Protest on

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

Below is a poem written in 1914 that pertains to 2017.


by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

To sin by silence, when we should protest,

Makes cowards out of men. The human race
Has climbed on protest. Had no voice been raised
Against injustice, ignorance, and lust,
The inquisition yet would serve the law,
And guillotines decide our least disputes.
The few who dare, must speak and speak again
To right the wrongs of many. Speech, thank God,
No vested power in this great day and land
Can gag or throttle. Press and voice may cry
Loud disapproval of existing ills;
May criticize oppression and condemn
The lawlessness of wealth-protecting laws
That let the children and child bearers toil
To purchase ease for idle millionaires.

Therefore I do protest against the boast
Of independence in this mighty land.
Call no chain strong, which holds one rusted link.
Call no land free, that holds one fettered slave.
Until the manacled slim wrists of babes
Are loosed to toss in childish sport and glee,
Until the mother bears no burden, save
The precious one beneath her heart, until
God’s soil is rescued from the clutch of greed
And given back to labor, let no man
Call this the land of freedom.

Ella Wheeler Cox, a poet whose writings lived long beyond her 70 years. It would be heartening if this particular poem, “Protest,” were not timeless and pertinent –

There is still child labor – UNICEF estimates that today 168 million kids between the ages of five and 17 are put to work in factories, on farms and selling goods or themselves on street corners across the world. [Under the first article of the 1990 convention of the International Labour Organization, a child is defined as “every human being below the age of 18 years….” And under their 28th article they ask States of the world “to make primary education compulsory and available free to all.” A total of 195 countries signed this, with two – Somalia and the United States – not signing it.]

There is still greed [“…until God’s soil is rescued from the clutch of greed/and given back to labor, let no man/call this the land of freedom.”] How the world, let alone the U.S., rids itself of greed is an old question, greed having thrived since the beginning of the recorded history of we homo sapiens and continuing as the biggest contributor to discontent and lack of progress in human relations; it encompasses all ills.

There is still “the lawlessness of wealth-protecting laws…/To purchase ease for idle millionaires.” And as I write, a few regulations put in place to protect all of us from overreach of Wall Street are being undermined by our new Wall Street, located now on Pennsylvania Avenue; and there looms a fresh attack of under-reach in environmental protection.

There is still “…sin by silence/when we should protest” but “The few who dare, must speak and speak again/To right the wrongs of many.” And so we do, and not so few any longer: the people of the world, if not their representatives in governments, are doing a pretty good job of protesting just about everything. This is such a good sign, however disruptive it looks from those on the top of the heap. We are not cowardly, we are part of the “climbing” of the human race away from injustice, to what President Obama said more than once: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” [Martin Luther King also said it, and 19th-century orator Theodor Parker made it up.]

There is still “Speech, thank God,/No vested power in this great day and land/Can gag or throttle.” Someone’s trying to gag and throttle, but it appears to be making the press rise up again and again to ask the next question.

It is people like Ella Wheeler Wilcox, she who did not “sin by silence,” who helped to bring us to today; in the U.S. to an era of only one percent child labor and a time when a growing number of just plain folks are engaging in politics, questioning laws that benefit the wealthy, organizing to convince the greedy that we’re on to them, protesting for increased protection of our water and air no matter who wants to undermine this, demanding equal education for all and healthcare on a par with the rest of the fat world (as opposed to the lean world, which sometimes has better stats than we do; for example, according to the World Health Organization, the U.S. is #5 in deaths of under-one-year-olds (5.8 per 1,000), higher than Cuba’s (4.5 per).

Ella Wheeler Wilcox, a wise woman, an honest sort, full of words timely then and timely now, 103 years later. I like Ella for her courage. She didn’t even have the vote yet.

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