One Death A Tragedy, One Million A Statistic.

Every time I went to Mississippi in the early 2000’s I would always find an hour or so to go visit with the Rev Samuel Billy Kyles, founding pastor of the Monumental Baptist Church in Memphis.  Rev Kyles was the man who invited Dr Martin Luther King to Memphis in 1968 to support the Garbage workers strike.  He had spent that last afternoon with Dr King in the Lorraine Motel. He heard the shot; he had covered his friend in a blanket as he slipped away.

Billy never ran out of stories. There was always another tale he had about the civil rights movement, or Dr King, that made me feel I was touching history.

One story more than any other stayed with me; what really happened with the ‘I Have A Dream’ speech.

Rev Samuel ‘Billy Kyles and Mal Pope (end of the roll of film)

In 1963 Dr King was addressing the crowd of over 200,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial in the US Capital.  They had come to ‘March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom’.

 The way Billy told it, the crowd were incredibly excited to hear Dr King but as he spoke they started to get a little restless as the first part of his speech was all about economics.  Billy said that some days or weeks earlier Dr King had been preaching elsewhere and had started to tell the story about how he dreamed his own children would one day be judged by the content of their character not the colour of their skin. On the platform that night was the Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.

On that day in August 1963 Mahalia had just held the crowd enthralled with her performance of ‘I’ve been rebuked, and I’ve been scorned’ but as Dr King spoke she could tell he was losing the crowd. When he took back a step to gather his thoughts Mahalia shouted to the great orator. ‘Martin…tell them about the Dream’. 

Apparently, he stopped, stepped away from his prepared notes and then grabbed the lectern like he was standing in the pulpit.  One of his scriptwriters sat behind him, Clarence B Jones, turned to the people next to him and said, ‘These people don’t know it, but they’re about ready to go to church.’

I’ve often told this story to groups of business leaders or politicians.  Economics and numbers are really important and underpin every wish and hope we have but what people will remember is the dream. People need to feel the story.

I’ve been thinking more and more about that idea this week in relation the horrific news coming out of Eastern Europe.  Sometimes we need to know the great big story, about how many refugees have left Ukraine, how many tanks have been destroyed or how many Oligarchs have been sanctioned but sometimes its all too much for my little human mind to comprehend.  Its only when I connect on a human level that I get it; I understand the immensity of the story and the depth of pain and I’m moved to action.

I expect the prisons of Iran and many other countries are full of people who don’t deserve to be incarcerated. People who have lost their freedom trying to do the right thing or maybe for just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. We know its awful and we think we ought to do something about it but it’s just too big, so we turn away.

I don’t think I’m the only one who cried as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s daughter was heard to say ‘Is that Mummy’ as Nazanin left the plane.  For years Nazanin has been a pawn in an international game of political chess.  An unpaid debt, a hostage taken, collateral damage as one regime exerts pressure on another to get what it wants. 

Many now want to take credit for her release and I’m sure the full picture will become clearer over the coming months of how this young mother found herself caught up in the centre of an international storm…and maybe, through the story of this one woman, we might only get a better understanding of the bigger picture.

Having said that I’m not always a fan of the ‘vox pop’.  When I first started out in broadcasting I would often be given a tape recorder and told to go and ask the people on the street what they thought about some topic or another in the news. I suppose occasionally you would get an insight to the mood on the streets but often people would say they didn’t know what I was talking about.

Often they would show they didn’t know anything about the subject by their confident answers! Lately it seems almost accepted that after some big news event the programme will cut to ‘the ordinary man on the street’ of some oft forgotten town for their considered thoughts. I am often left wondering what they have added to the story.

But when used properly the story of the ordinary person caught up in a whirlwind can be the light that shines like a Lazer on the real story.

Almost every refugee fleeing Ukraine has a horror story to share.  Maybe we are overwhelmed by the pictures of people struggling to get on trains or lines of traffic but when the reporter talks to the mothers of children who have left everything and everyone they love we start to feel, to understand and empathise with the plight of the refugee.  When you hear from the person going through the rubble of their apartment block looking for people or pets or memories we start to understand the senseless loss that war always brings.

And war has no favourites.  Every side hurts and bleeds.  Once we take away the humanity of the enemy we can happily revel in their destruction and cheer as we watch the death tally rise of the opposition.


One interview has in particular pierced my heart this week.  A reporter was broadcasting from Russia when he was approached by a Russian mother.  She was obviously heartbroken.  Her son was 22 years old conscript and she believes he had been sent to Ukraine. She hadn’t heard from him for days.  She grabbed her phone and showed the reporter a picture of her son in his best army uniform.  ‘Look at him’ she says in Russian, ‘he is just a boy…return him home’.

When the Russian police appeared in the background she ran off and disappeared into the crowds.  For the moment fear kept her silent.

It was another Russian leader, Joseph Stalin, that is quoted as having said ‘One death is a tragedy, a million deaths a statistic.’ He must have felt very secure behind his secret police and for the moment people in Russia are too frightened or too brainwashed by state television to raise their voices; but many commentators have said that Putin should fear the mothers of Russian soldiers more than the sanctions of the West because each death is a tragedy for that mother.

So, let us study the statistics and the numbers of all of the issues facing us at this moment, the reasons for poverty and domestic abuse and hopelessness but let us not forget that each statistic is a person, each one needs our help and understanding and every one of us deserves a dream.

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