Monday, January 21, 2008

Martin Luther King Day

I don't remember exactly when I became fascinated with the Civil Rights movement. I grew up in the south just after the whole thing was "over". My parents didn't talk about it much even though they lived--both of them--in places where it directly affected them. I suspect that my mother didn't want integration or equal rights. She would never articulate that directly, but I know her parents felt that way. She felt (feels) that equal rights are important or modern, but not in any real way. She's not outraged by evidence of inequality. My dad was probably less affected, being in a smaller town. His trajectory was different. The older he got, the more he believed in the importance of equal rights--for everyone.

Going to college in Memphis, I finally got the opportunity to face the history of the south more directly. Our poor working town a little farther north and east wasn't really touched by slavery, segregation, or civil unrest the way Memphis was. On the river, embedded in the cobblestone banks, are the large metal loops used to hook boats bringing cotton to the Cotton Exchange. In my first year, I traveled through Mississippi driving by shack after shack at the edges of now fallow fields. It wasn't hard to imagine what the area had been like a century before. And driving to my grandparents in the early fall, the road was lined with cotton that spilled off of trucks. Harvested mostly by machine, it wasn't hard to imagine the fields on either side of the road filled with people filling bags with cotton.

It seemed at once romantic and horrific to me to imagine slavery. I enrolled in African-American literature classes, reading The Bluest Eye, Meridian, The Color Purple, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and more. The conversations were almost always heated. There were no black students in our class and so the conversations were mostly between the sympathetic and not. Truly academic in many ways.

But then I took a class in African American history. I wanted to learn more about the events referenced in those novels. It was the most memorable class I ever took. I wouldn't consider myself an exemplary student. I did well enough, but mostly I coasted on my natural abilities rather than putting forth major effort. In this class, however, I became obsessed. I decided in my final project to write the history of the integration of our college, which occurred just before Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in our city and after the public schools integrated. This required a lot of work on my part. I went to the public library and looked up old newspaper articles on other schools' integration processes, on the sanitation workers strike, on other events going on all around the college related to the Civil Rights movement. I tried to get a sense of what the social climate in the city was like. I interviewed all the first black students to enter our college, tape recording the sessions and transcribing them. I interviewed subsequent entering students. They all told me great stories, especially around their participation in Civil Rights activities. I can remember talking to one man and in the background, the clock was ticking, but otherwise, there was no noise except him talking, telling his story. I didn't interrupt. I barely breathed. I tried to get minutes from the board meeting where the decision was made to integrate the school. I was blocked. My professor and my father (an alum and a lawyer) both tried to help me get them. Our official history stated that on such and such a date, the board decided to integrate. And that was that. No discussion of whether the decision was contentious. Nothing.

That whole experience led to more classes. It led to my applying not just to creative writing programs, but an equal number of African-American studies programs. I continued to be fascinated, to take classes. But it was more than academic for me. I participated in protests. I did what I could to take an active role. I saw connections between feminism and civil rights. I could have just seen the Civil Rights movement as something that happened before my time and that was largely successful. But instead, digging into it the way I did, I understood that people died for their rights and that the untimely death of a key leader shortchanged the whole movement and that there's still much work to be done. People still die over racial issues. It may not be the KKK doing the killing anymore. The fight may not be about the blatant refusal to allow a black man to sit at the same lunch counter. But Civil Rights is as important an issue as ever.