With each passing day I appreciate the passion and persistence of my late father, a subsistence farmer by day, trying to provide for his family, and a rural community-organizer by night, working tirelessly and dangerously to register sharecroppers and day-laborers to vote. When told by a wealthy white farmer, who made him a crop loan every year, and who held the mortgage on our small farm, that my brother should be in the field helping to get the crop out rather than being at "some dam college", my papa simply said "yes sir" and kept on working. That conversation took place around 1960. Despite endless money woes, five years later my brother graduated from college and went on to serve as a teacher and administrator in the Flint Michigan Community Schools for over thirty years. His accomplishments were monumental sources of pride and inspiration not only my family but our entire rural community. My brother was the first person any of us knew personally to graduate from college.
Although my father, brother and the white farmer are all deceased now, these incidents were at the forefront of my memory as I took a recent road trip from Bloomington, Indiana to Wynne, Arkansas, the heart of the Delta region of Arkansas, to celebrate the birthday of one of my younger brothers, who is a quiet community activists serving as pastor of one of the oldest and most vibrant black churches in Eastern Arkansas. This summer, that non-mega church will offer a free reading program to more than 500 low-wealth elementary age children, while also offering them a nutritious meal and physical activities.
My recent drive to Arkansas, referenced above, coincided with the May 17, 1954 United States Supreme Court Decision commonly known as Brown v. Board of Education. While the court decision called for an end to racial segregation in schools, "with all deliberate speed', it was not until 1974 that the Crawfordsville Schools, of which McNeil High School for colored children was a part, was finally integrated. By that time most white families had fled to church affiliated-academies established to keep white children from having to attend school with blacks. Although McNeil High was renamed Crawfordsville High, the only white students in attendance were those who couldn't afford to pay the required tuition to enroll at one of the religious academies. Parenthetically, as a child I use to wonder what white segregationists who believed in heaven and hell would do if they managed to get to heaven only to discover that it was racially integrated. Would they leave? Given the racial segregation that exists at both black and white churches, that's still a question I have today!
My recent drive along Interstate 55 South to the Arkansas of my youth took me past plantation-spawned hamlets, villages and towns with familiar sounding names from which my college classmates and I hailed: Osceola, Luxora, Turrell, Gilmore, Marked Tree, Wilson, Marion, Crawfordsville, etc. The "Whites Only" toilets and water fountains are now gone and so are the train and bus stations with separate waiting rooms. To be sure, there was nothing nostalgic about these memories, they were painful beyond measure. As we stopped for gas along the path of our drive, I saw black men who could have been my father or uncles, and black women who could have been my mother, aunts and grandmother. They looked so much like me that I wanted to ask if they knew my papa or mama!
It has been 60 years since Brown v. Board of Education and 50 years since the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed. Yet, the War on Poverty rages on amid an America that is becoming increasingly racially segregated. There is little mention of poverty these days by politicians, or even preachers for that matter. The new focus is on the Middle class. Many blacks and other disenfranchised groups who managed to escape to the suburbs and found refuge in the upper echelons of business, finance and government, appear to have forgotten from whence they came, or more importantly how they got there. Despite the lingering differences in educational attainment between blacks and whites, high unemployment and skyrocketing levels of incarceration among black men, there are those who still argue that America is in a post-racial era. Obviously, their sense of America differs drastically from the lived experiences of millions of Americans who aren't sure where their next meal will come from, or how they will resolve a health issue because the governor of their state decided not to take advantage of the Affordable Health Care Act.
As I neared my final destination in the Arkansas delta on May 17, 2014, the words of a song popularized during my youth by Mahalia Jackson, How I Got Over, came to mind. Although it's a lengthy song and Ms. Jackson never answers the question directly about how she got over, it is clear that she believes it was God who delivered her from a life characterized by sin, hopelessness and helplessness. How I Got Over is the question that every American, especially those who have been historically disenfranchised, should ask themselves. The second question, which I believe is equally as important is this: What must we do individually and collectively to help others make it over? Those of us who suffered the dehumanizing effects of educational, social and economic discrimination must never forsake our obligation to bridge the gap between hope and hopelessness for those who have little of the former and lots of the latter. Our weapon of choice must be education.
Although I can now drink from any fountain I choose and live in any house I can afford, I can still see those "White Only" signs above the water fountains and on the toilet doors. They propel me to never forget my beginnings, and to do all I can to be an agent of change for those bound by the chains of poverty and hopelessness. Papa and mama would never forgive me if I looked the other way and pretended I didn't see the injustice around me.
We should all have an occasional flashback to keep us thankful, honest and focused on making the world better for all of its inhabitants!