Fifty years ago today, I wasn’t quite old enough to understand the significance of the massive gathering taking place on the mall in Washington, D.C. Nor was I old enough to understand the magnitude of the sweeping movement kindled by the refusal of a solitary Birmingham woman to yield her seat on the bus. However, a couple years later, I was old enough to figure out what I needed do in an awkward situation.
A new kid had joined our seventh grade class. It wouldn’t have been all that unusual, given that every fall the new homeroom teacher would introduce a new kid or two, but, this new kid was the “Ruby Bridges” of Rose Fanning Elementary School in St. Louis. In 1965, the same year as the Selma-to-Birmingham voting rights march, K.R. single-handedly desegregated our all-white school. I haven’t a clue what the teacher or any of the other students thought about his arrival because no one ever mentioned it. I do know that I was fascinated by it.
I had heard enough racist comments through media and from adults in my world to understand the negative stereotypes. Yet within the first month or so, this young man managed to bash all of them with his dignified demeanor, superb elocution, academic prowess, razor sharp wit and, my personal favorite, probably the finest penmanship in our class. To top it off, K.R. was warm and engaging and made friends easily.
Every school year the P.E. staff taught a six-week unit of square dancing sandwiched in between units of tumbling and basketball, etc. It was the only co-ed unit. I always enjoyed learning the square dance calls and mastering the new dances, so I was really looking forward to it. We entered the gym that first day and the teachers instructed the girls to line up on one wall and the boys on another, and then each boy was to ask a girl to be his partner for the duration of the class period.
Now, you’d think that the big people — in this case, the teachers — would have had the foresight to coach us as to how to handle the very next scene in the script: K.R. was the only African American in the class and if he was going to participate in the unit, he was going to have to select a white girl to be his partner — there was no other option. Maybe the awkwardness of this situation hadn’t occurred to the teachers beforehand, because it surely hadn’t occurred to me, but one sort of expects the big people to be a little more on the ball. The instant I saw him walking in a straight line toward me, I realized I had a dilemma.
Using arguments that sound dreadfully absurd nowadays, the church my family attended had a “separate-but-equal” position on civil rights. This meant that if I accepted K.R.’s invitation to dance with him I would do so in defiance of the church’s teaching. There might even be repercussions for my parents, should I be found out. To make matters worse, I also suspected my dad wouldn’t have wanted me to do it either. (Many years later, he and I would have a talk about this). Needless to say, I was a little nervous standing there.
Yet, as soon as I was face to face with K.R., I had no doubt about what to do, despite the religious dogma of my upbringing. In a split second, without giving it another thought, I said yes and took his hand. And for the next six weeks, at the beginning of every P.E. class, K.R. made the same bee line for me and I accepted every time. I guess he figured he shouldn’t change a winning ball game — at least he knew he wouldn’t be rebuffed. While I knew it was right, it wasn’t necessarily comfortable. I wondered if the other kids thought we were an item. (No other boy danced exclusively with one girl for the whole unit.) I wondered if he secretly wished there were at least one African American girl in our class to relieve the pressure of having to navigate uncharted waters. I wondered what might happen to me if my parents or other kids in our church who also attended my school found out what was going on.
Yes, I wondered, but it didn’t change anything, because here’s the deal: by some inexplicable grace, I somehow concluded that, while I needed to respect my parents, ultimately, I didn’t answer to them. Nor did I answer to some crotchety local pastor. I even concluded that I didn’t answer to denominational muckety-mucks. Nope, I possessed a strange but quiet assurance that eventually, on the far side of the Pearly Gates, my case would be heard by a loftier tribunal and my position vindicated. I believed my refusal to further wound the heart of a young man abandoned between a rock and a hard place would be validated.
Just yesterday I attended the screening of a new documentary on the life of a civil rights activist in our own city of Columbia, Elliott Battle. This gentle yet determined man paved the way for others in many situations: he was the first African American faculty member at the all-white high school, the father of the first African American students to attend their local elementary school, the first African American home owner to desegregate an all-white neighborhood. These firsts didn’t come without a cost. The film shared the reality of those times and the pain visited upon his family. (On one occasion, their beloved dog was shot by an antagonistic neighbor when it got loose from its leash and ran onto the man’s property — in full sight of their young son.) In one part of the film, Mr. Battle explained that the children who led the way in the desegregation of schools were referred to as the tender little warriors of the civil rights movement. Hearing that phrase for the first time brought a tear to my eye and a lump to my throat. Later it occurred to me: I myself had a close encounter with one of these tender little warriors.
So, K.R., wherever you are, I acknowledge that probably more often than not, the role you filled was less than thankless. And today, on this special anniversary, I thank you for giving our class a real-time lesson in race relations by letting us observe you up close, for just being yourself and inviting us to interact with you. Thank you for having the courage to blaze a new trail in our school and making it a better place.
And thank you for calling forth the better person in me.