Civil Rights Era Called for Everyday Heroes to Show Courage Against Discrimination
Some heroes are famous. Others are just quietly courageous.
The most courageous people I ever met, and admittedly never knew very well, were the handful of 14-year-old African- American students who in 1963, when we were freshmen, chose to come to my white high school rather to their black high school. They chose to be strangers in a strange new place rather than be stars in a familiar place.
In 1954, Brown v. Board of Education decid- ed that “separate education facilities were inher- ently unequal.”My typical small southern town ignored the Supreme Court. In 1970, the courts required southern schools to integrate, but, in the 1963 south, it was a choice that took real courage.
Four of my black classmates came to mind during the Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration.
Clarence passed away three weeks ago. He was a gentle giant who always recognized me with a smile, reminded me who he was, and told me to not worry about forgetting his name.
Margaret came to our 25th reunion picnic – but not the dinner – and askedus white kids to sign her yearbook. Now twenty years later, that episode embarrasses me still. No other black classmate ever came to our white reunions.
Herman was asuperstar student and athlete who excelled at football, basketball, and track. Today, he’s a doctor in New York City. During my freshman year, Key Club selected new mem- bers.It was an honor. Herman was not selected. The following year, our longest meeting was debating whether to offer him membership. We didn’t. Race was never mentioned. Race was the only issue.
My memory is vivid because as a Jew in the South, I knew how quiet – and deafening – discrimination could be. My parents and I discussed whether I should quit Key Club. I didn’t. It was easy, as it has throughout my life, to quietly hide behind my white skin and blond hair. Herman couldn’t do that.
Linda graduated number one in our class with a 4.0 average, the highest grade point average then possible. She never received the recognition that others with lower grades (like me) got. She was also – and may sue me for publishing this – drop-dead gorgeous.
Linda is a lawyer in Connecticut, now a nationally known “mover and shaker” in the non- profit world. After being a bank attorney and serving as a commissioner of the Connecticut utility regulatory agency, she became president of one of the nation's largest non-profit foundations managing $750 million dollars, more than a thousand funds, and thousands of grants.
In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. declared, “I Have a Dream,” just days before school started. Did these young heroesdecide to break the race barrier because of that speech? How do they remember those years? It can’t be good.
“Connect . . . connect . . . connect,” Dr. Zinerva White slowly repeated at my city’s MLK breakfast until the 500 of us absorbed his message and reached out to hold hands with the person next to us.
I called Herman and Linda, 50 years late, to “connect.”
In 1963, my little town had its own heroic Martin Luther Kings.