The day was very familiar, just like all the others that had preceded it in the year 1862. Those in command assumed that those who had been under society's thumb for decades and centuries were broken, too broken to do anything but accept their miserable plight. No one believed that Robert, a 22-year-old slave, would dare try and liberate himself and those just like him.
It hadn't happened on this soil for more than 200 years, so why would this day be any different? Their people's spirit is broken, the oppressors thought; so broken that they didn’t even need to watch them overnight. So the three officers left, opting to sleep ashore, confident that the ship - with its brilliant, loyal negroes - would be exactly where they left it. But young Robert saw an opportunity, a choice to remain obedient to degradation or a chance to man the ship himself and launch out toward freedom.
He heard whispers in his mind.
“Robert? Where are you, Robert?
“Sleeping? This is not a night for rest.
“Are you and your people so broken that you are unwilling to see that you've been raised up for a time such as this? A time for FREEDOM, HISTORY, LEGACY!
“You haven’t learned the waters, gained nautical insight, become astute on the sea to sleep another night and wake up with the same missing spine as usual. The choice is yours: live as a comfortable coward or risk dying as a courageous and dignified man.
“Robert, where are you?
“Your family waits to be led. Your friends wait to be led. People after you that you'll never meet wait to be led. Shoulder the burden or sleep on. Rest in peace into oblivion, forgotten about from history, or perhaps die a man courageously remembered.
“Where are you Robert?
“You are here. Your time is now. MOVE!!!’’
The story of Robert Smalls is compelling. From a slave who used the C.S.S. Planter to navigate Union waters in 1862, freeing himself and 17 other Black passengers from slavery in the process, to a future politician in the House of Representatives, Smalls’ left a legacy of leadership that has been untold for too long.
Smalls could have died in obscurity and fear but instead, because of his preparation, he seized a rare moment and freed himself, his family, and his friends. Ignoring the times and consequences of being caught, he chose disobedience to degradation and obedience to human dignity and historic risk. He did not focus on being caught; he focused on the opportunity to change his situation.
Here are three things we can learn from Robert Smalls:
- You must recognize an opportunity without being told. No one told Smalls to take the Planter. In fact, everything told him not to. Yet he had the discernment to know his moment was upon him.
- Secondly, he was prepared. Taking the ship is one thing, but being able to intelligently navigate the waters and know the codes to give hostile ship captains blockading the waters is another. Smalls was learned.
- Finally, Smalls knew morally what to do despite the laws of the land not being in congruence with what should have been normal for all humanity.
We need more Robert Smalls today. Men who are prepared, who can recognize opportunity and who have the courage to take risks that lead to historic change; men who are willing to die courageously instead of live cowardly. Our generation is in search of Robert Smalls, in need of them in massive numbers, desperately calling for leaders who are ready to MOVE!
Adam is an itinerant presenter, lecturer, spoken word artist, and doctoral candidate. A.T. has spoken in over 12 countries - including Sudan, Kenya, South Africa, Greece and Palestine - conveying the peace of Jesus. A native of Detroit, Michigan, A.T. has made it through adverse circumstances, be it violence, broken homes, racial discrimination and more. A.T. has more than 17 years of experience as it pertains to preaching and teaching the peace of Jesus in ethnically-divided countries, cultures, sub-cultures and relationships. Follow A.T. on Twitter @revdrev.