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Groomed for Greatness

If you ask Eric Motley, he didn’t “grow up” in Alabama’s Madison Park—he was raised. In an excerpt from his new book, he examines the meaning of community.

Eric Motley has lived the American dream, in part because so many people dreamed it for him. The first member of his family to go to college, he graduated from Samford University in Alabama, went on to receive a Ph.D. from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and then became the youngest appointee in President George W. Bush’s White House. Today, he’s an executive vice president of Washington, D.C.’s Aspen Institute, an organization that brings together diverse leaders in an effort to solve critical problems in society. But none of those achievements would have been thinkable if not for the love and guidance Motley received from his caregiver grandparents (“Mama” and “Daddy”) and countless members of his neighborhood, Madison Park, a tight-knit enclave of Montgomery, Alabama, that was founded in 1880 by freed slaves. His new memoir, Madison Park: A Place of Hope, is a valentine to the place and the people who shaped him—and the true meaning of community. These passages focus on pivotal moments in Motley’s education and reveal what can happen when, as Motley says, people decide to be responsible for one another.

The November afternoon that I brought home a letter from my first grade teacher, Mrs. Heikamp, Mama was so alarmed she immediately called Aunt Shine.

“We’ve got a problem,” Aunt Shine agreed.

She hung up the phone, came to our house, and delivered a stern lecture to me about my “unacceptable” performance. The idea was woven into our everyday conversation: “Is that going to help you prepare for college . . .” With so much reinforcement, I couldn’t help but make this my overriding goal. Everyone in Madison Park knew of the Motleys’ dream for their little boy—and my plan to fulfill it.

In church the next Sunday, Aunt Shine suddenly stood, asked the pastor for permission to speak, and announced: “Brothers and Sisters, we have a serious problem. Little Eric Motley has been moved from the Rabbits to the Turtles. Any books you’ve finished reading, please bring by George and Mossy’s house. Little Eric doesn’t have a library, and he needs to practice.”

Everyone turned to look at me. I was mortified by the unwanted attention. But within a few hours, community folks started dropping by until soon our porch looked as if we were having a paper drive. There were 1945 Life magazines and a few way-back issues of Jet bundled together. I had Encyclopedia Britannica, Volume “L,” 1932 edition, and a Farmer’s Almanac predicting the weather for each day of 1948. Someone brought a dilapidated volume of Gwendolyn Brooks’ poetry. Talk about eclectic.

Learning was taken seriously in Madison Park. Too many older citizens had been denied a formal education and exposure to the arts and ideas. Perfect attendance in school was expected. When the Madison Park School was functioning, the teachers, who were neighbors and fellow parishioners, were a part of the community and enjoyed a relationship socially and civically with parents. And Mama and Daddy exhibited a far greater level of engagement with my academic performance than most.

With my low marks in reading identified and books and periodicals at hand, Aunt Shine mobilized a volunteer corps of six ladies, all of whom had been retired from teaching for 15 to 20 years. A rotating team of two came by our house every afternoon to coach, drill, and encourage me. They didn’t stop at reading. They must have figured while they were at it, why not tutor me in math too?

A couple of months in, Mrs. Frankie Lee Winston recognized that if I were falling behind in my studies, there had to be other kids in the community as bad off—or worse—than me. With a few small donations from townspeople to buy workbooks, flash cards, and other materials, they started a community-wide tutorial program in our church to lift up Madison Park’s children. Every weekday from 4 to 5 o’clock in the afternoon for more than two years, about 60 boys and girls from different churches came to sit at the elbows of the volunteer staff.

Those ladies knew the benefits: a generation of children elevated out of their circumstances.

I didn’t simply “grow up.” I was raised. Mama and Daddy had little money but enormous influence. They possessed in abundance all the things that count—optimism, integrity, patriotism, common sense, faith in God, respect for others, and a strong work ethic—and passed those on to me. My grandparents were smart enough not to spoil me, wise enough to indulge my love of books, kind enough to chauffeur me to debates and speech contests, devout enough to get me to Sunday school, and inspirational enough not to allow me to become an angry young man.

Mama was disciplined and extended this to those around her. She governed the affairs of the house with a strong hand, and we obediently obliged. I was expected to make my bed as soon as I got out of it, to dress for the day before interacting with others, to be fully dressed at all meals, to habitually reserve a half-hour of quiet for prayer and reflection, and to consistently err on the side of formality rather than familiarity.

Mama saw to it that any tendency on my part to be lazy, slothful, grungy, or rebellious was never given oxygen. My grandparents imprinted on me a love of order and routine. From them I learned that the way one starts the day largely dictates how it will unfold. A core tenet of the Motley household was that to rise early was to embrace the newness of the morning, with all of its promise and opportunities, before others started to create noise.

Someone once said that good teachers are with us for a lifetime; certainly the lessons they teach us are, and in some instances the teachers are as well.

Sociologists debate the importance of nature versus nurture in childrearing. I would cast my lot with nurture. Whatever my birth parents bequeathed to me biologically has paled beside the years of intense yet patient rearing that my grandparents invested in me. They imparted an inheritance beyond all estimation and far beyond all deserving. And they had an entire community that helped.

Until junior high, I’d had a flock of hardworking teachers, yet until I met Susan Mayes, I hadn’t encountered the one who would change my life. She took me on as a special project in her speech class. Mrs. Mayes required us to deliver a “demonstration speech” at the beginning of each semester explaining how something was made or operated. I demonstrated the art of making a straw broom, as I had often seen Mama do. I showed how she cut the straw, firmly braiding and tying thin wire and widely cut ribbons to make individual stalks of straw strong and unified.

I received an A and offered Mrs. Mayes the broom. I was beginning to understand how much a good orator could achieve. Knowing I would need scholarships for college, Mrs. Mayes helped me enter every speech competition possible during seventh and eighth grades. My teacher, who was white, drove me around as though we were reversing the roles in Driving Miss Daisy, although I sat in the passenger seat next to her, not the backseat.

Almost every Saturday, she would pick me up in her green Mercedes and then glide down country roads to competitions.

Mrs. Mayes had a way of demanding the best, and with her help, we won almost every time. Only as an adult have I realized what she imparted to me, that tall, skinny black kid with untested hopes: her confidence, a sense of worthiness, her standard of excellence and expectation that I would benefit from competing with others as ambitious as I. She did it for no extra pay and no personal gain. Twenty-nine years later we remain friends. Someone once said that good teachers are with us for a lifetime; certainly the lessons they teach us are, and in some instances the teachers are as well.

Two weeks before Christmas and one week before my 12th birthday, an unfamiliar knock at the door interrupted our quiet evening. A young man stood at the screen. Daddy invited the stranger in and led him to a chair by the open fire.

The stranger revealed that he was a college student who’d traveled almost two hours from the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, selling books to finance his education.

“Is this your son, sir?” he asked.

“This is our grandson. We’re raising him,” Mama and Daddy replied in unison.

“Well, I hope he likes school, because I have a lot of books that can help him with his studies. I’m selling a lot of encyclopedias and dictionaries this Christmas.” Mama confidently told him our home already had a dictionary, though she didn’t tell him it was two decades old. We didn’t have a full set of encyclopedias, only random volumes.

“What else is in your bag?” Daddy asked.

“Well, sir, I also have a book of knowledge,” the stranger replied, as if saving the best for last. He artfully pulled from his bag a large red leather book, embossed with gold letters and decorated with speckled leaves.

“Knowledge?” I asked, moving closer to inspect this treasure.

“Yes, the Basic Knowledge is kind of like having 20 encyclopedias in one book. It covers everything you want to know about the world—American history, science, technology, art, and music.”

“The whole world in that one book?” Daddy asked.

“Yes, sir,” came the response. “You want to look at it?”

I reached my hands out and reverently held the book up to the light. Its red-leather binding felt sacred. I’d never seen such a book—so full of facts.

“How much does a book like that cost?” Daddy asked.

As though apologetic, the man said in a low but firm voice, “$60.”

I was stunned. Sixty dollars was a lot in our household, especially so close to Christmas, when gifts had been purchased. Mama motioned to Daddy to follow her into the kitchen.

Moments passed with hushed whispers. Then my grandparents returned. Daddy reached into his pocket and carefully counted out two $20s, two $5s, and one $10.

Mama held in her wrinkled hands all the knowledge of the world. “A gift for you, dear Eric,” she said. “Now the future is yours.”

In the Oval Office with President Bush in 2001.

To feed my appetite for knowledge, Daddy began driving me to the city every week to check out books from the library—a simple act that changed my life. The 50-minute round trip provided a refuge and bound us more closely. We sometimes drove past the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had once been pastor, and the spot where Mrs. Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus.

Daddy never talked much about that, or about his role ferrying bus boycotters to and from the city for 381 consecutive days, but he called them “our heroes” who, despite being ordinary people, found the strength to be courageous.

Daddy kept the faith despite the prejudice he had encountered. He seemed never to divide the world into black and white—good and bad—his conscience was too large, his heart too generous.

By my childish standards, the old Montgomery Public Library downtown rivaled the great Library of Alexandria. It was a magnificent cathedral of information. I never knew what unusual fact, what teasing photograph, whose quaint story I might stumble onto. I’d begin in the poetry section and select armloads of books, often to the librarians’ whispers: “There’s the Motley boy.” They knew I had a mental map of the shelves.

One Saturday, after rambling about, I found my way back to my table on the main floor. My eyes were drawn from the page to an older, fragile-looking white man at a table across from me. He was in a wheelchair, with a black attendant at his side. He moved delicately. With bright, piercing eyes hooded by heavy brows, he struck me as a man bearing heavy burdens.

I returned to reading. But sneaking a glance now and then, I’d find Wheelchair Man flipping pages casually. Our eyes met awkwardly several times. I knew him from somewhere! Once, nodding, as if to say, “Good day,” he seemed as curious about me as I was about him. As closing time approached, a silence added a reverential quality to the nonverbal rapport that had developed between the Wheelchair Man and me. Suddenly I knew.

As I gathered my books and walked to the circulation desk, we nodded—a parting benediction. I was so eager to tell Daddy, I took the stairs two at a time, and headed to the car, where he’d been waiting for two hours. I opened the door to his usual questions—“What have you been up to in there? Find any good books today? Any Robert Frost?”

“Yes, sir,” I answered.

I laid my satchel on the rear seat and blurted out, “You’ll never guess who was in the library; who kept looking at me today.” Daddy managed a dramatic pause before asking, “Someone special?”

“Yes, sir,” I said emphatically. “It was Governor George Wallace!”

“Do you mean the George Wallace?” he asked. “Isn’t that something? You just came face to face with one of the most notorious former segregationists in the country.”

“Some people believe he learned that he had to get the support of black voters to win elections,” Daddy said. “But I think he changed his mind about black people after a gunman tried to assassinate him in 1972 … It put him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life and made him understand suffering for the first time.”

“Do you realize,” Daddy asked, “that if you’d been born 10 years earlier, at the start of Wallace’s first term, you wouldn’t even be allowed in this library? Now, you can sit at the same table with him. Sometimes justice comes slowly, but it always comes.”

Deep within Daddy was this abiding conviction that we are saved by hope. He didn’t erupt into a diatribe about a former segregationist or gloat over the fact that Wallace came to suffer. Instead, he used the occasion to celebrate the fact that now I could freely use the same library from which Wallace would have banned me.

As I came to adopt that same hope, my grandparents’ dream for me to go to college became my mission.

Taken from Madison Park by Eric L. Motley, copyright © 2017 by Eric L. Motley. Used by permission of Zondervan, Header image: Eric Motley (top, second from left) in his Head Start class.

Photography courtesy of Eric Motley

Originally Published January 2018