Civil Rights in One Lifetime

February 24, 2015

Santa Fe

We are these days mightily concerned with race relations. From Ferguson, Missouri, to Chicago, to Staten Island, smoldering suspicions, stereotypes, and ignorance today fuel the flames of intolerance. So much has yet to be done until we reach the time that Martin Luther King described as a day when we will judge a man not by color of his skin but by the nature of his character. That is still a distant goal.

Still, having said that, the last 60 years mark a progression in race relations that is worth at least noting, and perhaps even celebrating.

After the Korean War broke out in 1950, my father was recalled to the service and sent to London. In September 1951, my mother and I moved from Littleton, Colorado, to London to join him.  In 1952, the US military decided to open a new high school there. I was at that time 16, vice president of the American teenage club of London, and having been in town already for a year I was asked to host and organize a dance for the new kids who were coming from all over England to go to the new high school. We had a clubhouse in downtown London in the garage of the now famous Winfield House. Our teen club mimeographed invitations and distributed them through the high school.

I had at the time a girlfriend named Tora and she was pretty special.   Her father was a general however, and so I had to be just a little careful. Then one night when I was at home, midweek before the Saturday night dance, I got a call from Tora’s father, the general. We had one phone in our flat, in the hallway. My parents were sitting in another room and heard me answer the phone, "Yes, sir,” I said nervously.  I had never had a conversation with a general.  I was worried that maybe this one thought I was too friendly with his daughter.

But the phone call was not about that.

The general said, in a deep southern accent, "Craig, I understand that you are responsible for the high school dance this coming Saturday."

"Yes sir," I said.

"Well that's very nice, son, and I am sure everyone will have a good time. But you are not going to invite any of those Negra girls or boys to that dance, are you?"

I was unprepared but managed to stammer: "Sir, we sent flyers to everyone in the school and we do have some Negro kids, so they have been invited too."

The general lectured me:  “Mixing races is not the job of the U.S. military.  Further, you are not the right person to be doing this. If it is going to be done it will be by some higher authority, not you.”

I said that I guess that that was right but that the invitations had already been distributed and I did not believe that I could send out another flyer telling Negro kids not to come.  Something about that was just not right. 

“If you do this, a lot of fine people will stay away,” he said.  I knew he meant his daughter Tora, and that hurt.  She was really good in a clinch. 

After about ten minutes of this exchange my mother figured out what was going on and came tiptoeing through the hallway and whispered in my ear, "Hold your ground!"

So I did.  And a second time just when I was running out of words my mother came sneaking through the hallway whispering: “Hold your ground.”

So I did, and the general did, and the whole matter eventually went up to the commanding general of the Third Air Force. The top general overruled the lower general who was, until that day, the father of my girlfriend, and the dance went off as planned. We did have an integrated dance, the black kids danced with the white kids and that was good.  But the general’s daughter did not come to the dance and I don’t know that I ever saw the lovely Tora again. 

Two years later, in 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States decided the case of Brown vs. Board of Education. All over the country at the time, north and south, schools were segregated, either by law or de facto, by practice, and the Supreme Court ordered, in effect, that schools should progress toward integration of blacks and whites "with all deliberate speed."

The Brown decision was a blockbuster. It was resisted not only in the South but also in places like Denver, Colorado, which was theoretically not segregated at all. In the north, school districts had managed by the rearrangement of boundary lines that tracked housing districts to keep schools in one part of town substantially filled with blacks and Latinos and in other parts of town with whites. The explanations were that the districts were not segregating, that it was only a matter of housing patterns, and that there was no intent to segregate at all. Without intention, who could be blamed?

That excuse was not effective in districts that had been segregated by law and thereafter many federal courts ordered relief for southern districts that had been intentionally segregated.  In order to overcome the housing patterns some districts initiated programs of school busing, moving mostly minority students across town to integrate with white students.  White parents were furious.

In some cases there was violent resistance. Then in 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed and riots erupted in Watts, Detroit, and Washington DC.  In my hometown of Denver hundreds gathered at the capitol, singing and carrying candles. Hoping to avoid violence in our town, I was drafted to join a team to sue the school district in Denver for what was called de facto segregation, which we said was intentional, even though it was not caused by statute.  With some investigation our team found out that we could show, in Denver, that black kids were being bussed past white schools in order to put them, or keep them, in black schools. Special temporary units were erected in overcrowded black districts in order to keep those black kids from spilling over into white districts. Black kids who performed at the level of the 18th percentile nationally, were patted on the head with words to the effect that "the 18th percentile is as good as can be expected from these children in these conditions." White kids in other parts of the district were achieving at the 65th or 70th percentile, but the black kids achieving only at the 18th percentile level were praised and told, in effect, not to expect to be competitive. As late therefore, as 1969, even a city like Denver indulged a culture of supposed inferiority that was blind to inequality of opportunity in minority schools. 

So here I was in Denver in 1969 and 1970, suing to integrate Denver’s schools. Before long, our plaintiff's house was bombed. The blast ripped off his front door and blew out his windows. Then 27 school buses were destroyed with a dynamite cord that ran from one bus to the next. Denver, Colorado, was generally thought to be a northern city of racial tolerance. It might have been northern, but still someone blew up 27 school buses and our plaintiff's house. As late as 1969, racial prejudice in the schools, and socially, was not limited to the south.

Still, there was progress. In 1973 the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of our Denver plaintiffs and the Denver schools began to integrate.

Now comes 2008 and Barack Obama is elected president of the whole United States. Fifty-six years after the Air Force general would not allow his daughter to dance with black people, the country had come so far as to elect a black man president.

Immediately, however, before Barack Obama was even sworn in, Senator Mitch McConnell from Kentucky announced that he would do everything in his power to see that the new president was not elected to a second term, and commentators like Rush Limbaugh announced their intention to do everything they could do to make Barack Obama fail.  To ignore that race played a major factor in the disabling of the Obama presidency would be naïve. Racism is still a major factor in American culture.

Progress has been slow, but to say that nothing ever changes and that no progress is ever made is to ignore this steady leaning or bending of history toward justice. In 1952, a general decides to stop a school dance, but is overruled. In 1954 the Supreme Court requires schools to be integrated. In 1973, in Denver, the Supreme Court requires a northern school district to desegregate even when it denied that it had ever done so.

There were other changes, too.

In that same year, Morgan Freeman went back to his hometown of Charleston, Mississippi, population around 2,100 to issue a challenge.  Freeman is an Oscar winner, somebody special, but now he comes home to Charleston, stands up on the stage in front of the assembled senior class and challenges them to hold an integrated senior prom. High school classes were integrated but not the big dance at the end of the year.  These had always segregated, one for whites, another for blacks. Now Freeman stood on the stage and made them an offer: “You plan an integrated prom, and I will pay for it.”

"Why are you doing this?" one student asked.

"Because this separation is the silliest thing I've ever heard of," Freeman responded.

And so they did it. 

So amidst all the turmoil of modern times we might still reflect:  When, even in Mississippi, black kids and white kids can dress-up, looking like a million bucks, and head off together in their stretch limousines to an integrated dance, this is not trivial. These kids in 2008 knew and celebrated the fact that they were making history and they relished it.

Now we say, and we know, that culture changes slowly and we can see that in the American South, as evidenced by Mitch McConnell and his associates, culture changes very slowly indeed. But if in one lifetime a person can look back and see the difference in two high school dances, one, in London, that could only be integrated by order of a commanding general and another, in Charleston, Mississippi, that was integrated by decision of the students themselves, it would be a shame not to notice that some things do change.