I once read a book about generational differences. The author maintained that much of how we view the world as adults is shaped by the events that took place when we were 10. I think there is some truth in that. I'm not the person I would have been if my family had stayed in Oklahoma instead of moving to Jackson in 1968 because the short time we lived in the deep South changed me forever, just as that period began to change the South itself.
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It's difficult to believe now, but for people who had grown up under segregation, it seemed normal. Many believed segregation was ordained by God. They looked to scripture in Joshua where God instructed the Israelites not to mix with the Canaanites. They referenced New Testament scriptures that talked about keeping light separate from darkness, and they genuinely believed that meant that God intended for all races to be separate, and for all time. In that atmosphere, it wasn't surprising when my Sunday school teacher and my missions leader -- both public schoolteachers -- asked us to pray that they would not be taken from their white schools to teach black children. Not surprising, perhaps, but I couldn't help but wonder how "love your neighbor" fit into the way my teachers at church saw the world.
When the community finally realized that they could no longer ignore a ruling from the Supreme Court, panicked families began searching for ways to start their own schools, just about anywhere. They started them in their homes, in abandoned buildings, and in churches. When our church held a meeting to discuss the possibility of joining the white flight movement by starting a school within the church, my dad was one of the members who spoke out forcefully against the proposal. Thankfully, the idea of a school failed.
I was blessed with parents who managed to set aside their own upbringings and who taught me that racism was wrong. When neighbors and friends abandoned the public schools, my parents held firm. We would not give in to white flight. When my dad's company picnic was held at a state park outside of Jackson and our group -- made up of white and black families -- was threatened with violence, my dad and the other company managers were forced to make the decision to leave peaceably rather than risk harm to their families. My parents used the incident as an opportunity to teach me about the ugliness of racism.
I knew that although my parents taught me the right thing, they struggled with racism themselves, as I sometimes find myself struggling with it. Each generation comes further than the one before, and while my generation didn't defeat racism, the role we played on the front lines of desegregation made it easier for the generations after us.
In recent years, I have heard my peers in Oklahoma say things like, "Busing didn't change anything." Whenever I hear someone say that, I look them in the eye and say, "I disagree. Desegregation changed everything." I remind them that we were born into a world with separate restrooms, separate water fountains, and separate sections in movie theaters. There were restaurants where blacks could not be served, parts of cities they could not enter. There were people who were murdered for no other reason than someone didn't like the color of their skin.
While the Civil Rights Act changed laws, it was integrating the schools that led to changed hearts because it allowed opportunities for interaction that otherwise never could have happened. And it was changed hearts -- much more so than changed laws -- that led to changed behavior. Today, I'm praying that God continues to change my heart where He sees I need to change.
Until next time,
"Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus replied: 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." ~ Matthew 22:36-40 (NIV)