Social activism is a right to be cherished, encouraged and exercised freely regardless of the underlying cause or point of protest.
Like any parent, I’ve learned that lecturing is not an effective communication tool with my children; it is tiresome for all of us and can damage a parenting relationship.
I do allow myself one exception, however, each year on the weekend of President’s Day/MLK Day. On most years over the past decade I’ve take the opportunity to harp on an issue I feel strongly about, regardless of whether they particularly care to hear about it. It began more than ten years ago as my stubborn insistence that even young children should observe a day of community service on this weekend (although I eventually lost that battle).
Lately my lecture has taken the more subtle form of an essay that I ask them to read or a recording I’ve asked them to hear. (Last year I asked them to listen to the entire “I Have a Dream” speech). The tradition will continue this year.
This year’s message will be based on the theme of “The M.T.A. Song” (aka “Charlie on the M.T.A.” or “The Man Who Never Returned”). First of all, this is a fascinating folk song with an amazingly interesting history. It is a capsule of American history in itself and a cultural landmark in the construction of a protest song. The song was made famous by The Kingston Trio in 1959 and had some influence on my father – also a fan of folk music. A recording of their version is available on YouTube. Since then the song has been recorded uncounted times and even made its way onto a recent TV episode of “Malcolm in the Middle”. I’ve enjoyed the privilege of hearing it performed many times; perhaps the most memorable performance by Pete Seeger. The meaning and background, I’m afraid are long lost to most listeners. This song took on special meaning to me since I made a choice to be an activist some years ago.
The song was actually written as one of seven jingles for a failed political campaign in the days long before sound bites. There is much more published about the history in several places including MIT’s web site. The point is that this is a protest song about a $.05 transit fare increase. It is one person’s belief that it is unfair for the Massachusetts Transit Authority to charge an extra nickel as an exit fee on top of the $.10 base fare. The fictional rider (Charlie) protests by refusing to exit the train. I’ve found parts of the song to be hilarious; i.e. the use of the phrase “tragic and fateful day” and the part about Charlie getting his lunchtime sandwich.
Let me tell you the story Of a man named Charlie
On a tragic and fateful day
He put ten cents in his pocket,
Kissed his wife and family
Went to ride on the MTA
Charlie handed in his dime
At the Kendall Square Station
And he changed for Jamaica Plain
When he got there the conductor told him,
“One more nickel.”
Charlie could not get off that train.
Did he ever return,
No he never returned
And his fate is still unlearned
He may ride forever
beneath the streets of Boston
He’s the man who never returned.
Now all night long
Charlie rides through the tunnels of the station
Saying, “What will become of me?
How can I afford to see
My sister in Chelsea
Or my cousin in Roxbury?”
Charlie’s wife goes down
To the Scollay Square station
Every day at quarter past two
And through the open window
She hands Charlie a sandwich
As the train comes rumbling through.
As his train rolled on
underneath Greater Boston
Charlie looked around and sighed:
“Well, I’m sore and disgusted
And I’m absolutely busted;
I guess this is my last long ride.”
Now you citizens of Boston,
Don’t you think it’s a scandal
That the people have to pay and pay
Vote for Walter A. O’Brien
Fight the fare increase!
And fight the fare increase
Vote for George O’Brien!
Get poor Charlie off the MTA.
This song has an important and enduring message for me and one that I hope to impart to my children:
Social activism does not need to be about important world-changing events. We each have the freedom to choose our points of decision and take a stance on any issue at any time of our own free will! No one tells me what is important, what is right or wrong, or what my reaction will be to any event. This simple realization makes me feel more happy to be alive than any other I can imagine. I pray that my children may enjoy the same feeling of freedom.