This morning I was thinking about how quickly our culture anoints heroes. Some unspeakable act occurs and, in a desperate attempt to find a savior, heroes are selected and honored while the accused are demonized. In our infinite patience, we do this so quickly that medals are often presented before we even know exactly what the hero did.
Isn’t this backwards?
Doesn’t the magnitude of an act of courage only become clear with the passage of time, when we can look back and see the historical context in which an act was truly selfless? On the other hand, doesn’t time also occasionally reveal the self-interest and even selfishness that might have been the actual motive for an act initially hailed as courageous?
Here is my favorite scenario for what makes a genuine hero: A modest, decent person does something quintessentially selfless without regard for personal safety. Some people pay attention, but — for a whole host of reasons — the act takes place below the radar of public attention. Maybe the hero isn’t especially desirable. Maybe he or she is a member of a despised group. Or maybe the act itself is such a violation of current values that it is reviled rather than admired.
But then, as time passes, the magnitude of the act – the extent to which it fearlessly transcended the conventions of the moment — slowly becomes clear. And decades later we ask ourselves: How did anyone have the guts to do that?
And so I present my choice for a hero.
The 1955 murder of Emmett Till was a seminal moment in the history of the civil rights movement. Till was a 14 year-old African American from Chicago visiting his family in Mississippi. When he violated the unwritten laws of segregation by talking to a white woman, he was abducted and brutally murdered. Photographs of his open-coffin funeral, revealing an unspeakably savage beating, were widely circulated. Emmett’s mother Mamie became a passionate and eloquent voice for social justice.
My hero, though, is Mose Wright. Mr. Wright was Emmett’s uncle and a witness to the abduction. When two men were accused of the crime, Wright chose to be a witness at the trial and personally identified the two white defendants. At the time, observers at the trial could not recall another example of a black man testifying against a white defendant. Wright moved to Chicago, but once more – ignoring warnings that he would be killed –returned to testify against his nephew’s killers. He never flinched or hesitated.
Wright died at the age of 83 in 1973.
There is courage. There is heroism. There is selflessness. There is sacrifice. There is near-greatness. There is greatness.
And sometimes, there is a Mose Wright.