By Tom Murphy, Superintendent of schools
For those of us middle-class Midwestern white kids who attended high school and college in the 1960s, the emerging civil rights movement was slow to rise to our recognition.
I’m not sure I even had recognition of any kind of “movement” until the March on Washington in 1963 and Martin Luther King’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial. I was between my junior and senior year of high school at the time and I clearly remember watching news reports of the speech on television and reading the entire speech in the newspaper.
I also remember how taken I was with the passion of Dr. King’s oratory, so taken that, today, I can recite segments of the speech from memory.
Of course, I had the luxury of being impressed from a distance. The speech, and the entire civil rights movement, held a remote fascination for me as I navigated through my senior year of high school and four years of college. I was interested in the historical aspects of prejudice and racism, and read extensively about the Ku Klux Klan. I remember telling my dad that I had discovered the Klan hated Catholics as much as they hated blacks.
I read James Baldwin and Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks and Paul Dunbar. I was learning the black view of the world from the voices of black authors and poets. And even though I learned and comprehended, I didn’t really have a foundation of experience from which to empathize or understand. I wasn’t really sure what to make of it all.
Then, my sophomore year of college, I roomed with the one black member of our college basketball team. I think, initially, it was probably as strange for him as it was for me. He had never shared a room with a white person and I had not shared one with a black person.
The commonality of basketball, and the size of our dorm room, allowed us to begin a conversation that was at first cautious and, eventually, evolved into long exchanges deep into the night.
We talked about many things: Life as we saw it, our hopes and dreams, what we thought of Dr. King and civil rights. We debated who we would hire if we both ran businesses and a black and a white applied. He told me what it was like growing up on the south side of Chicago. I told him what it was like growing up on the “wrong side” of the tracks. Every once is a while, we would even talk about basketball.
One night, about two in the morning, in the middle of a particularly intense discussion about “advantage,” he made a remark that I have remembered to this day. He said, “You may not admit that you have an advantage, you may not even know you do at a conscious level. But you cannot fail to see that you are white, like I cannot fail to see that I am black, and that is all you need to know.”
That particular conversation ended shortly as I do not recall finding anything to say. Since that time, more than 40 years ago, I have thought long and hard about what it means to be white and black in our world, and much of that thinking has led me to believe what I do today about all children and our mission as public educators.
My friend passed away a number of years ago, but I believe he would say we have come some distance since those 1966 conversations. I think he would also say we have a ways to go before realizing the dream so clearly articulated by Dr. King, that all children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
If we do not keep this dream — this hope for all children — a focus of our work…who will?
Tom Murphy, superintendent of the Federal Way School District, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.