Dr. Martin Luther King, upon completion of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965 said, “The end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.” 57 years later, we find ourselves still seeking that end. The question is, do we have the will and the courage to dismantle racism and live up to our proclamation of liberty and justice for all?
Since our days in junior high school, we have been told that if we don’t learn from history, we will repeat it. If we don’t study it, we can’t learn from it. If we don’t learn from it, we won’t change.
Those who oppose frank discussion of our struggle for civil rights fear that it will cause us to feel guilty about our past. Studying our past doesn’t have to make us feel guilty. If anything were to make us feel guilty, it would be to ignore the devastating effects of racism in our society and fail to do anything about it.
In 1957, nine black students in their teens entered Little Rock High School amid shouts and jeers from an angry crowd. They were harassed, they were pushed down the stairs, they were bullied, they faced physical violence, but they had the courage to endure.
In 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King Junior, John Lewis, and thousands of black people and white allies suffered state-sanctioned police violence as they crossed the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma. They had the courage to endure the beatings without retaliation.
Black people who staged sit-ins at lunch counters, after being beaten and jailed, were charged with disturbing the peace, but they had the courage to endure. These displays of courage and determination, and thousands of similar incidents, paved the way for the passage of the voting rights act signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965.
The purpose of studying the less than pleasant aspects of our history is not to criticize this great country of ours, but to correct what we need to correct and live up to our declared ideals.
We can have courageous yet civil dialogue as we study our history, but there will be vehement opposition to it. So we need to ask ourselves this: If nine teenagers had the courage to withstand the hardships of desegregating Little Rock Central High School, if hundreds of African Americans had the courage to endure beatings for sitting at lunch counters, if thousands of black people and their white allies had the courage to cross the Edmund Pettis bridge knowing they were going to face physical harm, can we as a society have the courage to study our past, learn from it, and correct it? If we do, the end we seek, “a society that is at peace with itself and a conscience we can live with,” will indeed become a reality.
Denny Smith is a former teacher and coach, a motivational speaker, and an author committed to making our schools and communities safe and welcoming for all people. More information on his latest books, Emotional Intelligence 101: How to Carve a Duck and Coaches Make the Difference is available at http://www.dennysmith.com.