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Hoping for the spirit of Esau Jenkins to haunt us this Halloween

Pittsburgh, Pumpkins, and Progress

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The traffic along River Road is steady this time of year, thanks to busloads of preschoolers and droves of families out doing their bucolic American duty — trolling through the pumpkin patch and feeding the cows on the Legare Farms hayride. Come dusk, teens descend on the corn maze, seeking terror someplace other than the horrifying news headlines.

Halloween is high season on sleepy Johns Island, and I'm glad that our local farmers get a pumpkin-fueled pre-winter boost, but in general, Halloween this year feels more of a downer to me. The macabre is not exactly make believe. As much as I adore Jamie Lee Curtis, the idea of sitting through a slasher flick — once a campy foil for our collective internalized fears, or at least as a chilling excuse to snuggle up to my movie date — seems more like watching reality TV.

Earlier in October I'd bike past a friend's mailbox which her kids had decorated with bones from a dismembered fake skeleton scattered piecemeal about. I chuckled at the clever, silly ghoulishness, until Khashoggi went missing. And now, on the eve of All Hallows, when we should be lighting up our carved jack-o-lanterns, we're lighting vigil candles instead. Shaking our heads in a post-Pittsburgh collective heartbreak, we drag out the now well-worn signs, yet again trying to convince ourselves that "Love is stronger than hate." Hardly a trick or treat.

But there are ghosts and good spirits we'd be wise to heed this Halloween, a holiday related to All Saints or All Souls Day in the Christian tradition. One soul, in particular, once worked right there on River Road, just across from the Legare Farms Pumpkin Patch. Today, the overgrown cinderblock remains of Esau Jenkins' Progressive Club are easily overlooked by passersby hurrying to make Kiawah tee times or snag the plump-enough pumpkin, but the legacy of Jenkins' work during the Civil Rights era endures.

Remains of the Progressive Club sit near 3383 River Rd. on Johns Island - WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • Wikimedia Commons
  • Remains of the Progressive Club sit near 3383 River Rd. on Johns Island

Born in 1910 and raised on Johns Island, Jenkins was a sea island farmer with only four years of schooling, but he was determined that his eight children would get a good education despite Jim Crow segregation. He bought an old bus to take them and other children to school in Charleston, and eventually bought other buses to transport his sea island neighbors to jobs in the city. He'd use the travel time to teach them how to pass literacy tests so they could register to vote, and then Jenkins transported them to the polls. His Progressive Club, a grocery co-op, gas station, rec center, and community gathering place, became the site of South Carolina's first Citizenship School, an important training ground for civil rights organizers, adult literacy, and voter education. When Martin Luther King Jr. came to speak in 1962 at Emanuel AME Church, Jenkins shared the podium with him.

Jenkins, an uneducated farmer, used every means available to him to work for better education, better jobs, housing, and health care, and a brighter, more fair and more just future for his community. Those means included the rusted real estate on the back of his personal VW van, where, in scrappy brush work, he hand-painted his motto on the back two panels: "Love is progress. Hate is expensive."

The back panels of Jenkins' bus are on display in the Smithsonian - COURTESY WILLIAM PRETZER
  • Courtesy William Pretzer
  • The back panels of Jenkins' bus are on display in the Smithsonian

Today those panels are on display at the Smithsonian's National African American History Museum. And today, we still need to see, hear, and learn that simple, profound message. "Love is progress." Love moves forward, not backward. Love is not satisfied with status quo. Love opens doors, it breaks down walls, crosses borders. Love is action; it is risky, dynamic. "Hate is expensive." The unspeakable cost of war; the tally of tears, of lost opportunity, lost lives, lost dreams. The untold cost to taxpayers for failing schools and packed prisons. The cost to our children for environmental destruction. The impossible to account for cost of hate-fueled carnage at the Tree of Life, at Mother Emanuel, and God knows too many other recent atrocities.

October 30 marks the anniversary of Esau Jenkins' death. The eve of All Hallows Eve — all hallow, which means "all holy." If there is such a thing as ghosts, I'm hoping his lives large, and might scare the holy shit out of those of us getting too numbed by so much hatred, so much anger, so much lack of progress toward lifting one another up rather than gunning each other down.

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