November 26, 2011

Change, One Step at a Time

I've been thinking about the part of my childhood spent in Mississippi over the last several months. It was over 40 years ago, but it many ways, it seems like yesterday. "The Help" brought back many of the memories -- a combination of fond memories specific to Jackson, and others that reflected the ugly face of racism that could be found anywhere.

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.

Source: Google Images
The year I was 10 was the year that Jackson's public schools were closed for two weeks in January for reorganization. When the schools reopened at the end of the two weeks, they were no longer segregated...for the most part. My school was the exception with no black students that year, but we did have black teachers for the first time. At that point, we had lived in Jackson almost 18 months, and most of that time had been permeated with talk about whether or not Jackson could avoid integrating the schools. Most of the talk was awful, and it was hard to escape, even at church.

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)


  1. Wonderful post, and a topic that is still very relevant today. I wish I could say that being in born in 1982 means that I can't imagine how our society could ever think segregating people was right. I think we see all to clearly that there are still people who segregate themselves from others based on race, religion, country of origin and sexual orientation.

    I join you in the prayer that God continues to open my heart too.

  2. Well said... as a product of the South, i understand completely the stereotypes and prejudices that remain, even in current times. And I am glad that we stopped trying to justify our prejudices with scripture, and began reading the scripture for truth. Hopefully, we can continue that practice to learn to love one another in every area of existence...

  3. I was remembering a line from an old tv show called "Julia". Corey (her son) wrote a poem...

    Roses are red
    Violets are blue
    Why can't people
    Be colors, too

  4. Wow I can't imagine living in Jackson during the Civil Rights Movement! How interesting!

    I've often wondered how I'd feel about it if I'd been born in my grandparents' generation. It's easy to look back on it now and see racism was wrong, but hindsight is 20/20.

  5. Great post Margaret! Sometimes it takes the children of each new generation to forge the bonds of understanding.

  6. Thanks to all of you for your comments. I wish we were further along, but it takes times. We look back and wonder why it takes people so long to do the right thing, but so often it takes generations to put things in perspective and to see clearly. I wish it came more easily to all of us.

  7. how did i miss this jewel! i think desegregation changed
    everything, too, even though it was painful at the time. i
    used to thank the Lord i wasn't a cheerleader in 7th grade.
    (remember the 'jumpings' in the bathrooms?)

    i can remember sitting in my school desk, frozen in fear,
    as a young black girl played with my hair. she had never
    touched hair like mine, and i had never been touched by
    someone of her color.

    we became friends. today, i feel so comfortable with
    people who don't have skin like mine.

  8. Oh yeah, 7th grade was an experience, beyond the normal junior high stuff. It was interesting going through it in Jackson in early 1970, then again in Tulsa in the fall of 1971. In each city, it was most difficult for the minority race, although it wasn't a piece of cake for anyone. Hard as it was, I'd do it all over again in a heartbeat.