My Mother’s Perspective on Citizenship When She Was My Daughters’ Age

Georgia Newell, 1940
My Mother in 9th Grade

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.

Some Context

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.

Georgia Neubrecht, 1947
My Mother’s Uncharacteristically Serious College Graduation Photo

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.

Detroit Free Press, May 1943

Other Resources

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, French to English translator, mother, and lover of: books, travel, history, cultures, art, cooking, fitness, nature.

35 Comments

  1. Mary Beth Seifert

    Wonderful post, Carol. I enjoyed learning facts of your mother’s life I didn’t know, as well as reading her thoughtful essay.

  2. I can see why this was an award-winning essay, it’s a clear, compelling, beautiful piece of writing. It does say a lot about her and her view of the world. A view we’d all benefit from today!

  3. This is so remarkably comprehensive and mature for a high school senior. The fact that she was speaking out against racism in a place and time of turmoil is inspiring.

    She clearly was your role model, and it’s terribly sad that you didn’t have her with you longer—and that she and your daughters couldn’t benefit from what would surely have been a very special relationship.

    I look forward to your subsequent posts about her.

    • I never went through a phase in my life where I didn’t admire my mom–even during adolescence. We were very close and of all the people I’ve ever known, she is the one I’m most like. However, she was far more of an activist than I’ll ever be. I talk the talk. She walked the walk. My sister inherited more of her rabble-rouser qualities.

      When my mother retired from teaching in her sixties she said, “now I’ll have more time to spend in jail.” Yet, she was the perfect “lady” always respectful to others–even those that might make her blood boil. Had she been born in a different time, she would have made an excellent diplomat.

      Anyway, thanks for reading Annie. If she were still alive, I’d be turning her onto your blog–no doubt about it!

      • That is a lovely sentiment to hear, Carol—most generous of you.

        Your mom truly sounds like an amazing woman! I eagerly await your follow ups.

        And happy Mother’s Day to us both!

  4. I will come back to re-read your mother’s essay more slowly. Nice photos you have. It’s important for the kids to know where we come from…
    When’s Mother’s Day in the US? here is on Monday. May 10th.

  5. It’s an impressive piece, especially given her age at the time. And speaking of the need to “discard prejudice” took some courage at a time when anti-Semitism and racism were still thoroughly respectable. I don’t know whether people in those days would immediately have interpreted “prejudice” as referring to those things, but many probably would. And yes, the obligation to self must also be recognized. It can’t all be about self-sacrifice.

    As for “narrow-mindedness and self-deception”, we seem to have millions of people nowadays who positively make a virtue of those things.

    Thanks for posting.

    • You bring up some good points, Infidel. I’ve wondered where she and my dad fell on the progressive spectrum and I have a feeling it was pretty far left. But, they lived in an urban environment and went to semi-integrated high schools that at least purported to be giving African American students the same opportunities as whites.

      What I think is even more surprising than their stance on racial justice was their skepticism about the war and the propaganda surrounding it. I don’t think they were anti-war exactly but they both questioned the rabid patriotism that they saw everywhere. They didn’t meet until in their mid-20s and these shared values may well have formed the strongest part of their more than 50-year alliance.

      I agree with your last statement and wonder what my mom would have thought about the state of things today were she still alive. Knowing her, though, I don’t see her spending much time on personal attacks or generalizations. She was innately optimistic and would have put as much energy as she had in her making some sort of positive impact.

  6. I’ve updated this post with a news clipping from the Detroit Free Press that a friend tracked down. It’s dated May 16, 1943 and shows my mother accepting a trophy for the winning entry—to be housed at her high school.

  7. Nice story. My mom dropped out of high school, so she doesn’t have any interesting stories about it.

  8. Read your mother’s essay. Excellent. How mature for a 17 year old. They should study her reflexions in Political science today. You murt be very proud of her.

    • I definitely admire her and always have. She was also a Francophile but died well before I began any serious pursuit of learning French. That would have been another rewarding thing to share with her. However, she was not one to spend much time lamenting about what might have been. I think I’m a bit like that as well but it’s fun to imagine de telles conversations de temps en temps.

      • Yes, it is. De temps en temps. I was commenting with my eldest daughter who did know my parents well, how fun it would have been if my mother could have know our grandkids.

  9. Dear Carol,

    I would like to commend you highly for your effort and care. What a lovely post and tribute it is about your mother during her youth! This is all the more poignant as Mother’s Day was just around the corner as you published this post. In some ways, your mother was clearly ahead of her time and had instilled in you good values.

    My late mother, whom I have missed dearly, used to call me “My Little White Rabbit” or “My Small Jade Bunny” as her term of endearment, as mentioned in the special multimedia eulogy-cum-memoir-cum-biography entitled “Khai & Khim: For Always and Beyond Goodbye” published at https://soundeagle.wordpress.com/2019/08/31/khai-khim-for-always-and-beyond-goodbye/

    The said tribute also contains a lot of my original musical compositions as well as my musical arrangements dedicated to my mother.

    Yours sincerely,
    SoundEagle

  10. That’s quite a family you come from. I wish I could’ve met your mother.

  11. Your mother was a remarkable woman! What a great essay. The could be printed in every generation and it would be applicable. Thank you for sharing it with us.
    Dwight

  12. How wonderful that you still have that essay! And I see where you got the writing gift.

    • My mother’s writing was more sophisticated by far. She studied the classics in college and also earned a full ride to graduate school. I started as an engineer and am still trying to catch up.

  13. This post is going to stick with me Carole. Your mother’s views on democracy and responsibility and citizenship are thought-provoking. It goes beyond “do onto others”, but to look for every citizen’s potential and be responsible for developing their worth is a concept I never considered. I could do more. It makes you think. She was so deserving of that scholarship. What an amazing essay and mother! What a wonderful post.

  14. so much brilliance that it shines clear thru you & surely to your daughters <3

    • Thanks da-AL. We all have our strengths. No two exactly the same. My mom was certainly one-of-a-kind. Her activism far exceeded mine. One of my daughters seems on the road to making up for my lapses.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.