June 22nd, 2011

When I received this email today from our board member Cameron Vowell, I immediately asked her if I could share it with you. Cameron is one of my favorite people in Birmingham.  She is wise, brave and always feisty.  Just my kind of woman.

I never had the privilege of meeting Kathryn Tucker Windham, but after reading this, I think I’d say the same things about her.

So here’s Cameron’s note:

In 2004, Kathryn Tucker Windham addressed the Alabama Academy of Honor.  If ever there was an opportunity to tell truth to power, this was it, and she really did it.  Her words have been with me ever since.  In searching for a copy of her speech I found her son, Ben Windham’s retelling of that event in the Tuscaloosa News.  He agreed to let me ‘pass it around’.

Her speech spells out so well why the Alabama Poverty Project does what it does – why we try to do what we try to do. It’s well worth your time to read it.  Visualize clenched jaws and stoney faces.

BEN WINDHAM: A heartfelt message for the Academy

Tuscaloosa News, Sunday, August 29, 2004

My mother, Kathryn Tucker Windham, frequently reminds her storytelling audiences that we have lost the traditional Southern word for the noonday meal.

“I don’t know how we got so confused about dinner and supper,” she says. “Dinner is at 12 o’clock.”

Lunch? That’s something you take outside for a picnic.

So when Mother told me she was to be the after-dinner speaker last Monday for the annual assemblage of the Alabama Academy of Honor in the state Capitol, I knew it wasn’t an evening event.

It promised to be an event, nevertheless. My mother was to be introduced by her friend, novelist Harper Lee.

The academy, whose membership is limited to 100 outstanding Alabamians, likes a good story as much as any other group. Before we sat down to eat in the old Supreme Court chambers, more than a few of its members told us how much they looked forward to hearing one of the ghost stories for which my mother is noted.

She had an unsettling story to tell, all right, but it probably wasn’t the kind the academy had in mind when she was invited to speak.

Mother, who turned 86 in June, has been upset for a long time about the direction in which our state and country seems to be headed. She’s particularly concerned about the mildew of apathy and selfishness that has grown over the frame of society.

When she was asked to speak, her first thought was to tell some stories about small-town Alabama. Then she’d wrap up things on a funny note by passing out combs and waxed paper and turning the August academy into a kazoo band.

I thought the idea had an absurd appeal. There’s nothing like a chorus of kazoos to bring things down to earth.

But after some soul-searching, Mother changed directions. She would tell the academy what was really on her mind, she decided, and let the chips fall where they may.

That was a pretty gutsy move. No one in our family has ever been confrontational. But chastising a group whose members include the present and former governors of the state, leading industrialists and bankers, major developers, top policy-makers, people of enormous wealth and influence — that would tax anyone’s mettle.

Yet the words my mother wanted these people to hear burned in her head.

Sometimes, she says, she feels that the spirit of Alabama’s turn-of-the-/scentury reformer Julia Tutwiler walks with her. I realized this was one of those times.

No one outside our family knew of her plan, except for Harper Lee. It was with a mischievous twinkle in her eye that she made her introduction, perhaps with a view of setting up the academy members like so many bowling pins.

“She has taken that great talent for speaking and turned an oral tradition of Alabamians into an art, which is the art of telling stories,” Lee said. “She has taken the front porch, sit-in-the-swing on a moonrise of an evening when stories are told and has made it her very own earth. Kathryn, tell us a tale!”

Mother took the podium to applause and smiles-all-around.

“I wish you had known my father,” she began. “If I know anything about Alabama or about small-town living or about storytelling, I learned it from my father.

“He was born in 1866, the year after the War Between the States ended. He was the oldest of nine sons born to a poor dirt farmer in Marengo County, Ala. Growing up in those difficult Reconstruction days, he had very little opportunity for an education. He went to school for three months in his whole life, but he learned to read. He said that if you can read, you can learn anything in the world you need to know. And despite that lack of formal education, he grew up to be president of a bank and chairman of the county school board and superintendent of Sunday school and the master of the lodge — and a great storyteller. And he taught me so much.

“He taught me that’s it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission. He taught me that you can’t run with the dogs without getting fleas.” The academy laughed.

This is what they had come to hear.

“He also said that things are not important in this world,” Mother continued. “It’s people who are important.

“I think his greatest lesson he gave me came to me one noontime — I must have been 7 or 8 years old — when he took me into the country with him to visit a farmer who had some business with the bank.”

She played in the yard on an old rope swing while her father visited with the farmer. “

After a while, my father came out on the porch and said, ‘Kathryn, come on in. They’ve invited us for dinner.’

“We went in and I have never seen such poverty before. The house was almost bare of any furniture. There were no pictures on the wall, no books anywhere … We ate in the kitchen on a bare kitchen table that had long benches down the side.

“The father went to the back porch and hallooed and his three sons came in from the fields and stopped on the back porch to wash their face and hands in the enameled pan there. They left their shoes on the porch and came in to eat.”

The dinner was peas and cornbread. Flies buzzed in from the open doors and unscreened windows.

“As soon as we left and got back in the car, my father said to me, ‘I want you to remember one thing. We had dinner today with some good people. And you are not one bit better than they are. You are just used to better things.”

It’s a family story I have heard all my life. I never knew my grandfather, but I’ve never forgotten the moral.

“I look out at this group today, and we are all used to better things,” my mother continued. “God has blessed us so richly.

“And I’m ashamed.

“I’m ashamed that we have not used those blessings that God gave us to do more to improve the lives of our fellow Alabama citizens.”

A silence settled over the old Supreme Court chambers.

“I am ashamed that we are insensitive to the growing number of criminals in our state — and the treatment of those criminals,” my mother said. “We are insensitive to our overcrowded jails and prisons. We do so little to correct the twin reasons for criminal activities: poverty and lack of education. We watch as the state builds new prisons, investing money that should go to schools, libraries and museums and the arts.

“And I’m embarrassed,” she said. “I think of the fact that we permit greedy developers to pollute our streams, rape our woodlands, even destroy the very air that we breathe.

“And our public housing projects,” she added. “We watch idly as they fall into more and more decay and become the habitat of drug dealers and gang warfare. And so many thousands of our Alabama citizens lack decent housing of any kind. They lived in the kind of places we shut our eyes to and look the other way as we drive by … where the heat of summer invades those shabby rooms and the roofs leak and in the winter, the wind howls through the cracks in the walls.

“And then there are the other Alabamians who have no homes at all. No homes at all.

“Oh how blessed we are.”

I looked around the room. The audience seemed frozen. You could hear a pin drop.

“And I think of us, with our health insurance, with our stock portfolios — and all of our Alabama citizens who lack any health insurance. Who lack access to medical facilities. Who, if they could get to those facilities, have no money to pay, who cannot even buy the prescription drugs they need or over-the-counter medications.”

Mother was on a roll now. Bit by bit, she pulled away the Band-Aids covering the state’s scabs.

She decried the lingering lawsuits against the state that have cost millions in legal fees — “money that should be spent on education, health care, recreation, aid to our communities.” She spoke about the failure to demand better schools. Heads nodded here and there when she talked about high school graduates unable to fill out simple job-application forms.

She proceeded to rip into the state’s age-old habit of addressing its problems with studies.

“We bring in costly consultants,” she said, “to tell us what we already know. We know what’s wrong. We know what should be done. But we fail to do it.

“And I think of our tax structure,” she said, “our archaic tax structure. Some of our largest landholders pay almost no taxes on their wealthy property. And we even created legal loopholes so that some companies or corporations pay no taxes at all. And the heaviest burden of our taxes — our sales taxes — falls on those who can least afford them, the poor, cleaning out their pockets of what little money they have.

“I’m going to digress a minute here,” she said. “That’s what Southern storytellers do.

“I am a Yellow Dog Democrat.” There was a smattering of applause. “But I want to praise our Republican governor, Gov. Riley, who proposed a measure that would have lifted Alabama from the bottom and put us on the road to progress and made us a leader and given us pride again. His Amendment One. I really didn’t know it was possible to admire a Republican as much as I admire him,” she said to laughter and applause. “

He had a vision. He worked hard. He was dedicated. He knew what this state needed. And furthermore, he had the guts to stand up for what it needed.

“He failed. And we failed. And it still hurts.” She shook her head. “As I approach my 87th birthday, I think of the lost list of my failures,” Mother said sadly. “Of things I meant to do and have never gotten around to doing. The list is so long. So many problems and so little time.

“But I look out at this gathering, younger people with years before you — the leaders of this state, influential people of this state — and I hope — I know — that Alabama will rise with your leadership and your devotion.

“You love Alabama,” she said. “We all do. This state of Alabama embraces us with its beauty. Those rugged mountains, the sandy beaches, the rolling prairies, the pine forests, the pasturelands, the streams that bear those Indian names. Oh, how we have been blessed.

“And God continues to bless us. He expects us to use those blessings to benefit his other children, those who have not had the good things that we have had …

“We will quit being ashamed of Alabama,” she challenged. “There is no reason that we should continue to be ashamed. So much remains to be done and so much is possible from the very people in this room — your leadership, your dedication and your sure remembrance that God loves all of us and he will guide us so that we can accomplish what needs to be accomplished in this state of ours. God bless us.”

I watched her, slightly stooped and white-haired, as she took her measured steps from the podium, back to her chair and the dinner table. I found myself thinking of the many times that Julia Tutwiler had come to this same building to speak to the powers-that-be, trying to prod, shame or inspire them to action.

I also thought of the many times that my mother’s accomplishments have filled me with pride. Sometimes I tease her, calling her a national treasure.

This time, it was no laughing matter. I have never been prouder of her than I was on this August afternoon, when she spoke from her heart to the Alabama Academy of Honor.

Reach Editorial Editor Ben Windham at (205) 722-0193 or by e-mail at ben.windham@tuscaloosanews.com.