August 1973. George Jackson and I had to stay after football practice. George was the center and I was the quarterback and let’s just say we muffed too many snaps in the coach’s opinion. An extra 30 minutes at midday in an Arkansas August is so hot the shower after didn’t help much. I drug myself out to my car and started my drive home still sweating. As I drove away I saw George walking the other direction. I quickly spun around and drove up to George and said, “get in.” He said, “you know you can’t give me a ride.”
George is African American.
I remember everything about the first day I met George. He was one of a handful of African Americans who came to the “white” elementary school a year before integration was mandated in Arkansas. It was in the sixth grade and he was in my class. I had been told many things about what a black person in my school would be like; except the adults who said these things did not say “black.”
George blew those “adult ideas” out of my 12-year old mind the first day. I am embarrassed to say the first thing I realized was he was very smart. Those adults guaranteed he would be the opposite. I was also told he would be unruly, foul mouthed, and smell. Wrong, wrong, and wrong. And, he was very friendly. We became fast friends.
But after six years of classes and sports with George, he still didn’t think I should give him a ride home. What would people say and think? I would like to say I insisted; but I did not. I drove away and have felt awful about that ever since.
I went to a college that, at the time, was the most racially diverse in the state of Arkansas. My first day of work at the YMCA (1979) I sold the first membership to an African American family in the 75-year history of that Y. I was a founding member of the Mexican Migrant Worker Justice committee in my county. My next job was in Miami, Florida where I received the Jose Marti YMCA “Friend of Cuban Americans” award (1981). In 1985 I went to work for the YMCA of the USA and immediately signed up for the task force working on race issues in the YMCA. Today, my longest and largest client is the Lutheran Synod of New York City whose top priority is confronting racism.
For all my “institutional work” on race relations in our country – I still feel terrible and lacking in my personal actions on challenging racism completely and without compromise.
I have confronted bigotry – but not bigots.
No more. If you don’t see a variety of races and cultures in an integrated and equal society as one of our nation’s strongest assets, I disagree with you. If you see a variety of races and cultures as a negative aspect or unequal – I will challenge you. If you are white, I will encourage you to understand the enormous advantage you have in our country, and what you can do with that advantage. If you want to work to confront racism and embrace diversity, I am your ally – not just in principle; but in action.
I’m so very sorry George.