On a trip to the library when he was 12 years old, Eric Motley met an elder, wheelchair bound white man.

An African-American aide at his side, Wheelchair Man, as Motley describes him, seemed as curious about about the boy as the boy was curious about the familiar-looking old man who looked as if he “was bearing a heavy burden.”

After the library closed, Motley was excited to tell his grandfather about the encounter with who he eventually realized was George Wallace, the segregationist then-Alabama governor who survived an assassination attempt during a failed presidential campaign.

Motley’s grandfather, whom he called Daddy, did not speak ill of Wallace, who toned down his racist views later in life.

“I think he changed his mind about black people,” after the failed assassination, Daddy said. “That put him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life and made him understand suffering for the first time.”

It was the most Motley remembers his grandfather saying about racism.

“My grandfather wanted me to live in the realm of hope — (having) an understanding of history for sure, an understanding of the complexities of history for sure but to live in the promise of things that could be,” Motley said during a reading from his recent memoir Madison Park: A Place of Hope, at Lemuria Books in Jackson on Tuesday.

Motley, 45, now an executive vice president at Washington, D.C.-based think tank The Aspen Institute, described the book as a memoir about place.

He describes that place — an all-black community in Montgomery, Ala., which former slaves founded after the Civil War — as where he learned that community is more important than the individual. Madison Park, the grandparents who raised him and emphasized the importance of education, and the colorful community of characters that surrounded him propelled him through his career.

Motley earned his bachelor’s degree in political science and philosophy from Samford University. As a Rotary International Ambassadorial Scholar at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, he earned a Master of Letters in International Relations and a Ph.D. as the John Steven Watson Scholar. Afterwards, he served as a special assistant to President George W. Bush.

Motley says that to understand his journey, you have have to understand Madison Park and the people who shaped it. Located near the convergence of present day U.S. Highways 231 and 152, it was founded on the site of a former plantation by ex-slaves named Eli and Frances Madison and was intended to be a safe haven from the white world.

Raised by his grandparents, Mamie Ruth and George Washington, Eric Motley grew up an only child receiving gems of wisdom that he says he still carries with him today. For example, he recalls in the book, when he was little his grandmother would hoist him in the air to hang his hat on the highest hook of the coat rack — a lesson to always reach upward. Most of all, Eric Motley embraced lessons about the importance of community and building community.

As formative as growing up in Madison Park was for Motley, he says people have to search for and build community throughout their lives wherever they are. Asked about the challenges of growing community in our polarized society in which finding common ground seems daunting, Motley believes that each person is responsible for community building.

“This lady came up to you to me tonight and said, ‘I’m rich, I’m white, I’m privileged. What can I do?’ I said there are a lot of little Eric Motleys here in Jackson. They need mentors and individuals to support them and encourage them. And not by writing checks— by showing genuine interest in being involved in their lives,” Motley told Mississippi Today after his reading at Lemuria Books.

He added: “We have to challenge each other to understand community from the context of stepping outside of our comfort zone and stepping into other people’s lives in a very intentional way. We have to seek to understand instead of being understood always.”

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Ryan L. Nave, a native of University City, Mo., served as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief from May 2018 until April 2020. Ryan began his career with Mississippi Today February 2016 as an original member of the editorial team. He became news editor August 2016. Ryan has a bachelor’s in political science from the University of Missouri-Columbia and has worked for Illinois Times and served as news editor for the Jackson Free Press.