by Susan Hawkins
If you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run…
The imagery is incredibly profound. In his poem “If”, Rudyard Kipling eloquently declares it one of the hallmarks of manhood, and we understand the analogy. RK cleverly left the details to us. We each choose what makes those sixty seconds worthwhile. The late James P. Kinney ran the distance fueled by a sense of justice, and he changed the world for the better.
His most famous poem, “The Cold Within”, is simple, straightforward and powerful, which, as you’ll soon learn, also describes the man who wrote it. When you understand the man, you’ll see why he wrote the poem. First, the story, then the poem. Thanks to Timothy Kinney, James Kinney’s son, we have insight into the man behind this now-classic poem:
The story I’m about to tell you is from my memory of the story that my mother told of that time, so the details can be regarded with reasonable suspicion, but I believe it to be generally accurate.
When I was a young boy we lived in Cheviot, Ohio, which is a township on the west side of Cincinnati, Ohio. There was still a law on the books there that a black person was not allowed on the streets of the city after dark. This was during of the civil rights movement, and my father and a group of men from his church felt that this was an outrage, so they approached the City Council to have the law abolished.
They were told that, since there were no black families in Cheviot, any black person on the streets after dark was obviously up to no good, so the law would remain. My father’s group found a family of black activists who were willing to move to Cheviot. They helped them move in and tried to make them feel at home. Then they approached the City Council again and said “Under the new circumstances, the law must be changed.”
The City Council changed the law, but they were not very happy about it. My father was really unhappy with the community and the way they reacted to the change, so he pulled out and shared with the community a poem he had written during the early years of the civil right movement; it was “The Cold Within”, a parable about the things that separate us and how the coldness in men’s hearts is a kind of death. The message was so powerful, the poem took on a life of its own.
Makes you want to know more about James Kinney, doesn’t it? But first, beautifully capturing the futility and stupidity of racism and bigotry, here is…
The Cold Within
Six humans trapped by happenstance
In bleak and bitter cold.
Each one possessed a stick of wood
Or so the story’s told.
Their dying fire in need of logs
The first man held his back
For of the faces round the fire
He noticed one was black.
The next man looking ‘cross the way
Saw one not of his church
And couldn’t bring himself to give
The fire his stick of birch.
The third one sat in tattered clothes.
He gave his coat a hitch.
Why should his log be put to use
To warm the idle rich?
The rich man just sat back and thought
Of the wealth he had in store
And how to keep what he had earned
From the lazy shiftless poor.
The black man’s face bespoke revenge
As the fire passed from his sight.
For all he saw in his stick of wood
Was a chance to spite the white.
The last man of this forlorn group
Did nought except for gain.
Giving only to those who gave
Was how he played the game.
Their logs held tight in death’s still hands
Was proof of human sin.
They didn’t die from the cold without
They died from the cold within.
The poem is in public domain, which has been confirmed by Timothy Kinney. Click here to read the full interview with Tim Kinney.