The power of one

Published 12:32 am Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Great Recession has taken a toll on many of us, and we all seem to have been held in the grips of its unforgiving tentacles in some way, shape or form. While economic recovery is desperately needed, it appears at least to still be far on the horizon.

Recently, North Carolina labor statistics have shown a bleak picture for our corner of the world. Beaufort County hovers at 11.4 percent official unemployment, and if one were to factor in the under-employed or those who have simply given up looking for work, the number approaches 20 percent. We don’t need statistics though to tell us the dire straits and difficult times that many businesses, residents and visitors alike find themselves in these days. Being who we are as a community, we want to do better and improve our lot. Quite an amount of discussion is devoted as to what steps we should take.

Should we rely on federally funded projects? Should we take direction from the state? Do we seek the advice of consultant firms and outsiders? Should we ask the city to fund more parks and beautification programs?

I suggest to you that all these things may have merit, but that the real strength of our potential recovery lies in the power of the individual to effect change and to bring us all together.

We need not look to celebrities, corporate giants or politicians to find these individuals. We have had a history of them right here in Washington.

One of the clearest examples of the importance of an individual to our community revolves around a little known incident that occurred in downtown Washington in 1888. At this time in our history, racial tensions were at a high, and any incident, large or small, was likely to fan the flames of long-held fears and prejudice. A black man was arrested in town on trumped-up charges and hauled off to jail. The reaction of the black community in town was not the normal docile reaction that the government had expected but rather a determination to make a stand. Several hundred black men proceeded to occupy the Beaufort County Courthouse (currently the Beaufort-Hyde-Martin Regional Library headquarters) while demanding the release of the imprisoned man.

Government, as is so often the case, over-reacted and summoned the militia, which proceeded to muster near the location of the Hotel Louise. After reaching a full muster, the militia, under a Capt. Warren, marched to the courthouse and surrounded the building. Warren ordered the black men occupying the premises to disperse, but to no avail. At this point, he ordered the militia to raise its rifles and aim at the crowd. During this time, a group of white residents had gathered nearby to observe what was taking place. Before the captain could order the men to fire, W.H. McDevett, a white resident who knew Warren his entire life, threw himself in front of the guns and yelled, “My God, Captain Warren! Don’t let this horrible slaughter take place!”

At this point, the black men occupying the building and grounds became so moved that a white man had stood up and risked his life for their safety that they dispersed peaceably. The incident was recorded in the papers as the Washington Riot of 1888, but save the actions of a single individual, it would have been recorded as the Washington Massacre of 1888.

If we are to truly recover from our current malaise and to be a truly dynamic community with bustling businesses, employed residents and a sense of pride, it will be because of the actions of individuals. We must free individuals to act and not be mere observers of the events that are unfolding before us. We need to realize that it is the actions of each of us, as opposed to the often pig-headed actions of bureaucrats and politicians both locally and on the state and national stages, that will have the most influence on how we will survive and how we unite as a community.

As we approach a season of community events from Smoke on the Water to the Harvest Festival to the Christmas parade and Christmas on Main, it will be the actions of individuals that will have brought us together.

In the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. … Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

Gary Ceres is co-owner of I Can’t Believe It’s a Book Store in downtown Washington.