Watching the revolution from behind the lines

August 26, 2013
Shortridge Marching Band - Mid 70s

Shortridge Marching Band – Mid 70s

“Do you remember hearing Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech?” I asked the question during the weekly breakfast with a few men from my church. On this particular morning, all of us, with one exception, were at least 75 years old, so we were old enough to have listened.

“I was working in a big insurance office,” one man responded. “Those who wanted to listen were allowed to watch the speech in the lunch room, and that’s where I heard it.”

“My wife and I were living in Los Angeles,” another man reported. “The night before the speech we went to a show at the Greek Theatre starring Harry Belafonte. He told the audience that the next morning he was flying to the Capital to join the march.”

I told them that I was on the campus of Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, where I was one of the crop of new professors. Dean Ronald E. Osborn and I watched it on the TV in the student lounge in the old School of Religion Building on the Butler University campus where the seminary was then located.

Two or three others at the table mentioned that they were working on that August day half a century ago and missed the speech, at least while it was being broadcast live.

My remembrance of 1963 and the radical transformation that was taking place in American life is being updated by three aspects of my current activities.

Listening to the crescendo of news reports and historic remembrances in the media. I have been especially moved by the recollections of Congressman James Lewis, the only speaker at the rally who is still living.

Reading “Methodists and the Crucible of Race” by Peter C. Murray. This 2004 book describes a thirty-year period in the history of the United Methodist Church during which it struggled to overcome structural racism in its denominational structure.

Watching “The Butler.” This emotionally powerful film portrays the struggles of one family as the husband and father moved from virtual slavery on a cotton farm to a position on the White House staff serving eight presidents.

Even more vividly than old film clips on TV, the movie portrays the harsh cruelty of white racism and the heroic character of people, black and white, who actively participated in the Civil Rights Movement. It also shows the struggles of a father who stands back from the struggles while his two sons choose conflicting ways to serve the nation—one as a freedom rider and the other as a serviceman whose life is taken in Vietnam.

Winter in the BTNA - Indianapolis

Winter in the BTNA – Indianapolis

My own involvement in the American revolution of the 1960s was far from heroic. We had moved to Indianapolis in 1961 and bought a house in the Butler-Tarkington neighborhood near the seminary campus. The neighborhood association had been formed only a few years earlier to encourage a constructive process of gradual change from being virtually all white to becoming a racially mixed community where people of the two races would live side by side on into future years.

The principal at the Dewitt S. Morgan School 86, a few blocks from our home, told me that in half a dozen years its student body had changed from all white to 35% African American.

Shortridge High School, which our children would attend when the time came, had a student body that was 75% black. The school continued the college-preparatory curriculum that had made Shortridge one of the nation’s notable public high schools.

I was not surprised to learn that Indianapolis had its own history of segregation and discrimination, and many aspects of white racism were still in place. I was not very alert to the social forces that provided whites easy access to opportunities while at the same time restricting—sometimes suppressing—that access to blacks.

My children were on the front lines every day when they went to school, whereas I always seemed to hold back a little from the action. My circle of friends included people who took a more active role than I did, and for their courage and strong witness I give thanks.

As the 1960s play out again in America’s memory, it is time to honor the memory of the many people who led that struggle. While remembering, we can be allowed to acknowledge than an even larger number of people of both races have learned during this half century to live our way into a new America—an America that even now is still struggling against old racist attitudes and practices as though all we’ve gone through meant nothing.

There still is hope that America will become a pluralistic society, where all kinds of people live together in freedom and with opportunity.