Benny's World

Friday, April 04, 2008

Lessons of Leadership: Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr, Wade Edwards and Casey Sheehan

Today is a sad anniversary for our country. 40 years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr was murdered while in Memphis, right after giving a tremendous speech about being on the mountain top and speaking out against the war. Bobby Kennedy announced his condolences and also against the war and the continued march for civil rights in a peaceful way. We too know what happened to him later.

I was eight approaching nine in age and, and I remember I wasn't allowed to go skating because of imposed curfews on the city. We had a pretty significant diverse population, and the city was afraid of the riots that took place in 100 cities already, except Indianapolis, where Bobby spoke, and Atlanta, where the city's citizens used self-restraint.

But my post is really about equally remembering two sons who were only a few months apart in age, and died on the same day, but different years in very different circumstances.

Wade Edwards was the firstborn of John and Elizabeth Edwards. He was only 16 years old, a carefree, smart teenager whom with a friend, was en route to a rendezvous with his family at the Circle 8 compound in NC for spring break. Wade never made it. Instead, a state patrol trooper arrived at the Edwards home, and he had bad news: Wade died in a freak accident on the road. Although he was wearing a seat belt, a gust of wind turned over his jeep, and he was killed almost instantly. His friend was thrown out, but escaped with minor injuries.

John and Elizabeth were devastated, as well as their daughter Cate. The healing process took a long time as their son's death was not something "they could fix" according to Elizabeth. But eventually, they started the Wade Edwards Learning Lab and Foundation. It is a testament to the Edwardses for starting a non-profit learning center for high school kids who lack the resources of others in having good computers for homework assignments and information seeking. To read more about WELL, go here.

One of the indirect results of Wade's death was for John to get into politics, run for the Senate, and eventually for the presidency. Despite John's suspended campaign in 2008, Elizabeth's and his voices matter. When John said he would not be a VP on the ticket this year and didn't endorse anyone, the media picked it up quickly. Hundreds (and I bet into the thousands) of bloggers read it, and had conflicting opinions. Elizabeth exercised leadership this week in attacking McCain's health care plan. Now the A-List blogs are beginning to talk about how to frame the conversation about McCain's plans--especially on the progressive side. It was not much of a topic until Elizabeth and John came back on the scene.

Elizabeth admired another woman who was leading others, but in a different decade and reason: a voice against the Iraq War because of losing a son. Her name was Cindy Sheehan.

Cindy's son died today in 2003. She was fed up with no answers from GWB about why we were led into the war in the first place. She asked many questions, and except for one meeting she had with him in which he offered no answers, only to say he appreciated all of the sons and daughters who fought for "our freedom" in a venue at the WH. Cindy was dissatisfied.

Cindy decided to seek answers in another venue: she camped outside of Bush's ranch outside of Crawford, TX during the recess in August 2005. She blogged about it, had a few people come and bring water, tents, etc. Soon, it became a movement.

Despite a few Bush surrogates coming out of the gates to the ranch to talk with Cindy, she was denied an opportunity for that one-on-one meeting with our "freedom" president--the man who was rehired to be the leader of our country in 2004, and whose salary we pay each year.

Hundreds of progressives, notably from the DU, came and helped keeping the vigil of peace and asking for another meeting with her. She and the group, known as Camp Casey, named after her son, were moved by the authorities to the sides of the road. She was sued for being near the property as Bush's friends found old state and county laws. Finally, a neighbor of Bush's offered Camp Casey to camp on his ranch, a mile or so away.

Katrina came. Our president was too busy helping John McCain celebrate his 70th birthday and only did fly overs of NOLA. It was becoming clear he wasn't the leader that many thought.

In September, Camp Casey bus went to several places, protesting the war, and then arrived at Washington DC. Thousands went to march peacefully with her in front of the White House and other places.

In my mind, Cindy was the change agent in 2005. Disapproval ratings by the public commenced in the polls, the media, etc, and Cindy still fought for answers.

Elizabeth felt strongly that Cindy should speak and be heard via a petition going that thousands signed. Elizabeth wrote a beautiful tribute to Cindy and Casey, and I got it via an e-mail. Luckily, I posted it here on my blog as I was caught up by Cindy's courage as much as Elizabeth was.

Casey Sheehan was born May 29, 1979, the first born child of Cindy and Pat Sheehan. It was a long labor. Fifty-one days after Casey was born, our first child, Wade was born, also after a long labor. They started school the same year, played the same games, watched the same television shows, loved the same country. On April 4, 1996, three weeks after going to Washington as a winner in a national contest about what America meant to him, Wade died in an automobile accident. On April 4, 2004, eight years later to the day, Casey, who loved his country enough to wear its uniform, died in Iraq. Cindy and Pat's hearts broke, as had ours.

We teach our children right from wrong. We teach them compassion and honor. We teach them the dignity of each life. And then, sometimes, the lessons we taught are turned on their heads. Cindy Sheehan is asking a very simple thing of her government, and she and her family, and most particularly Casey, have paid a very dear price for the right to ask this.

Cindy wants Casey's death to have meant as much as his life - lived fully - might have meant. I know this, as does every mother who has ever stood where we stand. And the President says he knows enough, doesn't need to hear from Casey's mother, doesn't need to assure her that Casey's is not one small death in a long and seemingly never-ending drip of deaths, that there is a plan here that will bring our sons and daughters home. He doesn't need to hear from her, he says. He claims he understands how some people feel about the deaths in Iraq.

The President is wrong.

Whether you agree or disagree with every part, or any part, of what Cindy wants to say, you know it is better that the President hear different opinions, particularly from those with such a deep and personal interest in the decisions of our government. Today, another voice would be helpful.

Cindy Sheehan can be that voice. She has earned the right to be that voice.

Please join me in supporting Cindy's right to be heard.

I grew up in a military family. My father and my grandfather were career Navy pilots. I saw what it meant to live a life every single day when the possibility of an honorable death is always there, at the dinner table, on the playground, at the base school. Will someone's father not come home tonight? And I didn't just feel the possibility, I saw the real thing, and, believe me, it stays with you, it changes you.

I also saw, then and more recently as I campaigned across this country and spent time with courageous military mothers and wives, how little attention is paid to the needs and the voices of military families. It has to change. The sacrifices that our military men and women make assure us that we have the strongest military in the world, but the sacrifices that their families make are too often ignored. The President's cavalier dismissal of Cindy Sheehan is emblematic of a greater problem. This is a mother who raised her son to love his country enough to serve. This is a mother who lived the impossible life of a mother of a soldier serving in Iraq, unable to sleep when he sleeps, unable to sleep when he is on duty, unable to watch the television, unable to stop watching the television.

And when the worst does happen, when the world comes crashing down and she puts the boy she bore, the boy she taught, the boy she loved in the ground, what does that government say to her? It says we'll do the talking; we don't need to hear from you. If we are decent and compassionate, if we know the lessons we taught our children, or if, selfishly, all we want is the long line of the brave to protect us in the future, we should listen to the mothers now.

Listen to Cindy.

Join me so Cindy knows we believe she has earned the right to be heard.

Elizabeth Edwards

It's clear to me that Cindy, Elizabeth, John, and maybe to certain extent, Pat (Cindy's ex-husband) were changed forever towards activism, peace, and for more transparency to help others somewhat because the deaths of their sons. Cindy moved away from the Democratic Party, but I will always be grateful for what she did to finally start swaying the public opinion against an Administration which has yet been able to define the national threats against our country and how going to Iraq was the answer. Billions, going into trillions, have been spent on this war. And it doesn't bring back our sons or daughters neither.

But what we can do reminds me an essay was written by Wade (son of John and Elizabeth) in the fall of his junior year. It was entered into the National Conversation Essay Contest, conducted by the Voice of America and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Wade was one of ten national winners. In March 1996, three weeks before his death, he attended the award ceremonies in Washington, D.C., which included a visit with First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in the private residence at the White House.

Fancy Clothes and Overalls


A little boy and his father walk into a firehouse. He smiles at people standing outside. Some hand pamphlets to his father. They stand in line. Finally, they go together into a small booth, pull the curtain closed, and vote. His father holds the boy up and shows him which levers to move.

"We're ready, Wade. Pull the big lever now."

With both hands, the boy pulls the lever. There it is: the sound of voting. The curtain opens. The boy smiles at an old woman leaving another booth and at a mother and daughter getting into line. He is not certain exactly what they have done. He only knows that he and his father have done something important. They have voted.

This scene takes place all over the country.

"Pull the lever, Yolanda."

"Drop the ballot in the box for me, Pedro."

Wades, Yolandas, Pedros, Nikitas, and Chuis all over the United States are learning the same lesson: the satisfaction, pride, importance, and habit of voting. I have always gone with my parents to vote. Sometimes lines are long. There are faces of old people and young people, voices of native North Carolinians in southern drawls and voices of naturalized citizens with their foreign accents. There are people in fancy clothes and others dressed in overalls. Each has exactly the same one vote. Each has exactly the same say in the election. There is no place in America where equality means as much as in the voting booth.

My father took me that day to the firehouse. Soon I will be voting. It is a responsibility and a right. It is also an exciting national experience. Voters have different backgrounds, dreams, and experiences, but that is the whole point of voting. Different voices are heard.

As I get close to the time I can register and vote, it is exciting. I become one of the voices. I know I will vote in every election. I know that someday I will bring my son with me and introduce him to one of the great American experiences: voting.

To me, there was leadership learned by Wade's and Casey's parents from their children. And we need it so much today, tomorrow, and into the next decade.

And also lessons from MLK, Jr, who passed on his legacy to his children, his friends, and followers. We all need people like them to keep the conversation for progressivism going.


Addendum: Rocky at EENR (where I cross posted this diary) reminded me that Emma Claire read Wade's poem and it was posted online. Here's the YT of it. She does a great job.

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  • Benny,
    we actually met online when I was blogging about Cindy Sheehan. I've been saddened by the way she's gotten pushed to the fringes since 2005. Gold Star Moms against the war played a very significant role in turning American public opinion against the war or at least questioning what we were accomplishing in Iraq.
    I don't think it's necessary to agree with her about everything. I do think it's important to respect what she accomplished, something any number of elected leaders did not manage.

    By Blogger Chancelucky, at 4:56 PM  

  • What a beautiful post--linking the deaths of the two young men, and the guts and heroism of their mothers, who should both be national leaders. Thank you for this and I am forwarding it to many others.

    By Blogger lauren, at 8:14 AM  

  • Thanks CL and Lauren, for dropping by.

    I consider Elizabeth and Cindy heroines, just MLK, Jr, and for the longest time, were ignored by the media. Groundswells often take a long time.

    By Blogger benny06, at 8:51 AM  

  • Adding a link here to Dion's Abraham, Martin, and John..

    By Blogger benny06, at 9:17 AM  

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