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"Possessed": article draft by Roosevelt Fitzgerald




1980 (year approximate) to 1995 (year approximate)


From the Roosevelt Fitzgerald Professional Papers (MS-01082) -- Drafts for the Las Vegas Sentinel Voice file. On the history of Black individuals in America.

Digital ID



man001008. Roosevelt Fitzgerald Professional Papers, 1890-1996. MS-01082. Special Collections and Archives, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Las Vegas, Nevada.


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I rarely know what possesses people to do the things they do. Do you remember occasions, maybe during your childhood--especially during your childhood--when a parent or some other adult might have asked; "What possessed you to do that?" Why, if you're old enough, you might have even asked someone that same question for whatever reason.
Usually, when such a question is asked, the answer that is given is pure nonesense or, at the very most, something conjured up simply to pacify the questioner. You know how it goes; "Boy, what possessed you to pile all them bricks on my front steps?" The answer, of course, was obvious; "I thought that was better than throwing them through your front windows."
Such questions asked in regards to those sorts of things do not really matter in the long run. The questioner and the questioned rarely remember the event more than a day or two—maybe a year, However long, generally they are the only parties that it matters to. Even close friends are rarely privy to such insider, one-on-one, tete-a-tetes. There are other events with much more far-reaching consequences. They are events of and for the ages. They are things which not only the parties involved talk about incessantly but also all others because they are far more than matters of the moment and the impact on the lives of many more than those few present when the actual deed is done. Still, at some point, at some time someone or some group will collectively ask or wonder; "What possessed him/them to do that?"
The further away in time the question is raised the more obscure, cloudy and even doubtful the answer might be. The original intent of the deed is sometimes lost in the evolution of the appearance of more lofty outcomes. Something which may have originally been intended in jest, a flight of fancy, a put-on, a sham, an act of revenge or simply a spur-Of-the-moment
comment or act with no serious intent could well get out of hand and cause the instigator to hastily formulate a follow-through that would be in harmony with the immediate interpretation of those in the immediate vicinity. A generation removed has only the recorded high-seriousness or good tntien tn-l-e^T/cryi to rely on. They do not, however, have access to the real truth—whatever that is. They can only trust in the veracity of those who left behind a record.
A good example of this has to do with something that occurred with me more than twenty years ago. While yet a student in graduate school at Notre Dame University, I had occasion to present a paper titled: An Analysis of The Inductive Approach To Teaching American History" at a meeting of the Mid-Western Association of Social Science Educating. After presenting my paper, as part of a panel of papers, someone in the audience directed one of many questions to me. Because I had received an inordinate number of questions in comparison to others on the panel who had presented papers also and because of the times and the fact that mine was the only black face there, I interpreted the barrage of questions to mean that the participants were attempting to attack my paper, to attack me, to question my credibility. I had had it up to here when the question; "What do you see as being the major difference between students in Mississippi and students in Indiana?" was asked. In a controlled voice and without any thought, I replied;
"Tennessee and Kentucky." It was a flip remark with no intention of being taken seriously but it was. Suddenly the entire discussion zeroed in on that one remark and I was forced to reconsider or, at least, analyze what I had said. Upon doing so, I realized that in that moment of defensive linguistic mumbo-jumbo, I had accidentally hit upon something of value-something of worth and that which had been intended as a put-down, av,"aw shut up," a method of dismissing the questioner and all those others who seemed intent
on ganging-up on me, turned out to be quite possibly the most important thing I had said during that entire decade.
Those three words, "Tennessee and Kentucky" have been quoted many times and gained for me many invitations to meet with teacher associations throughout the midwest during the ensuing two-and-a-half years. When asked, point blank about it since that first time, I have been quick to admit that I knew what I was saying from the start. Who among us will not own up to a good idea or a meaningful philosophical notion when given the opportunity? Obviously not me.
The history books are chocked full with the world's most important events. They are laid out in a nice chronological order and we can track, almost like an experienced woodsman or a good detective, the evolution of not only our planet but our values and our moral system. Consider the setting, and I must warn you—you do need to have a sense and a good general knowledge of history--of the following events which changed the course of history, General McAuliffs' reply of "Nuts'Lwhen asked to surrender at Bastione during World War II; Rosa Parks refusal to give up a seat on a Montgomery, Alabama street bus in 1955; Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Day of Infamy" radio address on the day following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941; Winston Churchill's speech.; "Their Finest Hour"; Booker T. Washington's "Atlanta Compromise Speech"; Chief Joseph's "I Will Fight No More Forever" oration or Frederick The Great's "L'Audace, L'Audace, Tojours L'Audace" speech to his generals on their reluctance to attack due to the fact that they were horribly outnumbered by the enemy ten-to-one.
With each, of these events, all missed by us, we are able to, today, read about them and gain some sense of pride and courage from them. That is as it should be. History serves more of a purpose than merely recording events as they might have happened. In many cases, it is the source of
the inspiration which we need to get through even the day-in and day-out routine rituals of life.
One such event, which stands out in my mind, took place 126 years ago. It started peculating in 1862 and finally became possible in September of that year and became reality on January 1, 1863.
Of course those years were right in the middle of the Civil War and things had been generally going badly for the Union throughout the first half of that war. Some thought than an act in regards to freeing the slaves might have an impact of creating among that group a kind of "fifth column" mentality and work against the Confederacy. While all, ultimately felt that to be a good idea, few thought it timely. It was decided to wait until after the Union had experienced a few triumphs before issuing such, a notice. Finally, in September, what was considered to be a major battle was won by the Union at Antietam. Everything was put into motion and, hopefully, there would be no major setbacks and there were not.
On the first day of the year 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued and many, especially slaves, thought that it actually did in fact set them free. It did- not. It was intended to but it would take another three years of war and the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution before it became worth more than the paper it was written on.
No one involved, including Abraham Lincoln, was sure as to what to do with the ex-slave at that point I Many a person went to bed each night following the issuance of the Proclamation right on up to the present day asking themselves and whoever else will listen; "Whatever possessed them to issue that Emancipation Proclamation anyway?"