During the past year, we have lost Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King. As I thought about the death of Mrs. King, I remembered a piece I wrote several years ago when I was still teaching in Montgomery. Let me know what you think.
“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. I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of ‘interposition’ and ‘nullification,’ one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
August 28, 1963
For those of you who don’t know, I teach high school English in Montgomery, Alabama. This fine city located right in the middle of the buckle of the Bible belt has quite a place in the history books. In the not so distant past, Montgomery seemed to be at the center of the civil rights controversy. Rosa Parks lit the fuse on a rather explosive situation when she refused to give up her seat after a tiring day at work. There is now a street in town named for her. (Maybe that was the city’s way of apologizing; I’m not sure.) George Wallace, the governor referred to by Dr. King in his famous “I Have A Dream” speech, was not just a governor of Alabama; he was THE governor of Alabama. No other person dominated Alabama’s political scene during the twentieth century as he did. Famous (even notorious) for many things, he will be remembered by many for his stand in the doorway at the University of Alabama, refusing to allow minority students to enter. Governor Wallace ruled from Montgomery, the former capitol of a nation, the Confederate States of America. In fact, I teach at a high school named for the first president of that country, Jefferson Davis. Montgomery has an intriguing history, even if it is a history that evokes both pride and shame.
So here in Montgomery, at this high school named for the president of the Confederate States, I had an epiphany last year during the month of February. In the middle of Black History month, I found myself sitting in the lunchroom at my usual table. Sitting behind me, I heard a group of students laughing and carrying on as only high school students can do. I turned around to make sure that the laughter and fun were not being had at someone’s expense and noticed something.
Perhaps I noticed this because February is Black History month, or perhaps because I was preparing to teach To Kill a Mockingbird, but I couldn’t help but observe that the group sitting at the table behind me consisted of ten or eleven African-American students and one single Caucasian. I must point out that these students were not assigned their seats. Students at JD are expected to sit at certain tables assigned to their particular class, however they do have the freedom to choose which classmates they join for lunch.
Corey decided on this day to join some of his friends for lunch… friends who are like him in many ways. Though they may have grown up in different homes with different parents and have different backgrounds, many of their experiences have been the same. They have grown up within the same culture, listened to the same music, watched the same television shows and movies… their experiences have been largely the same. These students do not know what segregation is like. Though they have grown up during a time when prejudice still exists, they have not grown up during a time when a student can be denied entry to a school based on the amount of melanin in her skin.
Corey and his friends have learned a lesson I try to teach my students each year. I have asked students if they pick out their socks based on the socks’ personality, moral fiber, and character. Of course, they always tell me no, that they pick socks based on the color of the socks in question (that, and the state of cleanliness!). Most of my students are amused by my statement. I then point out to them that judging a pair of socks based on personality, moral fiber, or character is about as smart as picking a friend because of the color of his skin. At this point the laughter usually stops and is replaced by thoughtful glances.
Dr. King had a dream. I can’t help but believe that if he was able to see Corey and his friends that afternoon in February, that Dr. King smiled at the sight. As he looked down at a table full of young African-Americans laughing and talking with their friend Corey… also known to some as George Corley Wallace, III, I am sure that Dr. King was smiling. And you know… considering the way that Corey’s grandfather’s views changed, I bet he was smiling, too.