“The past is never dead. It is not even past.” -- William Faulkner
Why write about “Back Then” when the present is so dynamic? First, there is nothing in the present that has no roots in the past. Faulkner was right. It is not even past.
Much of the vitality of this nation’s rural regions rests upon abundant electricity made possible by rural electric cooperatives born from the Rural Electrification Act, part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal economic programs. The nation still struggles with the impact of slavery and treatment of Native Americans. Survivors of the Holocaust and combat veterans greet each day and many of its hours with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. After the death of my great-great-grandfather John Branch, veteran of the siege of Vicksburg, capture, imprisonment, the later battles in Tennessee and Georgia, his widow Martha Branch said, “He never got over it.”
Songs and poems written long ago are regularly on our tongues. Millions ushered in the New Year by singing “Auld Lang Syne,” written by Scotland’s “Wee Bobby Burns” some 250 years ago. “Over hill, over dale,” these are the opening words of the U.S. Army anthem played and sung hundreds of times each year. Yes, but they were penned by William Shakespeare over 400 years ago.
College football is perennially present in this country, but it also borrows from the past. Note this line from Oliver Goldsmith, “Sweet Auburn, loveliest village of the plain.” From this comes the name of a town and a university and a name for its athletes — the Plainsmen. It is not clear why they are also tigers and war eagles.
I write about “Back Then” because it is possible to learn from the past. We live in an information laden present, much of it instantly accessible through computer and smartphone applications. While much of this golden treasure is in fact the gray lead of falsehood and manipulation, it is the information age. Unfortunately, many people think that anything older than yesterday’s post or tweet is old and useless. No matter how much we look forward and sideways for information, we have to look back for wisdom.
The Founding Fathers, in framing the Constitution, did not pull it out of thin air or their imaginations. They were informed by the Bible and the writings of the greatest thinkers of the French, English and Scottish Enlightenment. The structure of government is similar to that of England, substituting an elected president for king. The legal system is based on English common law dating back to the Magna Carta. The past was anything but dead then and it is not dead now.
The Preamble to the Constitution declares that its goal is the common good. If the creative zeal of the founders were projected into the present, we would no longer be paralyzed politically by leaders who think only of their own tribes rather than the whole nation. I remember much about life in this country during World War II when there was sacrifice at home as well as on the war fronts and leaders pointed back to the costs of the Revolutionary War and the prize of the new born nation.
I write about Back Then because many readers tell me that they like the columns and because I like the material myself. My ancestors began coming to Georgia in 1765 and continued to arrive for another 50 years. Few were great and some were not even good. I treasure and seek to emulate some who were known for their faith, generosity, integrity and hard work. They created churches, schools and communities centered on these institutions. They did so with limited purses, open hearts, work-hardened hands and minds that envisioned what could be. Every place I go from the Atlantic west to Texas, south to Florida Bay and north to Maryland is stamped by their labors and sometimes their blood. So many places are therefore precious.
They were not just laboring drudges, these who came before me and made me in ways more than biological. They were skilled, creative, ingenious. Resources were limited. Tools were few. Yet, they crafted solutions to everyday challenges from well sweeps to children’s toys. I wish I had some of their skill and ingenuity.
South Georgia is beautiful but basically not a place for easy living. It has more river swamps, piney woods and sand hills than rich, fertile land. Settlers and their descendants had to find ways to live in this environment, to make a home there and find ways to nourish mind and spirit.
I write about this world, about these people and the way they lived. Why? They deserve to have their story told. My favorite book by the insightful humorist Lewis Grizzard is “Shoot Low: They’re Riding Shetland Ponies.” In it, he celebrates ordinary people who are in their own ways extraordinary. We are reading from the same page.
Some of their past is lost or at least ignored. However, active historical societies and genealogy groups are flourishing. Artifacts, stories, documents and pictures are being recovered and preserved. A growing number of people sense that somehow the past is part of who they are. We communicate. It is no surprise that I regularly find kinfolks among them.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.