Protecting freedom through good works

It’s a muggy Monday on Cherokee Drive in Greenville and some future Marines haul a lifetime of belongings into a brick ranch for a woman they’ve not met before.

Phyllis Muller has moved from Colorado for a teaching job at Blythe Academy. Her only tie to the young men is that her daughter is a Marine.

Muller has heard more times than she knows that Marines form a brotherhood and, so, faced with the prospect of unloading a moving van in a city where she knows no one, she decided to test it out.

She called for help and here they are marching toward her house, falling naturally into a straight line behind a lanky lance corporal from the recruiting station in dress blue pants, khaki shirt and white hat.

Known as poolees, these future Marines are more than helpers. They’re young men who have chosen to work every day to uphold the freedom celebrated July 4, the day 237 years ago the 13 original colonies of America declared independence from Great Britain.

All sorts of people do that very thing every day. They work for a better America. They fight for the rights of the downtrodden and oppressed, they protect the nation. They make the efforts those signers of the Declaration of Independence dreamed of when they set democracy in motion.

The concept isn’t lost on 19-year-old Edward Modesitt, who graduated from J.L. Mann Academy just a few weeks ago. In a little more than two weeks, he’ll be at Parris Island Marine Corps Depot for boot camp.

He knows how difficult boot camp will be. He knows the world is unsettled and he could be deployed overseas in conflict. He also knows he’s doing the right thing.

The day last September he learned he was accepted into the Marine Corps was a proud moment to be sure, but it was more than that, he said. It was a chance to do something, join something, bigger than himself. A chance to stand up, to make a difference.

Fellow recruit Clayton Salvato knows the feeling. At 22, he’ll be a week behind Modesitt, whom he’s gotten to know through the physical training poolees do at least weekly in the time before they report to boot camp.

His father and both grandfathers served in the military. One grandfather died in Florida testing a military airplane. Salvato has heard about him for as long as he can remember even though he died long before he was born, a hero, a pilot. He knows danger can come from the most unexpected places.

“I know I’ll have the best training available,” he said. “I’ll be ready no matter where they send me.”

Salvato said he has jumped around between jobs since he graduated from Greer High School in 2009. Construction, retail. He wanted more. His dad tried to talk him out of joining the military, but Salvato was drawn to the Marines. Brotherhood. Country.

Lance Cpl. Austin Burke said Salvato and Modesitt face the most grueling 13 weeks of their lives. Marines say however tough a recruit expects boot camp to be, it’s worse. Constant work, intense physical training, mind games, screaming, shouting. They lose their voice by the end of it. No excuses. No “I can’t do it.”

“They walk out an adult and a Marine,” said Burke, who is 20. He’s been in a year and a half. A Greenville native, he has traveled to Japan, Korea and has most recently been stationed in Hawaii. He tried college at Greenville Technical College.

“I wasn’t there mentally,” he said.

Now he’s more disciplined, financially secure with a full scholarship to college when his commitment ends.

“Everybody looks to NFL players as heroes,” said Modesitt. “To me, my heroes are in military uniforms.”

Civil rights

Elaine Means had just finished her first year at North Carolina Central University in Durham when she and seven others walked into the Greenville public library, sat down and started reading quietly. It was 1960. The group would become known as the Greenville Eight. Perhaps not as widely known as the Little Rock Nine who integrated Little Rock Central High three years before, but significant to Greenville nonetheless.

By summer’s end the library had been integrated.

Means remembers that they spread out to different parts of the library. She sat in the periodical section with Jesse Jackson, reading a magazine. They all were arrested for disorderly conduct but the charges were dropped.

There were other demonstrations that summer. James Carter remembers standing at the lunch counter at Woolworth on Main Street. He wasn’t afraid, he said. Resolute would be a better way to describe his feelings.

He was arrested and a picture of him being booked ran in The Greenville News. It’s an iconic image, a thin young man, standing quietly between two white officers, so much so it’s been used in subsequent publications about the movement. In time, a group of white men would hammer a five-foot cross outside his parents’ house and set the cross on fire. Carter’s father would be fired from a local mill because of the son’s involvement in the movement. His uncle would have to leave Greenville for fear of being harmed. He’s lived in Detroit ever since.

Jackson, too, would leave Greenville and become a nationally known civil rights leader, and Carter and Means would press for improvement in the lives of others through their work and mentorship.

After graduating from college, Means worked with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, where she learned a smile transcends any language barrier. As a social worker for New York City Social Services, Means processed public aid and tried to encourage people to get off assistance with hard work and perseverance.

Eighteen years later she returned to Greenville, thinking she was just passing through, but stayed. There was work to be done. She was the first woman and first African American to run for water commissioner when she challenged a 16-year incumbent who had never faced opposition. She didn’t win, but achievement is not always about winning.

Carter graduated from Sterling High, then attended South Carolina Area Trade, now Denmark Technical College, in Florence. He worked for a time for others before starting his own contracting company. He and Means were in the business together for a time.

Carter worked to get county recreation teams integrated. It took a year, but it happened.

“The kids weren’t the problem. The adults were the problem,” he said.

His family was instrumental in establishing Happy Hearts Park, believed to be the first park in the state built by African Americans.

Thinking about what freedom means after all these years and struggles, Carter said, “Freedom ain’t free. Somebody had to pay for that.”

Carter and Means said much of what has driven them grows from a sure spirituality instilled by their parents.

“We are all endowed by our creator to do what we’re gifted to do,” Means said. “To make things better.”

The concept of freedom is particularly interesting to Means. It’s shaped her life. She knows freedom hasn’t been fully attained and to the greatest extent can never be.

“One doesn’t always get what one wants,” she said.

But that doesn’t mean stop trying.

“Health care, the right for people to live as they choose,” Means said. It begins at the ballot box and continues with educating young people about what was and what could be.

She marked her 71st birthday Wednesday. She looks back with pride at what’s been done and with conviction about what’s left to do.

Good counsel

Attorney Steve Henry’s first foray into challenging the system came long before he went to law school. It was after a storm destroyed the seawall at his family’s Lake Huron home. His father sought reimbursement from the state to rebuild. The state responded there was no evidence the seawall existed.

Henry dug out some photos, drove to Detroit and got the payment.

He’s been fighting ever since, especially for people arrested for crimes who lack the means to pay for an attorney.

“If you care about the constitution, you care about the rights of the indigent,” he said.

He established Law in Action in 2002 to reduce overcrowding at the Greenville County Detention Center. Henry had discovered that much of the overcrowding was because defendants couldn’t afford lawyers, making it commonplace for people accused of misdemeanors such as shoplifting or disorderly conduct, which carry no more than a 30-day jail sentence, to be incarcerated as long as six months. Law In Action provided the legal counsel to get them out of jail in a timely fashion.

Law In Action brought it to the attention of the state’s highest court, and Chief Justice Jean Toal issued an order mandating that no one spend more than 30 days in jail for a 30-day offense.

The group also provided lawyers to parents whose children were expelled from Greenville County schools and staged moot courts for young people to learn about the legal process.

Most recently, Law In Action has provided volunteer lawyers — some of Greenville’s top-name criminal defense attorneys — to represent indigent people charged with misdemeanors. Greenville County is the only county in the state to provide lawyers to indigent defendants charged with misdemeanors.

Public Defender John Mauldin said in his circuit — the 13th — he is committed to providing such representation. The volunteers take 100 to 200 cases a year, leaving a manageable 400 cases a year for his staff attorney.

Mauldin knows many people don’t understand what he does, what Henry does or any other lawyer who represents defendants. He estimates he’s heard the question “how do you represent guilty people?” a thousand times. And when there is a death penalty case in Greenville County, he’s often the one sitting in first chair on the defense side. Some call him the lawyer for the damned.

And to him, it’s a privilege and responsibility.

“What we’re actually accomplishing in the courtroom is, we are upholding the standards of our criminal process for the protection of the innocent,” Mauldin said. He drew out the word innocent, for emphasis.

When he looks back at a defendant in the courtroom, he sees not only the person accused but also his neighbor or grandchildren or people at a family reunion. He’s making sure their rights and relationship to a powerful government are protected.

“If the only time you want your rights protected is when you’re charged, you won’t have any rights,” Mauldin said.

He learned this lesson as a young law student at Emory University working as an intern at the legal aid office. He saw pretty quickly how easily a person’s rights could be trampled without representation.

Forty years later, he feels that even stronger. That’s not to say the legal system is flawed or to point blame at any one person or agency. It is the way of the world. People often don’t know their rights unless someone tells them.

On this July 4, Mauldin said, it is so appropriate to talk about our relationship to our government.

“I don’t do it because somebody has to do it,” Mauldin said. “I want to do it.”