I grew up in southwestern Kentucky in the Fifties and Sixties. Although integration was not completed in Columbus, Ohio, until 1984, it was done eighteen years earlier where I lived. Toward the end of the school year in 1966, the principal of our tiny elementary school in Trenton made an announcement: “Todd County Schools will be integrating this fall. That will include us.” Neither Mr. Tribble nor any of the teachers voiced any complaints, threats, or warnings to us students. I’ve never investigated what private conversations may have taken place.
In spite of living in the land of Jim Crow, I’d missed out on most of the harsh realities of minority life in that place. I will not claim that my parents were not prejudiced but they were certainly not typical of other landowners of their era. We were taught to use the term “colored folks” instead of the contemptuous term in common use in that place and time. When Dad hired black men to help with harvesting hay and tobacco, they came inside and sat at the table with us at meal times. In addition to those examples and trainings, and perhaps even more importantly, Mom and Dad stressed to us that God had not only created all people, he had made us all one in Jesus Christ. “There is never any excuse for you to mistreat anyone; it doesn’t matter what color they are. God made them the same as he made you and being white doesn’t make you any better than them.”
I’m guessing it was that particular background that led me to my brief and admittedly quite small contribution to the Civil Rights movement in Todd County, Kentucky. At recess the day of the announcement, I called all of the boys in the seventh grade together. Knowing that we would be the big dogs next year I somehow sensed that there was something that I could do at that point that would make a difference. “Fellas,” I said soberly, “We’re not going to have any trouble here. We’re not going to be calling these kids names. We’re going to treat them the way we want to be treated.”
Maybe it was the wisdom of the words I spoke, the superior moral plane of acceptance and respect. It might have been nothing more than the fact that they all remembered I had bloodied Lewis Peterson’s nose twice in the past four years. Whatever it was, the integration of Trenton Elementary School took place that fall without a single fight, argument or racial incident of any kind. At least among the children, it did.
Sometimes it’s harder for adults to act grown-up.