Did you ever read John Steinbeck’s book, “The Grapes of Wrath,” about the Joad family and their experiences during the Great Depression?
During the Depression, billions of dollars were lost, and millions of people went broke. Companies closed, people had no money, and farms, overworked for years, dried up and blew away like so much dust in the wind throughout the Midwest.
It was one of the most difficult times in American history. At the very end of the movie version of Steinbeck’s book, Ma Joad has a conversation with her husband and son, Al:
“AL: Whatsa matter, Ma? Gettin’ scared?
MA: No. Ain’t ever gonna be scared no more.(After a pause) I was, though. For a while I thought we was beat–*good* an’ beat. Looked like we didn’t have nothin’ in the worl’ but enemies–wasn’t nobody frien’ly anymore. It made me feel bad an’ scared too–like we was lost… an’ nobody cared.
PA: You the one that keeps us goin’, Ma. I ain’t no good any more, an’ I know it. Seems like I spen’ all my time these days a-thinkin’ how it use’ta be–thinkin’ of home–an’ I ain’t never gonna see it no more.
MA: Woman can change better’n a man. Man lives in jerks–baby born, or somebody dies, that’s a jerk–gets a farm, or loses one, an’ that’s a jerk. With a woman it’s all one flow, like a stream, little eddies, little waterfalls, but the river it goes right on. Woman looks at it like that.
PA: Maybe, but we shore takin’ a beatin’.
MA:(chuckling): I know. Maybe that makes us tough. Rich fellas come up an’ they die, an’ their kids ain’t no good, an’ they die out. But we keep a-comin’. We’re the people that live. Can’t nobody wipe us out. Can’t nobody lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa.
We’re the people.”
These folks were typical of sharecroppers or small farmers in America. They lived off the land for generations. They were good people.
But the land dried up. They had no money and lost their farms. They migrated to find work to feed their families.
And they were treated like dirt. Nobody wanted the “Okies” stopping in their town.
Ma Joad is a survivor, though. She endured the prejudice directed toward her family, and she makes a brave statement in the end about her roots. These are the roots of all Americans.
“We, the people.” James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington—they understood the power of those words in the Constitution. “We’re the people” and “we the people” are pretty close, aren’t they?
In the years that followed, the Joads of America (and there sons and daughters) changed this country.
People like Ma Joad, and more likely her son, Tom, understood the poverty of the Depression and learned, in the end, that life is about people, especially family.
They understood prejudice because they experienced discrimination as they migrated to find work. The children of the 1930s became the civil rights workers of the 1950s and 60s.
They understood the importance of protecting the environment because they had seen what misuse of the land did. They became the environmentalists of the 60s.
They understood what the lack of a good education meant to their children. They became the champions of public education so that every child could have a fair chance.
They understood that sometimes people need help. They believed in hard work, but they had experienced the soup kitchens. They created programs like food stamps and other social programs to protect the most vulnerable.
They understood that no one should die for lack of medical care or medicine. They had seen their parents and other family members die because they couldn’t afford a doctor, hospital or medicine. They helped create Medicare and Medicaid, and they supported affordable, comprehensive health care for all.
They understood the importance of paying taxes so that America could have a strong defense and help those in need at home.
Those “Okies” (and others) that people mocked and rejected spilled their blood in faraway places like Normandy, Bastogne, and Okinawa. But they also felt that the wealthy and corporations should pay their fair share. They had seen what “trickle down” really meant during the Depression.
They understood that folks needed help in old age, and they supported social security so the elderly wouldn’t starve to death or lose their homes when they could no longer work.
They formed strong unions, so workers had a chance for a living wage. They had seen owners provide the lowest possible wages on the corporate farms they were forced to harvest. They created the middle class.
Interstate highways, national and state parks—the list is much longer.
“We, the people” made a difference. However, those brave Depression-era folks, the “Greatest Generation,” are passing. They changed our country for the better. Will others fill their ranks?
Sure they will. Like Ma Joad said, “…But we keep a-comin.’ We’re the people that live. Can’t nobody wipe us out. Can’t nobody lick us. We’ll go on forever…”
Ma and Tom Joad would be voting this November—will you?
Steve Frey is a writer and CEO of Ascendant Educational Services based in Radford.