By Lee A. Daniels
For most of the last decade, James Robertson, a 56-year-old Detroiter, walked to work every day.
Of course, anyone who’s not been on planet Saturn this month knows that simple sentence is a gross understatement, akin to saying Brazil’s mighty Amazon River is just an ordinary waterway.
In the space of three days as January turned to February, the fact that James Robertson has walked a total of 21 miles to and from work most of his working days since 2005 became an Internet sensation, attracting legions of admirers and donations totaling at least $300,000. All because thousands of people both in Detroit and far from the Motor City recognized the quality that James Robertson embodies most of all.
That quality is resilience.
The plainspoken Robertson has said he was determined to keep the job he loved as a machine operator for a plastics molding firm that had moved from one suburb relatively near Detroit to a location farther away. So, when Robertson’s nearly 21-year-old car quit on him in 2005 and his working-man’s salary was too low for him to afford another one, and public transit cutbacks eliminated the possibility of fully commuting by bus, Robertson embarked upon the physically and mentally grueling regime of riding the bus from his neighborhood to its end point – and then walking for hours through city and suburban neighborhoods to his job.
Despite getting on average, two hours of sleep a day during the workweek, he’s never missed a day of work and he’s never been late. “I do it with no excuses,” the plain-spoken Robertson said later to one of the many news organizations that sought him out in the wake of a Feb. 1 Detroit Free Press story about him. “If you want something, you gotta go out and get it … You better go ahead and do it because your girlfriend doesn’t want to hear it, your coworkers don’t want to hear it and you got to get up and do it again the next day.”
That story was the product of a query made to the newspaper by a banker who, after seeing Robertson walking many days along his commuting route, began to give him rides for part of Robertson’s arduous trek. The publicity, in turn, led a Wayne State University student, to quickly set up an online funding campaign. The initial target: $5,000.
Now, the banker has assembled a team of advisers to ensure the windfall the story brought in will be managed wisely. Robertson himself has made it plain the windfall won’t change his simple wants and needs. “I’ve seen what happens when people get money,” he told the Free Press. “My dad, God rest his soul, he still influences me. He’s not going to let me get haughty.”
James Robertson has become a figure of widespread acclaim for two reasons. First, he’s a man who has refused to accept defeat. He refused to bow to powerful large-scale economic forces – such as those that have pushed many blue-collar and white-collar jobs away from cities and public transit cutbacks. And he refused to surrender to smaller-scale individual economic setbacks that increasingly threaten low-wage workers’ ability to get and keep jobs. Secondly, Robertson’s quiet heroism illuminates the value of work itself to human beings’ sense of themselves and their own sense of connection to the larger society. It also underscores the point that poor people and people with modest incomes don’t need tendentious lectures about that. They just need work and affordable means of getting to those jobs. In other words, James Robertson refused to be kept from his goal.
At the first level, one can say that goal is simply to keep the particular job he loves.
But there’s another meaning to the incredible saga of James Robertson. That meaning is to be found in the elements that make up that over-arching quality of resilience he possesses in abundance. Those elements – commitment, grit, and a refusal to be deterred – show he understands a profound point about human existence. It is the determination to keep trying to make our way in the world on our own terms—a determination produced not by our vanity but by our humanity.
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His essay, “Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Great Provocateur,” appears in Africa’s Peacemakers: Nobel Peace Laureates of African Descent (2014), published by Zed Books. His new collection of columns, Race Forward: Facing America’s Racial Divide in 2014, is available at www.amazon.com.