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She Had a Dream

Anne Whalen Shafer speaks her mind.



The March on Washington was 50 years ago — August 28, 2013, to be exact. August 22, 2013, to be exact, was the birthday of Anne Whalen Shafer — her 90th.

What do these two dates have in common? One was a national call for racial equality. Redressing racial wrongs was Shafer's life work, and she was at the right place and time: Memphis in the troubled 1950s, turbulent '60s, and beyond. She describes those decades of unrest in her self-published memoir, Memphis Instruments of Peace: How Volunteers and Visionaries Challenged Racism, Reactionary Politicians and the Catholic Hierarchy, edited by Sheila Patrick.

That title and subtitle cover a lot of ground: the example set by St. Francis (and his prayer to be made "an instrument" of God's peace); Shafer's volunteer efforts to improve postwar race relations in Memphis in the face of opposing city leaders and citizens; and her run-ins with a tradition-bound Catholic clergy that questioned not only Shafer's outspokenness but the visionary quality of her deeply ingrained — and activist — faith.

Who, briefly, is Anne Whalen Shafer? A pro-labor reformer who has been labeled a liberal, a socialist, and a communist. A champion of women's rights and onetime president of the local branch of the League of Women Voters. A vigorous supporter of progressive, mid-century figures such as mayoral candidate Edmund Orgill, attorney and civil rights advocate Lucius Burch, and newspaper editor Edward Meeman. A former chairwoman of the Memphis City Beautiful Commission. A key player in the establishment of Martyrs Park and the creation of downtown's Bluff Walk. And last, not least, a tireless worker for interracial and interfaith understanding. Her core religious beliefs wouldn't have had it any other way, when many in the local, all-male church hierarchy often wished she'd just go away — their attitude toward Shafer, as she describes it: tolerance spilling over into, at times, outright dismissal.

Is it any wonder, then, that Shafer eventually adopted the faith of her Presbyterian husband, Robert? But it's no wonder that Shafer took religious belief seriously. Her memoir covers five occasions when, Shafer writes, God intervened directly in her life. Mystical intervention? To the believer, so be it.

"Who am I to speak my mind?" Shafer asks in the closing pages of her memoir. She'd already, in high school, had a priest discount her idea of becoming a nun. (Vocations were reserved at the time for students who were "top of the class.") One woman had once described her as the "daughter of a labor man, not college material." And in March 1968, when Shafer, along with several other women, met with Mayor Henry Loeb to ask that he reconsider the plight of the city's striking sanitation workers, Loeb reacted by treating those women cordially but as troublemakers.

Often disappointed but never undeterred, Anne Whalen Shafer has persevered and can now conclude in Instruments of Peace: "I know what happened, what I saw, and heard. ... I tried to do my best." And indeed, she did. "Good citizenship," she goes on to write, was her "competency." And indeed, it was.

This past February saw the publication of Cary Holladay's very fine Virginia-set, cross-generational, linked short-story collection Horse People.

This month, Holladay is back — and back in Virginia — with The Deer in the Mirror (The Ohio State University Press): nine stories in all (two of them Glimmer Train award winners). And if Anne Whalen Shafer covers decades in her memoir, Holladay bridges centuries — from the early 18th to the present day. It's an expansive time frame that allows the author, who teaches at the University of Memphis, to display her abiding interest in the natural world and the changes wrought by frontiersmen and farmers, tradesmen and armies.

Central to Holladay's concerns, though, is the human element at the heart of these stories. Or could the encroachment of big-box stores and mass transit threaten even the ways of the human heart? The answer in the short story "Hitching Post": no way.

Cary Holladay will be reading from and signing The Deer in the Mirror at Burke's Book Store on Thursday, September 5th, from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m.

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