Nevertheless, we must persist

Darkness was starting to fall as we drove by Evergreen Park in Voorheesville on Friday evening. Our car’s thermometer said it was 20 degrees out, 12 degrees below freezing. We saw an old man in a pink knit hat standing in the park by the edge of the road next to a big, handwritten sign.

“Nevertheless, she persisted,” his sign said.

We knew that these were the words the Senate majority leader, Republican Mitch McConnell from Kentucky, had said about the silencing of Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic senator from Massachusetts, as she had tried to read a letter written by Coretta Scott King. King had written the letter in 1986 when Jeff Sessions was being considered for a federal judgeship, which he didn’t get.

Warren was reading the letter on Feb. 7, three decades after King wrote it, because Senator Sessions was now being considered for the post of attorney general — an appointment the Senate ultimately approved, largely along party lines.

Warren had been told she was violating a Senate rule that senators were not to demean one another; she firmly explained she was reading an historic document into the record. “I’m simply reading what she wrote,” said Warren.

After she was silenced, McConnell said, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

Those words, fueled by social media, reverberated across the country and around the world, as examples were cited of women who, throughout history, refused to be silenced, women who persisted — from Rosa Parks to Malala Yousafzai.

But what were those words doing here in Voorheesville on a whiteboard next to a man standing in a foot of snow? We turned our car around, parked in the church lot, and darted through the flow of traffic to find out.

The man with the sign is Stephen Tompkins, age 63. A retired school social worker, he has been standing on the edge of Evergreen Park every day since Donald Trump became president. He stands there, next to his whiteboard, until darkness falls. He said it gives him time to think of the message he will write the next day. He plans to conduct this solitary protest each day for the first 100 days of Trump’s presidency.

“I’ve gotten more thank-yous than f--k-yous,” he said. “The worst was, this lady rolled down her window and said, ‘I hope you freeze out there.’ I wear layers,” he said.

What he enjoyed the most on Friday, he said, was “the women driving by who smiled — it was a little affirmation.”

Tompkins hasn’t protested since he was a young man — 45 years ago, he saw violence as he protested at Richard Nixon’s inauguration. Watching the women’s march on Washington after Trump’s inauguration, he said, “totally blew me away.”

The first message he wrote on his whiteboard was: “Thank you, women marchers, for your peaceful voice.”

Tompkins, who lives on Beaver Dam Road in the Helderbergs, chose the park at the center of Voorheesville because “it is a public place — and it’s pretty.”

Tompkins grew up in a family where his parents talked about politics at the dinner table and would write letters to the editor. His father, an accountant for General Electric was a Republican who voted for Nixon in 1960 while his mother voted for Kennedy. A World War II veteran, his father “changed during the Vietnam War,” he said. “My parents became liberal as they aged.”

Tompkins himself became a Buddhist as he aged. “I like to create the least harm,” he said.

Of standing out in the cold with his sign day after day, he said, “It’s just to say, this is unacceptable to me. There’s a better choice than this — a more peaceful way.” He imagines an ideal America would be a matriarchal society “with institutions set up to support childbirth and child-rearing.” He envisions a sign that says, “It’s not your white male America anymore.”

What about the Trump presidency? “It got so many people involved in politics — that’s the blessing, the silver lining,” Tompkins said.

The peaceful protests he witnessed on TV, Tompkins said, inspired him: “I felt patriotism.”

As we drove into the gathering darkness, we decided we liked his idea of patriotism. Patriotism is more than flag-waving. And, it doesn’t belong solely to those who serve in the military, who put their lives on the line as part of their jobs. It belongs to each of us. We need to act on our convictions.

When we got back to the newsroom, we listened to a recording of Warren, seated outside the Senate Chambers, reading the words from Coretta Scott King’s letter that she had not been allowed to read inside the chambers. They are strong words — persistent words.

“Mr. Sessions has used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens in the district he now seeks to serve as a federal judge….Mr. Sessions’ conduct as U.S. Attorney, from his politically motivated voting fraud prosecutions to his indifference toward criminal violations of civil rights laws, indicates that he lacks the temperament, fairness and judgement to be a federal judge.”

Further, King wrote and Warren read, “The irony of Mr. Sessions’ nomination is that, if confirmed, he will be given life tenure for doing with a federal prosecution what the local sheriffs accomplished 20 years ago with clubs and cattle prods.”

What will Sessions do as our nation’s top lawyer, as the head of our country’s Department of Justice, as the representative of the people?

Free exercise of voting rights is as fundamental to American democracy today as it was 30 years ago when Coretta Scott King wrote her letter, and as it was 25 before that when Martin Luther King Jr. was heading the movement that would lead to the Voting Rights Act.

We’re pleased that, on Feb. 8, our attorney general here in New York, Eric Schneiderman, introduced a reform package called the New York Votes Act, that aims to simplify the voting process, increase voter registration, and improve voter turnout. The act would add automatic and same-day voter registration, consolidated primaries, early voting, and shortened party registration deadlines.

Coretta Scott King’s words are true today: “We still have a long way to go before we can say that minorities no longer need be concerned about discrimination at the polls. Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans and Asian Americans are grossly underrepresented at every level of government in America. If we are going to make our timeless dream of justice through democracy a reality, we must take every possible step to ensure that the spirit and intent of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fifteenth Amendment of the Constitution is honored.”

With Sessions representing the people, we have no confidence that dream of justice will be realized Nevertheless, we must persist. As patriots, each of us — we, the people — must work to ensure that neither minorities — nor women — are silenced.

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