On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I had a lot of time to think about desegregation and King’s actions. Specifically, I got to thinking about his four kids, little ones that he knew were going to be put in danger because of his choices and actions, and the reactions of crazy people. I also thought about the African American children who were abused every day as they walked to the newly desegregated white school in Montgomery.
Desegregation isn’t a history lesson to me, even though I was too young for the civil rights movement. When I started high school in the early 80s, my all-white rural high school was forcibly desegregated with the neighboring black community.
“Forcibly” is a key word here. I remember mild adults in my quiet little town nearly foaming at the mouth with the idea that probably dangerous kids from the black ghetto would be going to school with their kids. They were furious at the court decision. I remember how stunned I was that people I’d known most my life were suddenly spouting racist venom.
But who would want to go to that school? People said there were knifings in the school hallways and a girl who gave birth on the bathroom floor. I’d seen the ramshackle Benton Harbor school and I knew I didn’t want to go there. My parents were fairly liberal folks who had lived in Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis, and a lot about small-town life surprised them. But they held up the rhetoric and the anger for us as examples of the ugliness of racism.
I remember when the first Benton Harbor school bus pulled up in front of the Coloma High School. They came later than the rest of us; we were at the windows watching as the new African-American teachers came off the bus, then the teens. The kids looked scared; why wouldn’t they be? There was violence; some people still remember them as “race riots”. I don’t have any memories of that.
One night, though, my band rehearsal ended at the same time as my sister Sheryl’s choir rehearsal, and she came out with a petite girl with very black shiny skin. She needed a ride home and lived in our general direction, so Sheryl offered her a ride. I remember our shy silence in the car and I thought she must be afraid. But Sheryl asked the girl normal everyday questions as if she was always driving black teens around, while I sat in embarrassed silence. I didn’t know how to break through my shyness.
I began to get scared as the girl directed us down dark roads where the houses were rotting onto the road off a street that we usually rushed through as fast as possible so we weren’t car-jacked or attacked. Rumor had it that if you stopped at a red light and black people approached, it was legal to run through the light. If there was a rumor about it, my teen brain told me it was because black people were liable to jump you on that road at any minute. I slouched down in my seat. “Do you ever eat at that Butter Burger restaurant on the corner?” Sheryl asked casually. “Are the burgers good?”
I admired my sister so much that day.
I never learned how the Coloma kids fared in Benton Harbor; we didn’t live in the part of the township that was reassigned, and I didn’t know anyone who bussed there. This week I began wondering what would have happened if we were chosen to switch schools. How liberal would my parents have been? Would they have accepted the reassignment, knowing that we could be subjected to violence and a lower-quality education?
My social justice questions go deeper.
A few weeks before my senior year of high school, my family went through an extraordinary series of troubles, and we moved from a farm in Michigan to a Rust Belt city of 70,000 in Illinois. We lived in a little apartment in a run-down, all-black neighborhood just like the one where the choir singer lived. I wasn’t allowed outside after dark, though I used to sneak down the back stairs for a cigarette when I could. The cops came around a lot and everything that went on outside my bedroom window looked ominous. I had a bad case of culture shock and homesickness and spent a large part of my life lying on my bed crying.
That year, I didn’t go to the same school as the other kids in my neighborhood. My grandma lived in the neighboring middle-class mostly-white town, and she told my mom to use her address as proof of residency so that I could attend Warren Township High School instead of one of the Waukegan schools. Grandma said I would get a better education in superior facilities and be safe from violence and drugs. I don’t know if I questioned my parents’ lack of a stand on integration, but I know I was glad to not have to deal with what sounded like a scary environment.
To be fair, my parents were divorcing, their business was failing, my little sister and my grandpa had life-threatening illnesses, and I was struggling every day with the desire to even go on living. All things considered, it was probably wise not to add any other stressors to our lives.
Two different types of segregation, two different responses. I’ll never know if my parents would have put me on the firing line for their liberal beliefs under other circumstances. I have no idea whether me going to a poor, racially diverse high school would have made any difference at all in the ongoing fight for social justice. I know I didn’t want to sacrifice my quality of education and comfort level for anyone’s civil rights ideals.
But because parents like the folks in Montgomery did make those sacrifices, and some children were physically and mentally abused as a result, many people’s lives have improved. Obviously it’s easier to make the choice to place your child in danger for your ideals when you and your family stand to benefit from it. Would I, would you stand for your ideals if you or your family would gain nothing from it but fear and danger? Would you let your children be abused so that other people’s lives might improve?