Fifty years ago today when Dr. King was killed, I was an exchange student at Tuskegee Institute, a historically black college in Alabama — 3,000 black students plus eight of us who were white.
When I returned to St. Olaf College — 2,000 whites and eight blacks in 1968 — a friend asked me what I had learned during the four months I had been imbedded in an all-black college. At the time I was ashamed to say that I didn’t know. His response was, “Then you wasted your time.”
I was embarrassed because I didn’t have any penetrating insights into the “race problem,” nor had I come up with any grand solutions.
I had learned some things, of course. I had taken a course on African History and knew that the three main tribes in Nigeria were Hausas, Yorubas and Ibos. I knew that the speech Booker T Washington gave in 1895 came to be known as the “Atlanta Compromise.” I even knew that the “T” in Washington’s name wasn’t an abbreviation for anything. He just wanted a middle initial. I even read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, cover to cover.
I had learned a lot of facts, but facts were not what my friend at St. Olaf was asking for. He was asking for the diagnosis needed to come up with a cure; the penetrating analysis that would produce the solution.
Have you noticed that after each school shooting of children or the police killing of Stephon Clark or the massacre in Las Vegas, everyone asks, “Why did it happen?” so they can determine how to “never let it happen again.” Is it mental illness or inadequate training of police officers or racism or economic disparity or the absence of fathers in families or toxic chemicals in the food we eat or people not going to church on Sunday or …
So when my friend asked me “why” and I couldn’t answer, I felt a little stupid.
All I had was lots of stories. I told my friends about feeling very alone and insecure on my first day on campus, and how a student named Emmanuel Harris took me under his wing and quickly became my best friend.
I recalled how students at Tuskegee seemed more sad and confused, as was I, on hearing the news of Dr. King’s death. There was no talk of “burn, baby, burn.” The contrast between the riots in Chicago and the “wake-like” sadness at Tuskegee was striking.
I told them about my roommate Thomas Tokabong, who was from Botswana, his girlfriend Nellie, and how all the African students formed their own little tribe and didn’t “mix” much with the other students who had the same color skin as they did.
I recalled how after dinner in the cafeteria, some of the young men would hang out on the library steps singing songs like “Collard greens, my lord, them good old collard greens” in four part harmony.
I remembered the day Stokely Carmichael spoke in the gym about black power. Stokely was angry and so were the students in the first two rows, but most of the audience listened politely and sometimes nodded in agreement with what he said, but there was no sit-in staged in the administration building following his speech.
Emmanuel and I went to the gym together and when we walked in the door, the “ushers” who were wearing army jackets, shades and berets said, “White folks sit under the balcony.” It was the only time I ever had to, so to speak, “sit in the back of the bus.” On hearing that, Emmanuel said to me, “I’m sitting with you.”
If I learned anything profound from my time at Tuskegee it was that I knew less than I thought I did; that life was more complicated than I had realized; that not all “Negroes” were the same; that the variety within a tribe is as great as the differences between tribes.
Fifty years down life’s road, I’m not embarrassed to tell that story, and I’ve become suspicious of any simple answers to anything. Arm classroom teachers? Spend more money on schools in poor communities? Provide in-service “bias training” to teachers? Make America great again? Just be nice to everyone?
Each proposal has its merits, of course, but somehow I think that this year there’s a message in the juxtaposition of the 50th anniversary of King’s death and Holy Week.
Consider the question, “Is the glass half full or half empty?” Fifty years later, are we a more perfect union when it comes to race or are we worse off? To put that question in perspective, it’s been 2,000 years, more or less, since Jesus’ death and resurrection — two millennia! Has the human race gotten better or worse?
As far as my life goes, it doesn’t really matter. Whether things have gotten better or worse, I still wake up every morning and have to discern what God wants me to do that day. I, of course, listen to the news and try to figure out which candidate can make incremental changes, and resist reacting to their grandiose promises with cynicism. Instead, I somehow have to keep my eye on the prize while understanding that we’ll never get to that promised land King talked about the night before he was killed—at least not this side of heaven.
Consider the question of suffering: King would have a training session the day before a march or sit-in for the participants. He would ask them if they were willing to suffer the blows of billy clubs and the slurs of onlookers because of what they were doing and not retaliate in kind. If they said no, he would tell them to not get involved. For King, how you worked for a goal was as important as the goal itself.
Sounds a lot like the Good Friday story, doesn’t it?
Finally, every time anyone has tried to transform the Christian gospel into a legislative program, it always winds up filling the glass half way at best. Did the Civil Rights laws passed in 1964 transform our country into a more perfect union?
We have to keep trying, but when you get up tomorrow morning and try to figure out “what God wants you to do today” maybe at the top of your list should be to “take a trip to Tuskegee,” i.e. go somewhere or to someone out of your comfort zone, read the metaphorical book instead of just the dust cover, and do what you can to move the ball forward a yard or two, with humility, understanding deep in your soul that neither you nor anyone else this side of heaven is going to change this world into a perfect union.