12/06/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Culture Zohn : Here's to Eddie and Michael and Barack: Three Who Have Changed the World

In 1961, New Rochelle, New York was the site of the North's first court-ordered desegregation when Judge Irving R. Kaufman of Federal District Court in Manhattan ordered the 94 percent black Lincoln Elementary school which was at the other end of my town, closed. After two years of racial tension, and school board stalling, in 1963, Eddie Vanderlip was finally on his way to our school in the big yellow school bus, all alone.

He would arrive with a smile on his face; he made being the "experiment" under the gaze of a lot of white third graders into a charmed life for all of us: happy, easy going, intelligent, unflappable, Eddie taught us that we were truly brothers and sisters under the skin.

Each day at the end of the day he would return home, again alone on his bus, to the part of town where the rest of us didn't live. Eventually, I know I came to look for that big yellow school bus as a symbol that the day would be a day like any other, that all was right with the world.

But all was not really right in the larger world. The same year, four young girls were killed in a church in Birmingham, Alabama. A year later, Michael Schwerner, whose mother was a biology teacher at New Rochelle High School, was killed along with James Chaney and Andrew Goodman as part of the Freedom Summer when they had gone to Mississippi to help register black voters.

But these tragic events were not as much on our radar as Eddie, who single-handedly started us on the road to having huge antennae for racial inequality, for the unintentional slight, for the idea that everybody should have the same chance to succeed.

By the time we got to our three thousand person high school, which was almost forty percent black, we had lived out the experiment, successfully for the most part. Though tracking did disfavor some of the black ( and Italian Americans) kids who had not had our advantages, it mainstreamed most of us into the great puddle of the middle--smart in some things, not as smart in others. Our excellent sports teams were of course filled with talented black athletes. Our cheerleading squad, alas, was almost all white. Some things were going to take more than federal mandates to get going.

But by and large, if you speak to a graduate of this system today, you will hear over and over again that it was people like Eddie Vanderlip who taught them to see the world in another way.

The faces of Eddie and Michael Schwerner came rushing up to me as I was crying last night when Barack and Michelle and Malia and Sasha came out onto the stage in Chicago, and even more when all of the Biden kids, blonde as could be, began to grin and jump on the stage too.

I thought, ok, maybe finally the last barriers separating blacks from believing they can get, and will get, what they strive for, can begin to be crossed.

If Obama does nothing else (and he must, many difficult things, right away) he will have honored all the Eddies and Michaels in the world who both lived, and died, so that he could walk out on that stage as our next president.

May we help and protect him with all our might.

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