Issues. Events. Principles. Values.
They pulsate like sparks illuminating the waking hours of Lois and Brown Pulliam. That’s the way it has been over more than 65 years of marriage.
Bedford’s 2021 citizens of the year, in good health and still completely invested, are associated with the fabric of so many town institutions. The Library. The League of Women Voters. Bedford METCO. Cable television. First Parish. Historical Society.
Where did their passion originate?
One explanation is that the Pulliams were grounded in political action. “We came from families that had a more than average interest in politics,” Lois related. She mentioned her husband’s grandmother, who displayed crossed Confederate flags on the wall behind a loveseat at home but was an “adamant Democrat” and raised money for presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson.
“So even when we met, we had similar interests,” she continued. “And as long as we have been together, we have been active in every election.”
More broadly, “We had interests,” Brown said matter-of-factly.
One of them has been fighting injustice. It was a visceral emotion for Lois. As a child, “I can’t remember our family talking about it much,” she said, noting that in her hometown of Irvine, KY, there was no high school for Black children. “I knew that was wrong.”
During her student years at the University of Missouri, the Black man who was in charge of buildings and grounds had a Ph.D. There was no teaching option for him. “That was nuts,” Lois said, and in that community, “Clearly there were people who knew discrimination was poisonous.”
Early in their Bedford experience, Lois related, “When we discovered that Blacks and Jews could still have a hard time finding a house, that was upsetting.” The Pulliams discovered that some local churches were working on the same issue; from that was born the Bedford Human Relations Council.
An early issue that gripped both Pulliams was Bedford schools affiliating with the METCO program, which transports minority inner-city students to suburban districts for education. The local League of Women Voters advocated. So did some of the churches.
“I went to talk to the superintendent of schools,” Lois recounted. “This was good for whites. We needed this.” Boston students attending suburban schools represent “a huge sacrifice for those parents. It’s not a huge sacrifice for us in Bedford.” The School Committee voted to join the program in May 1974.
“About 100 percent of our race problem is still a white problem,” Brown mused. “It always has been a sad thing that the city of Boston- supposedly intelligent people- could not evolve in their own city good education for all of its children.”
Lois displayed a folder replete with newspaper clippings and printouts – a resource for a new First Parish women’s discussion group, including some “Southerners,” with which she has been active for several months. Their reading list ranges from James Baldwin to Isabel Wilkerson.
“We’re meeting every month and we share these good books and discuss them and talk about our own experiences growing up,” she said, recalling that in school, “We never really talked about what happened in Reconstruction. Now some states are using the law not to teach it because they don’t want their students to know.”
“I was interested in higher education for women because women were having a harder time getting into graduate school,” Lois continued. Brown chimed in, “Her family had a lot of teachers.” “Teaching was important,” Lois agreed. My father was superintendent of schools.” Anyway, she summarized, now there are more women attending college than men.
“As a mother of six, I certainly believe in women having a choice. That hasn’t stopped being a problem,” Lois said. She commented, “If you don’t believe in abortion then you shouldn’t have one.”
Sometimes issues overlap, the Pulliams pointed out. “Climate change crosses into discrimination because what we’ve done is filled our cities with less good housing, less good health care,” Lois commented. “You can’t fix everything about climate change if you don’t fix inequity.” Back in 2016 Brown and others were arrested for trespassing in an act of civil disobedience protesting a proposed pipeline through residential West Roxbury.
Asked if it is a challenge to balance investing in local, state, and national causes, Brown replied, “Very much so.”
There’s no time or inclination to reminisce or pass the baton. “I’ve never done something that I couldn’t envision myself doing with twice the effort,” Brown acknowledged. “I haven’t been into huge self-sacrifice. And that’s always been on my mind.”
Every day, he continued, “usually 60 or 70 appeals or causes or important issues land in my inbox. Sometimes I let them sit there a few days and maybe I will have time… Making this choice about what to do and how much to do has been part of our lives. We don’t talk about it over dinner but it’s a constant feeling.”
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 781-983-1763