Remembering Sylvia Martin James

Remembering Sylvia Martin James

Sunday was the first day of spring, so I bought a small bunch of daffodils. The instructions recommended that I cut a half-inch off the bottom of the stem, change the water every two days, and keep them out of the heat. The buds were not yet in bloom.

The daffodil is one of the first perennial blooms of the year and it symbolizes rebirth, renewal, and new beginnings. It also symbolizes remembering and forgetting…which is why it’s fitting that I am writing this column on the day after the passing of community icon Sylvia Martin James, remembering her passionate advocacy for education, civil rights, and social justice as I gaze upon my vase full of yellow daffodils, now in full bloom.

Ms. Martin James never stopped learning and demanded the same from all of us. She was a fighter. A dreamer. A doer. One of our very best citizens. And in her memory I’d like to reprint a piece I wrote about her shortly after her 80th birthday almost three years ago:

What Ben Franklin Can Teach Us About Good Citizenship

During a recent conversation with a good friend, somehow we started talking about dinner parties and people – either historical or present-day figures – we think would be interesting guests. We both picked Benjamin Franklin at the top of our list and then started rattling off a litany of his inventions and accomplishments.

A printer and typesetter by trade, he was responsible for authoring the first published political cartoon in the colonies, creating the first subscription library, inventing a heat-efficient stove, bifocals, swimfins, and verifying the nature of electricity among his many other accomplishments. And as one of our nation’s founding fathers, many people aren’t aware that his last public act was writing an anti-slavery treatise. He was arguably, during his era, the most interesting man in the world.

And as I thought more about his public service legacy, I remembered the Junto he created. It was a think tank of sorts. Organized by Franklin, the group was made up primarily of his friends as a structured form of mutual improvement. Members were drawn from diverse backgrounds and fields of interest, but all shared a spirit of inquiry and a desire to improve themselves, their community, and to help others.

Franklin’s Junto met once a week and conversation topics were organized around a series of questions, which became a springboard for discussion and platform for community action. Three significant concepts that developed from those conversations were the volunteer fire service, neighborhood security, and a public hospital.

Shortly after that conversation I had lunch with Sylvia Martin James, who just celebrated her 80th birthday. Before lunch we toured the Grier Pavilion next to the mayor’s office at Riverside City Hall. She wanted to share with me some of the plans for the structure that she was responsible for envisioning and then raising the money and soliciting the support to create. The structure has become a well-used venue that reminds us of the city’s history of diversity and inclusion. And it is a focal point of the downtown cityscape.

For as long as I’ve known her – over 30 years – she has been one of those civic improvement folks who I would imagine would have participated in Mr. Franklin’s Junto. And like Mr. Franklin and his group of friends, she always thinks community first. As I sat enjoying our lunch and thinking about the current condition some of our other Inland area cities are in with possible Brown Act violations, embroiled in corruption scandals, placing special interests over public good, etc. etc. etc., I couldn’t help but think of the lessons we as citizens can learn from historical figures like Ben Franklin and his Junto. There are various individuals and organizations active in the community today that like Ms. Martin James are concerned with community and civic improvement, two organizations that come to mind are The Group in Riverside and WAG in San Bernardino. They provide the platform and are constantly looking for new voices to add to the conversation, new minds to solve some of our pressing issues, and new ideas on how to engage our fellow citizens and move them to action. I hope you consider joining them.

Posing with Sylvia Martin James at the Grier Pavilion, Riverside City Hall.

Posing with Sylvia Martin James at the Grier Pavilion, Riverside City Hall.

She will be missed, but as this poem reminds us, never forgotten…

in time of daffodils (who know
the goal of living is to grow)
forgetting why, remember how

in time of lilacs who proclaim
the aim of waking is to dream,
remember so (forgetting seem)

in time of roses (who amaze
our now and here with paradise)
forgetting if, remember yes

in time of all sweet things beyond
whatever mind may comprehend,
remember seek (forgetting find)

and in a mystery to be
(when time from time shall set us free)
forgetting me, remember me.

e.e. cummings

About The Author

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