Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Love Wins

Nonviolence is absolute commitment to the way of love. Love is not emotional bash; it is not empty sentimentalism. It is the active outpouring of one’s whole being into the being of another.” –MLK
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." –MLK

When I was in 2nd grade at the Meadowfield Elementary School in Columbia, SC, there was one black boy in my class. He and I called one another “best friends”. We played together at recess. We were the two fastest runners in our grade. He never saw my house and I never saw his. That was 1968, the year Martin Luther King was assassinated.

Two years later the courts ordered Columbia to desegregate its public schools. Most of our neighbors chose to send their kids to private schools, but my parents put me on the bus to Atlas Road Elementary, a run-down facility in the heart of an all-black neighborhood. One of my friends’ moms prepared me for my first day by telling me that she’d seen people “defecating in the roadside ditches” along Atlas Road. My parents, however, had taught me that we were all the same inside and I was thankfully young enough that I took them at their word.

I’m pretty sure my “three R’s” education was sub-par that year: to this day South Carolina’s public education system ranks near the bottom. But that wasn’t the point of desegregation. The point was to have black and white kids grow up together so that they could learn through experience what my parents had taught me: we’re all the same.

In fact it was economics more than race that marked the year for me. I was disappointed almost to tears when we exchanged Christmas gifts (each child brought one gift to be randomly distributed) and I wound up with a pair of socks that appeared used. And race certainly didn’t stop Shirley Jeffcoat from having a very embarrassing public crush on me. We were just kids together. We were all the same, except some of us were a lot poorer than others.

When I spoke to my Pre-K kids about Martin Luther King yesterday, I told them about segregated restaurants, schools, and water fountains and they agreed it was unfair. Katherine, in particular nodded along with me. She looked like she couldn’t believe what she was hearing. When I said, “And today we try to be fair to everyone,” she looked relieved. When I said, “Martin Luther King’s dream has come true,” she blurted out, “It did!”

I believe that we have solid of evidence that his dream has come true. Racism has not been eradicated in our country, but it’s in full retreat. Racists are decisively in the minority and polls indicate that it’s an ever-shrinking one. And it’s only going to get better because our children are growing up in this world we’ve created, not the one in which we grew up.

The experiment of desegregation and civil rights worked and I’m proud that my parents had the courage to make me a part of it. It’s no accident that just as the “desegregation generation” comes of age, we elect our first black president. I am aware of no other nation in the history of the world that has elected a member of an ethnic minority as its supreme leader.

This was the final battle of the Civil War. Non-violence and love win.

Love is not “emotional bash.” I’m more confident today than ever that love is the most powerful weapon in our arsenal. As MLK said, “I am convinced that love is the most durable power in the world. It is not an expression of impractical idealism, but of practical realism. Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, love is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. To return hate for hate does nothing but intensify the existence of evil in the universe. Someone must have sense enough and religion enough to cut off the chain of hate and evil, and this can only be done through love.”

As we celebrate today, we should feel good about ourselves. We have cut off one chain of hate and evil. But racial justice is only the first part of the mission MLK set before us. The poverty I glimpsed in that 4th grade classroom is still with us, and there are still too many who think war is the solution.

Poverty and peace are next on our nation’s agenda: problems just as impossible to solve as overcoming racism in America. When the bus pulls up in front of our home, we must have the courage to put our children on it. We must fight evil with love. And we must not despair that we will not win in our lifetime, but maybe, just maybe, our children will see the promised land.

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Eternal Lizdom said...

This is one to share- and share it, I will. Beautifully said, Teacher Tom.

Launa Hall said...

What a great tribute to Dr. King's dream. I admire your parents for doing the right thing in a tough climate.

Floor Pie said...

I still see a fair amount of racism in our community, but it's much more insidious. I remember overhearing two African American men talking on the bus one time ... the older Seattle native was welcoming the younger guy who'd just moved to the city, and he warned him "They've got some sneaky white people up here!" I'm inclined to agree.

I believe it was a Queen Anne family that took their case all the way to the Supreme Court (and won) to get rid of affirmative action in public school assignments. And now, Seattle's new Student Assignment Plan scraps whatever attempts at integration were left, making sure that students can only attend their neighborhood schools. (Bad luck that most of the sought-after "good" schools happen to be in mostly white, affluent neighborhoods.)

Meanwhile, our own preschool is not what I'd call racially diverse. Yes, it's a reflection of neighborhood demographics (and, again, our preschool is located in an affluent neighborhood). But NSCC co-ops don't work very well for famlies who don't have a stay-at-home parent, nanny, or a generously flexible workplace. (Which has more to do with class than race, but still.)

All this to say: There's still work to be done. Segregation is illegal, but there are plenty of social forces that still keep it in place.


Lovely post Tom. You are a great teacher.

Jenny said...

I love talking to young children about MLK because the concept of such a segregated world is a hard one for them to wrap their heads around. This is especially true in my highly diverse elementary school. They are so accustomed to being together they can't picture a world separated by race. That always gives me hope.

kristin said...

you are keeping the dream alive.

thank you.