalized lack of healthcare, educational, and job opportunities in Gulf Coast communities – beyond the oil and gas industries.
Since then Cherri has expanded her activism beyond the Gulf Coast, chaining herself to the gate of a Keystone XL pipe yard to delay the project. She has spoken before thousands at rallies across North America and Europe, and she’s been arrested four times (twice at the White House). Cherri has had a bricks thrown through her windows and has had death threats issued against her and her family.
Threats not dissimilar to those threats bestowed upon Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. or Nelson Mandela.
Cherri is a tireless warrior, a loyal friend, a positive role model (notwithstanding the arrests), and a deep well of inspiration for thousands of people who live in the most vulnerable communities in our country. She is humble and courageous, hopeful and gracious.
Please take the next 11-minutes and 25-seconds to get to know her, what she stands for, and what sacrifices she has personally made to do what is right. Not for fame or for fortune, and not simply for her family or her community, but for all humanity.
Interview With Cherri Foytlin
Like Rosa Parks, Cherri admits to being tired, but she continues to fight the good fight for equality, justice, human rights, and our collective divestment from the oil and gas companies that continue to shackle us to carbon emitting fossil fuels that are destroying our climate, our natural ecosystems, and our communities.
I hope her words inspire you just as they inspired me. Thanks for your time, your mindful attention, and for caring.
Very truly yours,
Stacy C. Noland