In May, 1954, I was a student in the class of Dr. Kenneth Clark, among the first Negro professors at CCNY, and the author of the NAACP psychological brief in the case of Brown vs Board of Education. We had class the day when the US Supreme Court declared segregation to be unconstitutional. As Dr. Clark entered the class, we rose, some crying, all joyous, and showed him our deep admiration for his work. That day, he talked with us about the future. Among the main points he made was it would take about fifty years before the real impact of segregation was over. I wish he was alive today to see the results of his work for human rights and social justice.
There are those who will shrug off the impact of the Obama nomination and point out examples of prejudice in American society. There are those whose heads are always turned backward and can never see changes that occur literally every day in this nation. So many fought the good fight for confronting racism, individuals like A. Philip Randolph, Paul Robeson, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Jackie Robinson, and the thousands of black, Asian, and whites who fought to create conditions under which an African American could be nominated for the presidency of this nation.
I was fortunate to be raised in among the most liberal congressional districts in America where many of us connected prejudice in America toward black skinned people to the prejudice our parents had experienced in Poland and Russia. My mother attended an elementary school where Jewish children sat in the back of the room. My uneducated parents were not fighters for social justice, but they did not use expressions or talk about other people in derogatory ways. In the army, I stumbled one day into the task of working on the desegregation plan of the US Seventh Army in Germany. I was a 21 year old boy with no knowledge of how to end discrimination and my friends and I some how learned to make fewer mistakes as we went about the task of ending segregation. In the end, segregation ended, and even some of the southern born sergeants accepted their new Negro fellow sergeants. The experience taught me Americans would undertake change and accept it.
My first teaching job was at an all black boys junior high school in Harlem where I was assigned to teach the 8th grade discipline problem boys. I discovered they were street bright but easily grew bored and restless unless I could make lessons interesting. I found little evidence parents did not care because literally every parent I contacted gave me complete cooperation. It never entered my mind, these boys were “different” or unable to learn. They were street kids like myself.
In the 1960s, I initiated the first college education program for Vietnam war veterans that trained those returning from combat to become teachers. I insisted one-third of those in the program must be Negroes. We were rather successful. The experience taught me that whites and blacks who had fought together could work together in civilian life and myths of about IQ scores made scant sense when one was dealing with a young Negro soldier who had risked his life for America. The entrance exam consisted of one question: “Do you want to go to college?” Of the 25 we accepted, 15 got their degrees.
I admired the work of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X but, frankly, felt emotionally closer to Malcolm X than to King. The death of these two outstanding leaders definitely hurt the cause of ending prejudice. I have never felt the fight for equality was only about the rights of black people because anyone living in this nation impacts the lives of all living in America. If a black child lives in a segregated world, I, also live in one. If a black child is denied equal rights, I also am denied equal rights.
Many will point to the tasks undone, I believe to deal with the tasks undone, one must understand the tasks that have been done. Obama’s nomination means never again will a black or Asian or Hispanic candidate have to deal with the whispers and subtle ways in which people have relied on racism to fight his nomination. That tactic will not work the second time around.
The good fight has a thousand ancestors whose names are too numerous to be listed. As Dr. Kenneth Clark told us that day in May, 1954, it will be a long, difficult road, but it is the only road we can use if hatred and bigotry and prejudice is to end in this nation. I am so glad to be alive in this historic moment. I only wish people like Dr. Kenneth Clark who fought so hard and long could also be with us in this moment in history.