I was born in 1930 in a Jewish ghetto in the south Bronx of New York City at a time when people clustered in ethnic, racial and religious enclaves to be with those like themselves. I missed being born in Harlem by six months because my folks moved to the Bronx and Harlem has always been on my mind and was the first place I taught school. The Negro was not part of my daily life. My “enemy” was the Irish who lived in the next ghetto area and, to a lesser degree, I disliked German Jews who were economically above we east European poor people. The first “different”person in my class was Joseph Jelik who was a Christian and a stranger to my way of life but since he sat next to me we became friends.
I entered the United States army in 1951 during the Korean War and due to lost orders I wound up in Germany at the headquarters of the US 7th Army. One day, a friend asked me what the word “integration” meant since he assumed my two years of college made me smart. Anyway, five of us took on the responsibility of developing a plan to integrate the US 7th Army. I was a 21 year old with two years of college and didn’t have clue about what to do, but we worked out a plan. This was my introduction to integration. Our plan was flawed in many ways, but eventually the 7th Army became integrated.
I returned to CCNY and found myself in the class of Dr. Kenneth Clark in May, 1954. Professor Clark wrote the psychological brief for the Brown vs Board of Education case. I recall the day the Supreme Court rendered its decision saying that segregation was unconstitutional. We waited until Dr. Clark entered and we were crying and applauding this wonderful man for the work he did. That day, he talked about integration and made predictions. He was a brilliant teacher and deeply impacted me.
My first teaching job was at James Fenimore Jr. HS in Harlem and I wound up teaching the 8th grade class for students who were behavior problems. We remained with one another all day to keep them away from other students. From them, I got an entry into the lives of Harlem children and the gangs and drugs which were just entering. Please read Claude Brown’s “Manchild In the Promised Land” which depicts my students all too well.
I was a high school teacher when Martin Luther King came on the scene. I also became fascinated with Malcolm X and went to hear him speak in person. I greatly admired both men. I got my high school students on Long Island interested in their ideas and was proud that some of my students went to Harlem to participate in rent strikes. I left high school teaching and went to teach at Webster College in St. Louis. The death of King and Kennedy impacted me and I wanted to do something. I set up the first program for returning Vietnam war veterans to train them to become teachers– Veterans Accelerated Urban Learning for Teaching(VAULT) and I went to Ft Leonard Wood and insisted one third had to be Negro. When education people at the base would not help me, I went into bars, barracks and even a few other places asking the question–”Would you like to go to college?” I recruited 35 men who had fought in Vietnam and they were integrated in the program as they were in battle. Oh, I insisted the program be led by a Negro.
My life has witnessed a voyage from a mental and physical ghetto to work with people of all backgrounds. I worked extensively with teachers in urban areas because I wanted to be with kids of my own background. I have watched America change. Oh, it is not a perfect change, but it is certainly light years away from my childhood in a segregated ghetto. America is a flawed nation which, like all others, carries the sins of the past which are still alive in the minds of the present. We can not undo what happened, but we can create a new world in which we are truly integrated. My children are Polish, Russian, Irish, Catholic, Jewish, Protestant and my third wife is one-fourth Cherokee. I live with the world in my home at a family gathering.
Martin Luther King built on the work and efforts of so many others– A. Philip Randolph, Thurgood Marshall, Paul Robeson, (my boyhood hero) Walter White, Frederick Douglass, Martin Delany, and thousands of other men and women of all races and backgrounds who believed in the American dream of a nation containing the wretched of the earth. I remember the CIO labor leaders who established the first integrated schools in the South in order to train Negro union leaders and how the song, “We Shall Overcome” came from the union movement before it became the battle cry of the Civil Rights movement.
This week not only marks the birthday of Martin Luther King and the inauguration of Barack Obama but it is the 100 anniversary of the birth of the NAACP. The NAACP was founded by blacks and whites. One hundred years later their dream of ending segregation has taken one more step forward. We have not reached the end of the road, but we sure are no longer at the beginning. I know everyone wants to celebrate Obama today, but, in my mind, the names of so many will be present who fought the good fight to end segregation.
Those of us who were born in the segregated world can now sigh a breath of relief that our world is dead. There is still segregation and prejudice, but it no longer is sanctioned by government. A new world begins today.