Who Was Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and Why Does It Matter? —by Jinny Batterson
After the Valentine’s Day mass shooting at a high school in south Florida, I listened to some of the early news reports. Of course, there was outrage at the taking of seventeen lives, fourteen of them students at the school. There was the customary soul-searching and hand-wringing over supposed reasons for the violence that once again had erupted in our midst.
Then I partially tuned out. I wrote yet another set of letters and messages to my NRA-indebted U.S. Senators. I commiserated with family and friends. I tried to focus mainly on small, more localized projects where I could make a positive difference.
While I tried to process this latest affront to human dignity, somewhere in the back of my mind, the name Marjory Stoneman Douglas rang a bell. Most high schools are named either geographically, or for some local educator or political figure. Why, then, did this woman’s name seem somehow familiar? After a while, I checked the internet for a biography of Ms. Stoneman Douglas. First I noticed a picture of an aged woman in a brimmed hat, holding a cat on her lap. Skimming the accompanying text, I found that Marjory had been born in 1890, an only child of a marriage that unraveled when she was six. She spent much of her childhood under the stern tutelage of her mother’s parents in Taunton, Massachusetts. As she grew up, her mother’s mental and physical health deteriorated, leading to several institutionalizations, then a death due to metastatic breast cancer shortly after Marjory graduated from college.
Always an avid reader, Marjory began writing for publication in her teens. After a brief tumultuous marriage, Marjory moved to Florida in 1915 and worked for several years at her father’s newspaper, which eventually became the Miami Herald. Over time, she established a career as a free-lance writer, penning over 100 articles and short stories, several novels, as well as the non-faction account The Everglades: River of Grass, first published in 1947.
Now the connection clicked—I’d spent a couple of vacations exploring parts of Everglades National Park, including the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas Wilderness Area. I read further into her biography. In later life, Douglas became a tireless advocate for preservation of the Everglades, earning several awards, plus the enmity of some agricultural and real estate developers. She turned 100 the year Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School opened, and lived for eight more years, continuing to write and speak about the need for good environmental stewardship. According to a local journalist who’d interviewed Stoneman Douglas several times, “She had a tongue like a switchblade and the moral authority to embarrass bureaucrats and politicians and make things happen.”
I applaud the ongoing efforts by student survivors at the school named in her honor to reimagine our national obsession with guns. I’ve heard that some of their fundraising appeals contain variations of this Stoneman Douglas quote: “Be a nuisance where it counts; Do your part to inform and stimulate the public to join your action. Be depressed, discouraged, and disappointed at failure and the disheartening effects of ignorance, greed, corruption and bad politics—but never give up.” She didn’t give up. Neither can we.