Lest We Forget

John Clementson is the Director of Academic Outreach and Development at Learner’s Edge. He lives in the country, and wakes up to deer and birds every morning (I am extremely jealous!). He is also “Papa” to four beautiful, awesome, sweet, and adorable grandchildren. He enjoys making heirloom furniture in his woodworking shop and has been known to barefoot waterski….but can’t figure out why his wetsuit keeps getting smaller every year.

One of my former colleagues, a Lakota man raised in missionary boarding schools, helped me understand some of my deep-rooted perceptions of race by saying… “we all have cultural tails.”   No matter how we wish our tail (tale) would disappear, we drag it with us throughout our life.  Often we become so comfortable with our standing in society or life that we forget it is there.  Such a comfort level is often easier for those of privilege, financial means, or a certain skin color.  However, every once in a while, and perhaps not often enough an event or an interaction occurs creating a dissonance in our comfortable world….and that ugly tail reminds us it is still there.   I am reminded of my own privilege and skin color each year when we honor and celebrate the work and memory of Martin Luther King Jr.

My tale begins as a young child growing up in an all white, small town in northern Minnesota.  I remember Native Americans from the nearby reservation being described by adults as “squaws, bucks, and drunken Indians.”   I remember the disdain most townspeople expressed toward the Native Americas who came to “our town.”  The local police were known to take drunken Indians to the reservation border to “dump” them on the side of the road for their “own” people to take care of…even in the dead of winter.

When I was an adolescent, my father, through National Science Foundation grants, was able to study at universities on both the East and West Coasts.  Living in Berkeley, California in 1966 was certainly an eye-opening experience for me.  The campus protests against the war and spirited public debates about civil rights were commonplace.  Living on the East Coast in 1967 and 1968 proved to be one of the most significant formative experiences of my life.  Seeing Peter, Paul and Mary sing on the steps of the LincolnMemorial in the summer of 1968, as thousands of “Poor People’s Campaign” participants rallied, will forever be a part of my tale.  The words of their song “Because All Men Are Brothers,” resonate in my ears and are written in my tail.

My brothers are all others forever hand in hand
Where chimes the bell of freedom there is my native land
My brother’s fears are my fears yellow white or brown
My brother’s tears are my tears the whole wide world around.
Let every voice be thunder, let every heart beat strong
Until all tyrants perish our work shall not be done
Let not our memories fail us the lost year shall be found
Let slavery’s chains be broken the whole wide world around.

Seeing Robert “Bobby” Kennedy’s freshly dug grave in June of 1968, and hearing the impassioned speeches from a rally that was supposed to feature Martin Luther King Jr.,  are seared in my memory and my cultural tail.  The National Science Foundation has no idea of the impact it had on my life.

As an adult, I had the privilege of seeing the Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham.  The experience brought back a flood of memories for me.  One in particular brought me back to 1968.  The museum features a cutaway of a bus… one similar to the hundreds I saw lined up near the “Resurrection City” and the Reflecting Pool of the Washington Monument in 1968.  I made a promise to myself at that moment:  that my own children would have a sense of the struggle thousands of people endured in order to bring about a cultural revolution in this country.  When my son and daughter were adolescents my wife and I took them to Birmingham… and have continually tried to keep issues of racism and inequality a part of our conversations with them as adults.

My most recent tail reminders have come while volunteering to build a Habitat for Humanity house in my local community.  I am constantly reminded of what it means to be poor, or to be an immigrant in America.  Rural poverty is alive and well in America, and the anti-immigrant sentiment that swirls about our culture is, once again, a reminder of the struggles of the 60s.

Another painful reminder of my privilege and of our and their not so distant past, have been my experiences working in the poorest-of-the-poor townships near Cape Town, South Africa.  Apartheid’s legacy continues to play itself out in the daily lives of those banished to the fringes of a privileged, white society.  As an educator, I see the Bantu school system, with its racist and paternalistic views of education for blacks as nothing less than deplorable.   Lest we forget, Brown v. Brown, the landmark decision regarding the unconstitutionally of separate but equal schools for blacks and whites happened in 1954.

Today, while in many ways I feel we have made strides as a society toward the ideals dreamed of by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Robert F. Kennedy, I am fearful our contentious political divisions and the harsh rhetoric of various media outlets demonizes those that are the “other.”

I have a dream that one day my grandchildren will know our past, and realize a new future: A future that embraces the dreams and hopes of Martin and Bobby.

Etched in stone, and in my cultural tale, are the words found on Bobby Kennedy’s memorial reminding us all, especially those of us who are teachers of our responsibility to society, no matter how long or ugly our cultural tail may be.

“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”   Robert F. Kennedy.

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