Charles Albert Poland Jr. You may not know his name, but you probably know what he did. More of us likely know the name of Jimmy Lee Dykes, the anti-government “survivalist” who murdered Poland, kidnapped a five-year-old boy, and held him for six days before himself being killed by FBI agents Monday. The boy was recovered unharmed. Dykes’ name and photo have been everywhere.
A Vietnam veteran, Poland drove a school bus in Dale County, Alabama, until January 29, the day Dykes boarded that bus and told him to surrender two of the children who were in his care. Poland knew Dykes reasonably well, having recently given him a present of homemade jam and eggs. Rather than accede to Dykes’ demand, Poland instead opened the emergency door, located at the bus’s rear, and put himself between the children and the assailant. Dykes shot Poland four times, killing him, while twenty-one children escaped out the back. Although the kidnapped boy did ultimately survive his ordeal, one child on the bus stated that the gunman “said he was going to kill us — going to kill us all.”
This is my first post as a staff blogger here at In The Fray. The magazine’s ideals and goals are profound ones. We hope to help readers come to “better understand the experiences and perspectives of other people” — to develop, in a word, empathy. We hope to bring stories to your attention that explore the various forms such understanding can take. We hope empathy can inspire you to take action to make a difference in the lives of others. That’s what Poland did.
I don’t know what inspired Poland to sacrifice his life in the hope that other people’s children might live. I do know that his sacrifice represents empathy of the highest order. He could have simply done what he was told, and hoped for the best for the two children he’d turned over. He could have thought first about how best to ensure his own survival. Instead he thought about others. I can’t put into words the gratitude I’d feel if Poland gave his life to save my children.
Some people juxtapose empathy and action, arguing that the former is simply feeling someone else’s pain as opposed to doing something about it. However, I would argue that empathy is often a necessary precursor to action, motivating us to act in the first place. Thankfully, very few of us will be put into a position where we have the ability to save the lives of others by sacrificing our own. I’ll be writing about examples of people taking action to help others, or examples of inequality or injustice that call out for such action.
But I wanted to start by trying to honor a man whose actions, whose empathy for children who needed his help, cannot be adequately honored simply by words. Let us all be inspired by his sacrifice to do more for others who need our help, whether they live in our own neighborhood or halfway across the world. That’s how we best honor Charles Albert Poland Jr.
Ian Reifowitz is In The Fray‘s staff blogger and the author of Obama’s America: A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity. Twitter: @IanReifowitz