Through the grimy, streaked window of the school bus, I watched as he watched me. Our two buses were passing each other at an intersection, and on that balmy Georgia afternoon I looked into his dark eyes and suddenly realized that none of his brothers rode on my bus.
It was the first time in my young life that I had experienced the segregation of 1950s America. My father had just returned his family from assignment in Europe, and the only school experience I had was in a school for military dependents where desegregation was a reality. It would not become a reality in Georgia for at least another five years, after the Civil Rights movement forced the hand of politicians.
At that young age, I had no concept of racial issues. I knew nothing of the all-black school that existed just blocks away. The condition of that school was evidenced by the beat-up and dilapidated condition of the school bus now passing me. The hopelessness of the system was reflected in the eyes of my unknown mentor in the other bus.
All of these thoughts came back to me, nearly 50 years later, as I sat amazed at my daughters fifth-grade production of I Remember Martin Luther King Jr. this past week. While seemingly a history of the man, the production is actually a tapestry of the Civil Rights movement. School children portraying newscasters re-create the political excitement of the first bus boycott in Selma, Ala., and make us understand that while King was the leader, thousands of spiritually brave housekeepers, factory workers, students and grandmothers caused its success.
From its stirring opening video of scenes ranging from the homeless on the streets, to the Vietnam War Memorial, to various black Americans at work and on the march to its closing segment in which Brookwood Elementary children sing We Are The World, the production carries the older generation back in time to face its own past and current progress.
One of the mysteries of progress is that we seem to lose sight of where we have been, and cant seem to remember where we are going. In the words of a great thinker, A nation which cannot remember its mistakes is doomed to repeat them.
As I sat watching these children portray America at one of its darkest moments, it occurred to me that this is exactly the situation when we discuss racial relations in todays world. Suddenly, a remark made unwittingly at a birthday party gains the same importance as a mob lynching.
We do this because we cannot now experience black- and Hispanic-Americans banned from the same schools, restaurants, or even sitting in the same bus-seat as white Americans. We do this because we have forgotten that such institutions as the poll-tax, poll tests, and chain gang were not only tolerated, but an accepted part of life. We have developed a cultural amnesia when it comes to our race relations in the modern world, and that amnesia will surely cause us to repeat our mistakes.
But Brookwoods music director, Johnny Carr, acts as our guide back to in time. As I watched these children, black and white, innocently holding a mirror up to my own past, I realized that we have come a long way. As I watched young girls pretending to be Martin Luther Kings school teachers, local merchants and church congregation, a new realization emerged.
Seen through a veil of these memories of America-past, I understood that our current race relations do not seem nearly as much a problem as they are a symbol of our success. The fact that we now can sit down at our collective tables and discuss our communitys problems instead of marching in the streets, rioting or killing one another is a victory in and of itself.
That realization brought another: We have finally achieved what those civil rights workers of the early 1960s wished - in their world, these kids would be judged for their talent and character, not their race or skin color. But the fight is not over, and we realize that there are still racial disparities that must be corrected. Again, this should be viewed as a small victory; not a problem to be labored over.
This community, and the Augusta region, could learn much from a single viewing of I Remember Martin Luther King Jr. Therefore, let me make a proposal that before Mayor Young and our local leaders sit down to heal the wounds of the past, they ask these children to perform for them; they might learn a few things.
Personally, Id like to thank Mr. Carr and the kids at Brookwood Elementary for teaching this veteran of the 1960s what it was all about back then, and where we have come to today.
(Dennis Jones is a Martinez resident.)
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