Black History and Painful Truths

February 6, 2013 30 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

This year, we swore in more than just a president, we swore in a new zeitgeist for our nation. We may cynically yawn at the president's call for a more inclusive society but we forget that exactly half a century ago, an Alabama governor used his inaugural address as a rallying cry for segregationists and as a warning shot to integrationists. "In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever," said Governor George Wallace.

The politics of interposition, nullification and confrontation paved the way for a generation of leaders to appeal to our society’s more base instincts.  We were divided along racial lines and we silently watched as brave men, women and children died in the crusade for the greater good.

Where else on Earth could a self-proclaimed leader of the free world be the home of cowards who used guns and fire hoses in attempts to douse the burning flame of liberty and freedom that did not dare to die or be extinguished?
Black History Month is here again and we are in a serious state of peril.  The war that we fight for equality and opportunity for all is still being fought in the very classrooms that James Meredith risked his life to open for students of all races and backgrounds.  To paraphrase the immortal comic strip Pogo, we have met the enemy and he is us.
In today’s classrooms, we have students of color who are generations removed from the real battles against real foes.  Instead, we find ourselves creating new bogeymen with false cries of racism.

The young man who sits in the classroom and texts away on his cell phone knows that the school district’s policy proscribes the use of electronics in the classroom.  Yet, instead of putting away his phone when asked, he decides to fight the imaginary power and calls out his teacher for being a ‘racist.’

The young woman who arrives at school in clothing that is more appropriate for the night club runs to her family and screams bloody murder when asked by an administrator to comply with the dress code.  The administrator is obviously a racist and the student is the martyr in this case as well.

This type of crying wolf betrays the real cause of the civil rights movement.  It was never intended to be an enabler for people of color to behave badly, and we find ourselves in today’s education system treating such flagrant misbehavior and misconduct as it is something that we have to accept from racial minorities.

White teachers, who have been far too long saddled with white guilt over the sins of past educators, are forced to look away or ignore the behavior that would easily have gotten a young person fired from their job if they tried to do the same in the workplace.  White teachers are automatically at a disadvantage when they try to assert any kind of authority in many inner city schools because they are forced to wear the scarlet letter of ‘racist’ that they did nothing to earn – except for being born the wrong color.

The tables have turned and this is the reason why many teachers will shy away from taking assignments in urban schools.  I am not surprised, as a black educator, that many of my talented peers would rather take the safer route of working in suburban schools where their work is appreciated and valued by a community that does not have a chip on their shoulder.

I know this mindset all too well because, when I was a young boy growing up in the suburbs of Jacksonville, Florida, I spent much of my childhood with friends who happened to attend the troubled schools in the city.

Thankfully, I was taught to respect my elders and to obey the rules.  On the other hand, my friends would proudly share their stories of how they played sadistic games in the classroom where it was their mission to undermine the authority of the white teachers who were trying to help them.

“I really showed Miss Smith when she asked me to spit out my gum,” said one friend, “I walked out of the classroom because she is not my mother.”

The damage was done, but in the wrong ways.  Yes, my friend’s defiance had its victim, but it was not the teacher who was hurt.  It was my friend who denied himself the education that taxpayers paid for and that our community went to court to safeguard.

As people of color, we pay lip service every year to the legacy of the children of Little Rock, Birmingham and Selma but our actions belie our words of reverence.  The children of the past faced real demons when they attempted to enroll in a school that happened to have better  resources and facilities than the underfunded and under supported schools they were forced to attend by fiat and bayonet.  Today’s challenges are within our community because we are quick to wage war against our schools instead of enlisting them as allies in our fight against ignorance.
What our nation needs is a Nelson Mandela.  In 1990, he was released from prison and set about a movement of forgiveness that enabled his nation to transcend the decades of Apartheid that threatened to turn South Africa into a bloodbath if the transition was not handled the right way.  The leader who could have done the same for our nation was unfortunately cut down at the height of his life in 1968.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have never supported the kind of grudges that today’s blacks hold and the type of bitterness that allows us to impede the progress that he died for.

On the other end of the civil rights spectrum of the 1960s, Malcolm X advocated for racial justice through excluding the best and the brightest men and women who did not happen to be white.  But, in a debate with the controversial figure, Bayard Rustin challenged Malcolm X to open his mind to the improvement of our nation through cooperation with all good people who wanted to move forward as a nation.

This anger, in my opinion, is not just academic.  If we continue to socialize our young children of color to disrespect authority and to flout the social conventions for the sake of scoring cool points with their peers, we are going to doom them to being the next victim of yet another police involved shooting and we are going to consign them to living on the fringes of a society that we truly aim to educate and nurture.

Have we overcome?  As long as we take for granted the accomplishments of the past and as long as we bite the hand that is trying to feed us, we have not overcome and we never will.  And, God forbid, if a real menace emerges that threatens to destroy our community based on the color of our skin, will there be anyone left who will believe our cries for help?

Editorial by By John Louis Meeks, Jr.