Times Past

Like many great movements in U.S. history, the quest to end gun violence started small

“If you think that you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”

On Jan. 17, 2017, Liz and I were reminded of this aphorism from African folklore that the Dalai Lama loves to quote when we saw a young boy boldly carrying it on a placard in the Women’s March.

Liz asked if he could step out of the pouring rain so that she could take his picture. The quotation reminded us of an apocryphal story about when, on Thanksgiving Day 1862, Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” was introduced to President Abraham Lincoln. Beecher family tradition has Lincoln saying, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!”

My grandmother told me this story after she read me passages from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” one of her favorite books. She had known members of both the Beecher and Stowe families. I asked her if it really happened that way? She said, “No, Danny, it didn’t, but it should have.”

Stowe’s son’s regiment was one of those guarding the District of Columbia, and she wanted to attend a Thanksgiving dinner with thousands of fugitive slaves who had sought refuge in Washington.

Stowe’s novel, published in 1852, forced Northerners to confront the horrors of slavery, “up close and personal.” Uncle Tom is far removed from the “Jim Crow era” depictions. In the novel, he is described as “self-respecting and dignified.” He bravely saves the life of a white girl who falls overboard on a river boat. His death, the result of deliberate torture at the hands of Simon Legree, changed hearts and minds of many in the North.

Most Southerners, especially slave holders, regarded the novel as “fake news.” Virginia lawyer George Fitzhugh wrote that the only way blacks could be economically secure and morally civilized was through slavery.

Stowe’s novel, along with egregious violations of human rights like the Fugitive Slave Law (1850) and the Dred Scott Decision (1857), contributed to the revulsion against slavery in 1861.

My grandmother came from Abolitionist stock. I suspect that her “should of” meant that Stowe’s book should have provoked all righteous Americans into acting much earlier.

The narratives of those students who survived the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, have had a similar effect on the consciousness of America. Using all forms of media, they are revealing their pain to the rest of us.

Their voices resonated yet more loudly when they were accused of being “fake news.”

This past week, the effectiveness of those voices was seen when the Republican majority Florida legislature and governor enacted a law to curb some of the laxest gun laws in the United States.

I am not anti-gun. I still have a U.S. Springfield M-1922 .22 caliber target rifle awarded to me by the Defense Department’s Director of Civilian Marksmanship through an NRA program in 1954. That bolt-action, five round magazine target rifle was intended to prepare me for entering “a well regulated militia.”

It taught me all the essentials of safety and marksmanship until a drill instructor placed an M1 Garand in my hands. That’s why I applaud all those going to Mitchell Park at 2 p.m. March 24 to celebrate the First Amendment at the “March for our Lives.”

Consider the power of the tiny mosquito! We can make a difference.

This column is by Dan Krieger. Professor of History, Emeritus at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo. He is past President of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.

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