With Mother’s Day on the horizon, I thought I would welcome my first guest author to my blog: my mother, Georgia Neubrecht. My mom passed away nearly 19 years ago, just a few months before my twin daughters were born. I’ve tried to instill in my children the values that my mother instilled in me. As my daughters approach the end of their senior year of high school I can only imagine my mom’s ecstatic pride if she were here to see them.
My mother was many things: studious, generous, welcoming, frugal, kind, ambitious, and optimistic, to name a few. She taught public school for much of her adult life but a large part of her identity lay in the practice of activism. She was determined to make the world a better place. This post features an essay that she wrote about citizenship when she was the same age as my daughters are now. No one could have known at the time, how much her writing revealed about the woman she would become.
My mother graduated from high school in 1943. The United States was at war and many of her classmates were enlisting in the military. American citizens were asked to contribute to the war effort by buying U.S. bonds; saving rags, rubber, paper, and scrap metal; getting along with less of everything from gasoline to toothpaste; and, planting victory gardens.
The population of Detroit, where both of my parents grew up, had soared to more than 2 million residents and Detroit was the 4th largest city in the United States. Part of the city’s rapid growth was due to the retooling of automobile plants. Instead of making cars, they were now focused on producing an unstoppable military arsenal.
The need for armaments had led to tens of thousands of men migrating from the southern states northward to obtain good-paying union jobs. Many came from poor communities and racial tensions mounted as African Americans competed with southern white migrants for assembly line positions. Riots broke out across the city and the brutal response of the white police force further increased racial tensions.
My mother was concerned about the massive military buildup and resulting loss of life as well as the overt acts of bigotry and racial violence that increasingly led the front page of the Detroit Free Press.
She was an only child in a family of extremely modest means. Her father made a living driving a delivery truck that distributed eggs from Detroit’s Western Market to grocers across the city. He had an 8th-grade education. My grandmother was a homemaker who, orphaned at the age of 5, only managed to finish high school while my mother was attending grammar school.
My grandparents were exceedingly proud of their precocious daughter who never earned a grade lower than A. They did not, however, have the money to send her to college. Somehow, my mother learned of a city-wide essay writing contest. The winner would receive a 4-year scholarship to attend Wayne State University, Detroit’s preeminent college. My mother entered and won. Below is her essay.
THE OBLIGATIONS OF A GOOD CITIZEN
Good citizenship is one of those phrases whose very sound seems to have a noble and beautiful significance. Yet few of us probe into this significance to find out exactly what it involves. Good citizenship, of course, depends somewhat on how much the government and similar agencies may contribute toward its development in the individual, but it depends largely on the individual himself. There are four obligations which I think the individual must recognize if he is to be a good citizen.
The first obligation of good citizenship might be called an economic obligation because failure to recognize it results in the economic chaos of society. This obligation involves acquiring enough skill of some sort to earn a decent living. Few people realize that this is actually an obligation, and most people earn their living with the idea of serving themselves only. However, if the individual fails to obtain an adequate income for himself and his family, his value to the community as a citizen is counterbalanced by his dependence on it for a living. Furthermore, the likelihood of his making his living dishonestly at the expense of the community is increased as his ability to earn an honest living decreases. It should, therefore, be the aim of every conscientious citizen to acquire sufficient skill in some sort of work to produce a good living.
The next obligation might be called a social one. It involves the respect for his fellow men that a good citizen must have. This respect is of two types. First comes respect for the rights of others. This need hardly be elaborated upon, for it simply involves the age old precept of the wise, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” The second type of respect is not often considered: respect for the potential worth of others. If we are to believe that a democracy is the proper sort of government, then we must believe that there is worth in every individual, for a democracy can never survive if this is not true. If we accept this theory then, we are forced to respect every individual because of his potential worth. This means that we must discard prejudice in all its ugly phases. We must not only discard prejudice, but we must accept a responsibility—the responsibility of developing worth and nobility of character in our fellow citizens through recognition and encouragement of such worth when we find it.
The third obligation of the good citizen is civic. This makes two demands upon him. It requires, first, that he vote intelligently. An intelligent vote requires extensive study and serious thought, but the good government produced by it is worth the effort. Secondly, it requires the citizen to analyze intelligently governmental problems and to take any action that may seem necessary after an examination of those problems. This involves not only study from books, but intelligent discussion with others so that views may not become partial and narrow. It means, too, a collaboration with others in the effort to solve governmental problems. The National Short Ballot Association can be taken as an example of this sort of collaboration.
Our fourth and most important obligation is obligation to self. By this I mean that there is something of infinite value within ourselves which we are obliged to preserve: A spark of honesty and tolerance which must not be suffocated by a submersion into the stagnant waters of narrow-mindedness and self-deception. It burns deeply into our consciousness, making us aware that we have not only rights, but duties; that not only others, but we ourselves, must share in the performance of those duties. By preserving this spark we cannot fail to be good citizens.
Now, after considering the essentials of good citizenship, we may be taken aback by their significance. Good citizenship means hard work; but when we stop to consider how valuable it is, it seems worth all our labors to obtain it. Good citizenship is, actually, the people’s cultivation of the noble and honorable elements of human nature—cultivation which is necessary to produce the fruitful harvest of democratic government. And how much do we value democratic government? We value it enough to sacrifice the youth of our country for it. Therefore, if it is the duty of our young men to expend their lives in the effort to save democracy, it surely is our duty to expend our time and energy in the effort to produce the good citizenship which sustains it.
Finding the Words
I’ve read this essay dozens of times, trying to envision the influences that caused my mother to come up with it. I imagine her sweating the wording, writing and re-writing her thesis by hand before banging it out on the long-ago discarded Smith-Corona that my grandmother taught me to type on. One thing I feel sure of is that there is no posturing or positioning in her work. The text is not an exercise that simply aims to please a panel of judges. This was my mom’s true vision of how one leads a satisfying life. She unwaveringly lived up to her own ideals. The evidence of that, however, will have to wait for future posts.
Special thanks to my friend Cindy Pecen who after reading this post, located the following announcement from May 16, 1943 in the Detroit Free Press.