Back in May of 2004, I had just returned to Atlanta after my semester ended to start working for the longest of longshot bids: a liberal, African-American, anti-death penalty, pro-AWB, pro-choice Democratic Congresswoman was running for Zell Miller's Senate seat. I had interned for her the summer before, so I was thrilled to get the call to come join the full-time staff. I packed my earthly possessions and illegal cat into my pickup and drove North.
On one of my first days in the office, in walked a short, aged man wearing a beat-up "Majette for Congress" shirt, sporting a half-dozen buttons from various campaigns in Atlanta (one for Shirley Franklin, one for John Lewis, I think an old Bill Campbell one as well, at least one for Majette), carrying a Denise Majette yard sign on a picket and a tattered history book, and dripping with sweat.
That was how I met 'General' Larry Platt.
Allow me for one moment to get preachy: I've spent years working in Democratic campaigns, pulling hundred-hour weeks with no days off for month-long stretches for little or no pay. I know that there are people on this site whose records of activism put mine to shame. But 'General' Larry Platt is, without a doubt, the single most dedicated Democratic volunteer in the state of Georgia (and possibly the entire South).
Larry was dripping with sweat when he walked into that office in the Omega World Center in Lithonia because he had just walked a couple of miles from the third-nearest bus stop (after over an hour's ride) so he could come by the office, unannounced, to see if we needed any help (if we didn't, he told us, he'd just go walk up and down Wesley Chapel Road for a few hours holding the sign). Over the course of the campaign, Larry would be a frequent fixture not just in the office as a volunteer, but also attending nearly every large public event we did, walking with Denise to help it look like we had an entourage and weren't just a fly-by-night operation running on a shoestring budget.
When we got our first major shipment of yard signs in and had to assemble them by hand (we were using cheap wooden stakes instead of those metal frames), Larry volunteered to work for a bit on putting them together. We had a little storage space in the basement of the building that we used as a workshop (the office itself was so small that we were three to a room), so Larry went down into the basement around one o'clock. He worked for seven hours, putting together what must have been several hundred signs by himself. In fact--and I remain ashamed of this to this day--we had forgotten he was even down there until we were getting ready to close up the office for the day and saw his personal picket leaning in the corner. My co-worker Kendra and I rushed downstairs to find him sitting at the work table, down to almost the last few staples, looking lonely but satisfied at having knocked out such a large job.
See, Larry's among the most optimistic people I've ever known. To a fault, even: at times, his upbeat spirit would shift from infectious to nauseating. It wasn't his fault. We were an overworked and incredibly underpaid staff, banging our heads against an electoral brick wall (at the time we saw only a couple of paths to victory, all of which depended on the three-man GOP field going into a runoff and us winning the nomination outright in our seven-candidate field--when the opposite happened, and we ended up in a runoff with a self-funding millionaire and Johnny Isakson won the primary outright, that was essentially the end of the campaign as a serious attempt to hold that seat). So to have someone like the General walk in and tell us, with the deepest sincerity in his voice, that "we already won," was a little maddening. It took us until after the General Election, when everyone was sitting in a circle at a small staff meeting in Decatur, to realize that he was right--we had won, not just by becoming the first to do something once thought impossible (a black woman winning a Senate nomination in the South? without running a single TV ad in the primary? Tell me that doesn't sound like a victory worth a little savoring), but because we had actually kept going until Election Day.
At some point, Larry had shown me what was in his tattered history book. It was a history of the Civil Rights movement, and there was a very prominent bookmark sticking out of the pages. He opened to it and showed me a news photo of some teenagers staging a sit in. He pointed to a young, black man on the side of the page, staring straight ahead with a look of what I can only call fierce determination, and he smiled and said, "that's me." It took a second for the resemblance to sink in, and then all at once it was obvious: this was the same man, nearly forty years later, with a broad grin on his face that said to the world "not only was I there, but I won!"
He sometimes showed up wearing a medal around his neck. You can see it in this shot.
I'm not certain it was the same medal, but the only other person I ever saw wearing a medal like that was Rev. James Orange (whom I'd met one afternoon, along with Joe Lowery, at a small rally in Gresham Park where I stuck out like a sore, white thumb). That medal is a beacon to others that the wearer is a person who served his time, took his lumps, and came back for more, all in service of a greater cause.
And General Larry Platt has kept coming back, again and again, asking for more to do and doing what he's asked. He is the most active of activists, the most passionate of partisans, and the nicest guy you could ever hope to meet. In fact, I think the thing that surprised me most about him is that, any time we would be at a public event and another politico or public leader would come by, all of them would warmly greet Larry by name, because everyone in Atlanta political and activist circles knew the General.
I really hope that his life doesn't end up defined by three minutes on "American Idol." But even if that's his fate, I want to ask a favor of everyone reading this:
Don't laugh at him. Laugh with him, because this was seriously funny (and meant to be!), but don't dare laugh at the General. There ain't one of us who can hold a candle to him.
Because even while he was singing and dancing on television from coast to coast, he was wearing a National Action Network tee-shirt and a "Free Troy Davis" button.
General, I salute you.