Story of Karol McMahon shows we do make progress

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 29, 2005

Last week, I came across an article written by Karol Nelson McMahan, and it reminded me of the incredible contributions that people quietly make in America, contributions that make us a great nation.

You probably have never heard of Karol, but her story is one that speaks of a quiet courage that represents the best of our country.

In the 1960s the American south was in social upheaval as it began a long-overdue process of delivering on the American promise of equality. Karol Nelson was a student at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, when she decided, in 1964 to become a "freedom school teacher" in Mississippi for the summer.

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It was the same summer when three volunteers were murdered for their efforts in Mississippi. Knowing that they were missing, Karol still chose to go and teach and help register voters.

Most of us live our entire lives without ever facing the kind of personal threat that a very young Karol Nelson faced when she arrived in Madison County Mississippi.

Upon her arrival in the town of Canton, she and those with her were greeted by local law enforcement officers who fingerprinted her and said "Šit would help if anything happened to you."

Karol, who is white, stayed that summer with a black family that owned their own land, an important distinction as renters would have possibly lost their home for housing the volunteers.

During the days she and the others would visit black families and individuals to encourage them to register to vote. Many expressed their fear to even speak openly to Karol. In the evening she would teach adults and children who risked their safety to be in the classes.

Karol was threatened during her time in Mississippi, but she continued her work throughout the summer.

At the end of the summer she returned to school in Ohio, carrying on the bus a Mason jar of soup stock given to her by the family who hosted her.

Now, 41 years after that summer, Karol, a teacher of 35 years, reflects on that experience, remarking that when she tells her stories to students they are surprised that their teacher ever did such brave things.

Even now Karol asks herself about her motives for going to Mississippi. But most of all she has pride in the fact that, at least for the summer of 1964, she was "one atom" for the remedy of racial inequality in America.

Karol is so much like so many others in our country, who give quietly, sometimes at great personal risk, because it is the good and right thing to do.

The greatness of America is found in just such lives, and our social progress is marked by their accomplishments.

It is also significant that these powerful individual contributions are not always seen as valuable in their immediate circumstances. Karol's summer work was not well noted and was very little appreciated at that time.

There was no welcome home parade, no ribbons, no plaques. Forty-one years ago Karol did something that mattered.

Congratulations Karol, you remind us all of the power of the individual.

Dr. Jim Crawford works at Ohio University Southern. He can be reached at