None of us got where we are solely by pulling
ourselves up by our bootstraps.
We got here because somebody ….
bent down and helped us pick up our boots.
—Justice Thurgood Marshall
Midway through these essays, a dear Savannah friend, Ezra Merritt, referring to my early challenges — beaten by teachers for minor infractions; bullied by Olly Sanders; and sleeping on a folding cot in my aunt’s kitchen, nights that left me feeling superfluous –– asked, “Lloyd, how’d you do it?” His seemingly simple question mirrored my own thoughts as I have been writing these essays.
How did I do it?
Well, I wasn’t alone, never alone. Many people, knowingly and unknowingly, helped me pick up my boots.
That said, my own challenges pale in comparison to those that I see and have seen up close and personal during my fourscore and eight years on this Earth: institutional racism in our juvenile justice system; inequality in our educational system, health disparities; a criminal justice system geared to restore Black people to pre-Civil War conditions of enslavement. And I could go on and on and…
Many people facing these challenges had no help. I did. I had lots of help. I was blessed with loving immigrant parents who, notwithstanding their differences; showered me with their love; fostered my passion for reading; saw college as my pathway to the American Dream; and stirred in me a sense of social consciousness, of looking beyond my immediate self-interests.
I was born and raised in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood, not the South. Notwithstanding Boston’s relatively limited upward economic opportunities for Blacks, we as children had unfettered access to Boston’s then decent public schools. We could ride our bikes to cultural facilities, museums, and libraries (all free, of course). The ballparks weren’t free, but when we went, we sat wherever we wanted.
Friends, lasting friendships, have always been crucial to me. I have been the beneficiary of supportive, positive companions — the Spartans in Roxbury, the Bamboolas at Howard University. They provided loyalty and shared values. Imagine, the first five Spartans — we 1949 high school graduates – each graduated from college. No Spartan dropped out of school. Each Spartan, no matter whether or not he went to college, was successful in his chosen field and contributed to the well-being of our nation.
These uplifting relationships counter-balanced my recurrent self-doubts –– am I good enough? Am I worthy? There’s a psychic cost to witnessing the game they called “nigger pile” in my elementary school; to being whipped for talking out of turn, bullied by a classmate; the last chosen in pickup games; self–conscious with girls, an awkward dancer, and a struggling student.
My shyness was often misconstrued by my classmates and, to my advantage, made them think of me as a “nice guy.” That designation translated for me to: Don’t make waves; blend in.
The overused slogan “making lemonade out of lemons” came to life for me in 1949. Unceremoniously and through no choice of my own, I was relocated to Brooklyn because of my brother’s criminal behavior. There I was rudely awakened. I saw in Brooklyn the extent to which many Boston Blacks were blocked from the pathways leading to the middle class. New York had countless Black public employees, Black sales people in major department stores, Blacks in the media and so forth. Wow.
On the other hand, I was affirmed by Frenchie and the gang in Brooklyn. I never bought into the gang’s value system that found humor in animal cruelty or two naked women fighting in the street. Yet, it was these guys, with their own limited prospects, who saved me from the misplaced loyalty that would have had me joining them in a gang fight. They told me to stay home, that I would “be somebody” someday. Thanks.
I received more affirmation when, in holding my first full time job at the National Urban League, others on the staff awarded me $50 to help pay for my books as I went off to college.
MAKING OF A NICE GUY
Looking back to those seemingly chaotic early years of my life, it seems as if I have always been characterized as “a nice guy.” Initially, I was put off by what I perceived as a patronizing characterization. Later in life, I learned that for many of my friends, “nice” translated into even-keel, steady, loyal, a good friend. They had no idea of how I masked the insecurities generated by my parents’ dysfunctional marriage and my older brother’s anti-social conduct.
My social consciousness, my mission in life, took root at Howard University. My arrival in deeply segregated Washington, D.C., our nation’s Capital, and my exposure to legalized racism set me on my lifelong path of working for social justice. I knew then that I had a duty to use my talents and opportunities – denied to others who were arguably far more capable and deserving than me –– for the benefit of the greater good.
I knew that, no matter what I might accomplish in life, I could be no more than the least of these. I saw my dad’s words in action.
For example, returning to Howard’s campus from the Howard University/Yale University exchange program in the spring of 1954, I became more convinced than ever that — given the opportunity — I and others, Black like me, could compete successfully with whites.
THE WIND BENEATH MY SAILS
I’m my own worst critic. All too often when I’m praised for doing something well, I’ll pick out a relatively minor, arguably negative detail, as if to diminish my accomplishment. It’s a residue of my childhood. Am I good enough? Or Dad’s “talk”: You gotta be twice as good” to prevail.
Part of servant leadership, my mantra, means acknowledging and giving praise to those who are a part of my past, present, and future – those who contributed to who I am today. It’s a two-way street. I accept the well-earned praise of others, and I also acknowledge those steady, regular puffs of support that provide the wind beneath my sails.
Ma: Looking back, I would be remiss not to mention Ma’s unwavering support for me when, after deceiving her for two years about my academic “progress” at Howard, she still, at great financial cost, encouraged me to return to the university and show them what I could do. Ma unstintingly supported me afterwards. When it came to loyalty whether to my troubled older brother or to me, no one could match Louise Johnson.
Dad: Many Black kids don’t have a dad in their lives. I did. He was my role model. His legacy? He strove for excellence in all that he did; he judged others, not by their public persona, but by their character, and encouraged me to read. He engaged me in spirited “debates” on social and political issues; continually reminded me about the world beyond our childhood home. Never missed a vote. Proudest moment? My graduation from Howard University. In later years, Dad’s leadership and public service were recognized when Boston’s mayor appointed him to city’s Council of Elders. I was blessed with the world’s greatest father.
Connie: My patient, tolerant wife has been a source of unwavering support in countless ways since we met. She encouraged me to enroll in law school and was our primary support during those early days. She keeps me grounded, telling me not what I want to hear but what I need to hear. She is my caregiver, driver, and proofreader. She has shared my celebratory and my darkest days. Without Connie, you would not be reading this memoir.
Alison: Daughter, Alison, was in childhood too-often relegated to second fiddle in light of the all-consuming troubles of her brother Scott. Yet she has always looked up to me as a loving counselor, be it in teen relationships, searching (unsuccessfully) for her missing/deceased cat on a darkened neighborhood thoroughfare, or sharing sensitive family relationships. Ours is a father-daughter relationship for the ages.
Troi: Granddaughter, Troi A. Guilbeaux, is the mother of my great-granddaughter, Alijah R. Briscoe, 3 at this time, to whom this memoir is dedicated. A millennial, Troi and I enjoy a lovingly intense relationship in which we continually challenge one another in pursuit of excellence. I tease her that she’s my favorite (and only) granddaughter.
Eleanor. My “big sister,” my long–distance cheering squad. My biggest regret? That she wasn’t around to join in our celebration of Georgia’s election of its first Black U.S. Senator in 2021. We’ve come a long way since Thanksgiving 2008, Sis.
Maurice. I cannot put into words the depth of my 70-year friendship with my ”brotha-from-another mother,” Maurice Edwards. One of the last three or four surviving Bamboolas, Maurice and I have shared the best and worst of times. We shared secrets and feelings with no fear of recrimination or judgement. We’ve talked at least weekly for decades. We are all that it is to be friends.
Failure is an orphan. Success has many parents, and I’ve had many parents. Some, are since departed, longtime friends whom you met in previous essays, like the late Richard P. Thornell, Esquire – always musing about “How come….” Others are very much alive: Dr. Robert L. Perry, who’s core personal values and spirited debate add to the richness of my life. Still others, here in Savannah, include Judge James F. Bass, Charles Golphin, Dr. Robert Pawlicki, and my eagle–eye, critical editor, Sandra Earley.
My work with each of our current and potential Gadsden Scholars has been rewarding, but there have been a few particularly memorable moments.
One occurred a year or so ago, when in a private moment, a high-performing mentee tentatively shared her apprehension about meeting a particular personal challenge. I listened, as a mentor should — after all, a mentor is a trusted teacher and guide, not a director. Together, we developed what seemed like a workable plan to address her mini-crisis.
Much later, seemingly out of nowhere, she said to me quietly, “Thank you.”
“For believing in me.”
I was speechless. Then I realized her “thank you” echoed the appreciation of that devalued young woman, some thirty years earlier, whose attacker was found not guilty, yet she was appreciative. She had said the same thing. “Thank you for believing me.”
Another special moment came in December, 2020, when our first Gadsden Scholar, graduated from college a semester early. I had been mentoring her since high school. She had had to overcome more than the usual challenges of a first-generation college student. I attended her virtual graduation and was filled with many emotions as I watched her stride across the stage. She’d made it. On to law school.
Others will follow.
The years are catching up with me. Now, as I write these final essays, I celebrate my 88 years on this good Earth. A while ago, Samuel Hamilton, a long-time friend, colleague, and legal legend, said of me, “The lion has lost his bite, but not his roar.” You’re right, Sam. And if you doubt whether my roar is loud and intact, ask my family and friends – and mentees.
In early 2020, the board of the Savannah 100 Foundation, agreed that it was time to pass the torch of leadership and adopted a transition plan. My successor, Nathanael E. Wright, Esquire, assumed the presidency in January 2021. The Foundation and all who care about it will be in good hands. He’ll do it in his own way, and I’ll be his greatest cheerleader.
I started my Savannah 100 Foundation journey driven by the fierce urgency of now and to work for social justice. With the Foundation, our paradigm has evolved from doing, to enabling and empowering others who will provide future leadership and lasting change for the betterment of our flawed country.
A small example? See this photo of a mentee, who, upon turning18 years old, cast her first vote and took this selfie just moments afterwards; it was in Georgia’s 2021 runoff election for the U.S. Senate. Two Democrats won, one Black, one Jewish. What greater reward for the lion?
A year or so after I received my kidney transplant – my Gift of Life – I told my Mayo Clinic transplant physician that I sometimes felt guilty, knowing that I was perhaps alive only because of the “fortuitous” and sudden death an unknown 17-year–old child. Was I worthy of this gift? I asked, echoing a recurrent theme in my life. He listened and reminded me that my greatest thanks for my gift would be to, first, take very good care of the kidney, and, second, use whatever time it has given me to continue working for the betterment of others.
I’ve tried to do so – on both counts –– to the best of my ability.
NEXT: 31. Closing Thoughts
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