So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.
Two boys were born in 1925 in America, separated both by miles and by circumstances. Both grew up during the turmoil of the Great Depression and then served in the U.S. Army in the European Theater of Operations—one even was part of the Normandy invasion. Both were honorably discharged with the rank of sergeant, and both returned to their homes to complete their college education, start their families, and begin their careers.
One was my father, who was a significant influence in my life. He was a gentle soul who shouldered many responsibilities, first as a young man and then as an adult. He did his duty; when called, he answered. After a lifetime of work at a job he loved, he retired and spent the remaining years of his living traveling and visiting his children and grandchildren. He is gone now these ten years, and I was proud to be a pallbearer at his funeral. I can still remember the sharp crack of the rifles fired by the honor guard for his service to his country. He leaves behind a family of six children still living, with dozens of grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and even great-great-grandchildren. They remain his living memory long after he has gone.
The other man was someone I’ve never met, someone who died forty years before my father. He was, like my father, someone who stood up when called and answered with his actions—not only in the time of declared war but also in the time of unrest that was the 1950s and 1960s in America. That commitment to duty, honor, and country inspired him to organize for civil rights, including a boycott of local businesses that treated their Black customers as inferior. He helped integrate private busses and public parks, led voter registration drives and boycotts to integrate not only the county schools but also the state fair, and worked to investigate the death of Emmett Till, a cause that brought him notoriety and reprisals by people angry at the changes in the careful balance of American life.
I’m writing, of course, about Medgar Evers. But unlike my father, much of Evers’ life was constrained by the realities of race in America. Although both enlisted in the U.S. Army and earned the rank of sergeant, their paths after their military service differed. Evers was called by duty to push for fairness and equity for Black people in America, a challenge that exposed him to danger. Which might have put pause on his actions—but he continued in his work for freedom despite the multiple threats against his life and the repeated attempts of direct harm that he narrowly avoided. And on June 12, 1963, someone whipped into hate by the flames of American racism killed Medgar Evers in the driveway of his own home, hoping to silence the man and thereby silence his dreams as well.
Sometimes I wonder. I wonder about the dreams of my own father. I know some of his story, that he wanted to be in a jazz band. I know also that he took on responsibility early in life and then experienced deep tragedy, more than a boy or a young man should be expected to bear. And I know that he never forgot his dreams. Even in his later years, he encouraged us to pursue our passions, and he was so excited when he saw the budding musical talents of his grandchildren.
And I wonder about Medgar Evers and his dreams. Perhaps his dreams were more practical. Perhaps they were as prosaic as getting a degree and running a business. There might not have been the inkling of his involvement in a movement bigger than he was. Perhaps what he envisioned instead was simply what most people want: A family. A home. A place for love. An opportunity to have significance and find meaning
But something called Medgar to more, and he responded. Maybe that meant that he put his own dreams aside and simply decided to once again answer the call the duty. Maybe that was even what his dream was—that he would see freedom in his lifetime.
The dreams we defer can lead us to grief if we are too long denied. My own father left behind his imagined musical career to settle down and become a family man. He would talk about it, a little, and laugh. But I still have the black and white photo from the 1930s of him earnestly playing the saxophone in his jazz band. And I remember his dream for him. Sometimes, though, a dream can tempt us to stay where we are, in safety and relative obscurity until something calls our hearts to live a bigger life. Perhaps that was the dream calling Medgar as he got up every day to put himself out there, again and again, in the hope that his actions would lead to the change he wanted so much that he would answer, every day: “Here I am. Send me.”
I wish we lived in a world where dreams were neither deferred nor denied, where men and women could pursue their hearts’ desires and fulfill all that they were created to be with the assurance of satisfaction and safety. We do not, unfortunately. But still, we hear the whispers of our dreams, calling us to just take another step, and then another, because someday . . . a change is gonna come. And it is because there are those of us who hear the call and answer that one day change is gonna happen.
By Stephen Matlock