Growing up in South Georgia in the 1960s, my life was immersed in the racism of the culture. Although, I never knew the kind of mean or hateful racism that bombed churches or galvanized lynch mobs, my exposure was probably more insidious and damaging. My mother taught me to refer to African-Americans as “colored people.” That seemed proper because I had seen in the Kress’s 5 & 10 two water fountains with signs that said “white” and “colored.”
In the 10th grade I had my first male teacher and my first African-American teacher. Of course, to this day, I am embarrassed by my silence in the face of my classmate’s ridicule of Mrs. Smith who tried to teach us history. They loved to catch her in inaccuracies, so, as a strategy for embarrassing her, we actually read the material and learned the facts.
Somewhere along the way, something inside of me shifted. I found myself pulling down our family encyclopedia to read up on the lesson so I’d know enough to defend Mrs. Smith from my classmates. There were several times when I knew from my reading that she was right and the smart alecks in the class were wrong. The trouble was I never had the courage to confront them or defend her.
When I returned for my junior year at my newly-integrated high school, I noticed that Mrs. Smith was no longer our history teacher. I never knew why, but I felt at least partially responsible. That feeling of responsibility has never gone away, and I hope it never will.
This week we have heard the oft replayed “I Have a Dream” speech of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. To me, though, his words that I find most compelling are these:
The ultimate measure of a person is not where we stand in moments of comfort and convenience, but where we stand at times of challenge and controversy. An individual has not started living until we can rise above the narrow confines of our individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity. One who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as one who helps to perpetrate it. One who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it. History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.
by Michael Piazza
The Center for Progressive Renewal