During the 1880s, Jackson County was the kind of place Margaret Mitchell wrote about in Gone With The Wind. It was a prospering, rural county, the land owned primarily by wealthy men living on plantations and owning beautiful, antebellum homes in town.
One of those men, M.L. Dekle, also owned a large department store on the corner of Caledonia and Lafayette Streets in Marianna until about 1930. As he also owned land in town, and as a Baptist with no church available, he decided to build one. He and his descendants thus became staunch supporters of the First Baptist Church, and of the town of Marianna for generations to come.
Gladys Milton married into the Dekle family after meeting John Dekle Milton, who served as Superintendent of Schools while I was growing up. Both played an important role in my life as they did for many others. Gladys, a well- educated, bright and thoughtful woman, served only briefly as one of my Sunday School teachers. Even so, she taught me the most important lesson I ever learned, one that directed the trajectory of my life.
I thought of her the first time I heard a flight attendant tell passengers to buckle their seat belts before they buckled up their children. It made sense because if the parents lost consciousness first, their children might not be able to do it for themselves. Gladys taught that “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” clearly indicated that each of us is just as important as is anyone else, so putting our children first may not always be the right thing to do.
Up to that time in my life, girls were taught to mainly focus on caring for others. Until Gladys made that statement, it had not occurred to me that if I improved my own situation in life, I would be in a better position to help others, including my own family. I started thinking about my future, and decided to be a teacher, because my own teachers, including Sunday School teachers, had been the women I most admired.
As I would not like to be abused, I tried not to abuse others, either physically or verbally. When I learned that many women and children were suffering abuse at home, I joined an effort to stop domestic violence in Atlanta, where far too many women were calling the local YWCA, looking for shelter for themselves and their children. I was surprised to learn that domestic violence occurs in every social/economic bracket.
A problem arose when I was asked to be a speaker for the group. The prospect of public speaking terrified me, but I remembered Mrs. Milton’s lesson: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I knew that if I was in an audience, I would not want to be bored; I would at least want to be informed. If I focused on what the audience thought of me, I would be dead in the water.
If I could interest them, I would be thinking of them instead of myself. That was good to know, because domestic violence is not a fun subject. Even so, after I finished my first speech, an elderly woman came to me and said, “Thank you, Miz Curtis; I surely did enjoy hearing about them battered women.”
I also remembered Mrs. Milton saying the the growth of Christianity largely began with the apostle Paul and the letters he wrote to other believers. Writing letters cost only a stamp and was easy to do, so I sent a letter to Celestine Sibley, a popular columnist with the Atlanta Constitution at that time. I wrote about the problem of wife abuse in Atlanta and of our efforts to do something about it. She printed my entire letter in her column, and after that, the phone rang off the hook with calls from people who wanted to help. Unfortunately, it also rang with even more calls from women who needed help, so we required funding. I was asked to write a letter to the Episcopal Church, using 100 words or less, describing why we needed funds. The church immediately sent us a check for $10,000!
Eventually, a men’s group was also formed to counsel men who were arrested for wife abuse. (Many women won’t press charges against their husbands, because if their husbands are in jail, they could lose their jobs and thus the ability to provide for their families.) During counseling, the men themselves reported that the root of their violence was the cultural belief that men have a right and duty to dominate and rule women.
They quoted the scripture saying that the husband is head of the wife as Christ is head of the church. As their interpretation of that Bible verse seemed the opposite of the equality that Christ had taught, I looked up the definition of the word “as.” According to the dictionary, it meant “in the manner of which.” I reasoned that if a husband was the head of his wife in the manner of which Christ is head of the church, that meant a man should be willing to give his own life to save hers.
I figured that men willing to die for their country fulfill both that scripture and others. That’s why I hold Gladys Milton in such high regard. She taught us to do right, but also to think right, and when we think right, that’s the best way I know to honor Gladys.