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Bravery By Speaking Up Or Keeping Quiet?

Feb 6, 2013
Originally published on February 6, 2013 5:31 pm

Finally today I want to talk about - and I want you to hear - the voices of two women: one who is really at the beginning of her life, one whose life has just come to its end. One I had the privilege to meet. One I have not — at least not yet. But they are both women who stand for something.

And here is the first:

"Today you can see that I'm alive."

That is the voice of Malala Yousafzai. She is the Pakistani teenager who was targeted by Islamic extremists - literally targeted on the van she was taking home from school - just because she insisted on going to school and talking openly about it.

You might remember that when she was shot in the head last October, it wasn't clear at all that she would survive, even after she was evacuated to England for treatment. But she did, and she literally has lived to tell about it. She spoke out in a new video put forward by the Malala Fund, a group helping to raise money to support the education of other Pakistani girls. Here's more:

"I can speak. I can see you. I can see everyone. And I'm getting better day by day. It's just because of the prayers of people, because all the people — men, women, children — all of them, all of them have prayed for me. And because of these prayers, God has given me this new life. And this is a second life, this a new life. And I want to serve. I want to serve the people. And I want every girl and every child to be educated.

Now let me turn to the other woman I want you to hear from. She died on Monday at the age of 87. Her name was Essie Mae Washington-Williams. And she was the biracial daughter of Strom Thurmond, the late, long time U.S. Senator from South Carolina. He ran for president in 1948 on a platform demanding separation of the races — although his views on racial separation evidently didn't extend to fathering a child with his family's African American teenage maid.

The late senator never publicly acknowledged his biracial daughter, although he did offer her financial and emotional support at key points in her life. And in turn Mrs. Washington-Williams chose not to publicly expose Senator Thurmond as her father until after his death in 2003. When she finally did decide to speak out, this is what she said:

It was only at the urging my children and senator Thurmond's passing that I decided that my children deserve the right to know from whom, where and what they have come. At this juncture in my life, I am looking for closure. I am not bitter. I am not angry. In fact, a great sense of peace that has come over me in the past year.

It occurred to me that young Malala is known for what she chose to say, and Mrs. Washington-Williams for what she chose not to. And in the world you and I live in, young Malala is brave. Mrs. Washington-Williams was not.

But it also occurred to me that both are to be admired because what they wanted — really all they wanted — each in her own way, was the right to make a choice — to choose to speak or to keep silent.

I think it's worth being reminded at a time when so many of us are so careless about what we say, and the impact our words have, just how high a price some of us still pay for the simple privilege of speaking our minds, or choosing not to.

Once I decided. That I would no longer harbored such a great secret. That many others knew, I feel as though a tremendous weight has been lifted. I am Essie Mae Washington-Williams and, at last, I feel completely free.

May Essie Mae Washington Williams rest in peace. And may Malala Yousafzai live many years to tell us more...

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally today, I want to talk about - and I want you to hear the voices of two women; one who is really at the beginning of her life, one whose life has just come to its end. One I had the privilege to meet, one I have not - at least not yet. But they are both women who stand for something. And here is the first.

MALALA YOUSAFZAI: Today you can see that I'm alive.

MARTIN: That is the voice of Malala Yousafzai. She is the Pakistani teenager who was targeted by Islamic extremists - literally targeted on the van she was taking home from school, just because she insisted on going to school, and talking openly about it.

You might remember that when she was shot in the head last October, it wasn't at all clear that she would survive, even after she was evacuated to England for treatment. But she did and she literally has lived to tell about it. She spoke out in a new video put forward by the Malala Fund, a group helping to raise money to support the education of other Pakistani girls. Here's more.

YOUSAFZAI: I can speak. I can see you. I can see everyone. And I'm getting better day by day. It's just because of the prayers of people. Because all the people - men, women, children - all of them, all of them have prayed for me.

And because of these prayers, God has given me this new life. And this is a second life. This is a new life. And I want to serve. I want to serve the people. And I want every girl, every child, to be educated.

MARTIN: Now let me turn to the other woman I want you to hear from. She died on Monday at the age of 87. Her name was Essie Mae Washington-Williams, and she was the biracial daughter of Strom Thurman, the late longtime U.S. senator from South Carolina. He ran for president in 1948 on a platform demanding separation of the races - although, his views on racial separation evidently did not extend to fathering a child with his family's African-American teenaged maid. The late senator never publicly acknowledged his biracial daughter, although, he did offer her financial and emotional support at key points in her life. And in turn, Mrs. Washington-Williams chose not to publicly expose Senator Thurman as her father until after his death in 2003. When she finally did decide to speak out this is what she said.

ESSIE MAE WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: It was only at the urging of my children and Senator Thurman's passing that I decided that my children deserved the right to know from whom, where and what they have come. At this juncture in my life, I am looking for closure. I am not bitter. I am not angry. In fact, there's a great sense of peace that has come over me in the past year.

MARTIN: It occurred to me that young Malala is known for what she chose to say, and Mrs. Washington-Williams for what she chose not to. And in the world you and I live in, young Malala is brave, Mrs. Washington-Williams was not. But it also occurred to me that both are to be admired because what they wanted - really, all they wanted - each in her own way, was the right to make a choice, to choose to speak or to keep silent.

I think it's worth being reminded at a time when so many of us are so careless about what we say and the impact our words have, just how high a price some of us still pay for the simple privilege of speaking our minds or choosing not to.

WASHINGTON-WILLIAMS: Once I decided that I would no longer harbor such a great secret that many others knew, I feel as though a tremendous weight has been lifted. I am Essie Mae Washington-Williams. And at last, I feel completely free.

MARTIN: May Essie Mae Washington-Williams rest in peace. And may Malala Yousafzai live many years to tell us more.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.