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Smart v. Stupid

White boy in the shadow of Martin Luther King

A great leader finally has the memorial he so richly deserves

  • All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.
  • —Martin Luther King Jr.

I remember the day the black kids came to Greenbelt Junior High School. This was not the court-ordered busing that would begin in 1974. This was integration, and it was 1969. By this day, Martin Luther King, Jr. had already been murdered by some dumb cracker. He wasn’t alone. During the 1960s dumb crackers were still killing a lot of good men. In the South, looking someone directly in the eye could still be a hanging offense.

  • It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can stop him from lynching me, and I think that's pretty important.
  • —Martin Luther King Jr.

In the days leading up to the arrival of the new bus, the morning announcements were followed by speeches from the principal or vice principal aimed at fostering pride in good behavior. I don’t know what they imagined we’d do when these darker skinned kids showed up, but all the speechifying just made us nervous.

On the actual day, the bus lane was lined on one side with police cars and the other side with police officers. About half of the white kids had been kept home by their parents. The black kids arrived, though, without much hullabaloo. The whole big event, witnessed by at least one reporter, took about two minutes from start to finish.

  • We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.
  • —Martin Luther King Jr.

I’m sure the new kids were a little nervous too. They’d gone from a one-room clapboard schoolhouse the day before, to a thirty-classroom building full of white kids they had never met. They had never had a gym or a cafeteria or a library to navigate. But they were determined to walk in with heads held high, and if I’d known just how much character they’d displayed, I’d have admired them.

  • Faith is taking the first step, even when you don't see the whole staircase.
  • —Martin Luther King Jr.

I had grown up knowing that there was a neighborhood of “Negros” somewhere, but I’d never been there and would never think of going there. The old men in my neighborhood had a far less attractive name for Lakeland; one which I won’t repeat here. The neighborhood was nestled in a crook of the Paint Branch where it met Indian Creek. It was bounded on another side by railroad tracks and buffered on the side facing my neighborhood by what we called “The Woods.” There was no lake in Lakeland. It was bottom land, I’d later learn. And it flooded all the time.

Lakeland was just across the creek from the flagship College Park campus of the University of Maryland. But it might as well been on the other side of an ocean. Those African American kids arriving at Greenbelt Junior High were probably the first Lakelanders who ever had a chance to cross the creek and go to university.

  • Segregation is the adultery of an illicit intercourse between injustice and immorality.
  • —Martin Luther King Jr.

Over the next year and a half that I spent at Greenbelt Junior High, the black kids – about two lunch tables full in all – mostly stayed to themselves. Occasionally some white kid would claim to have been abused by one or another of them, but their arrival at school was mostly unremarkable. I never befriended a black kid and none befriended me. As I remember, there were no black teachers. But it was the beginning of the end of racial segregation if not yet the beginning of the end of racism.

  • Now, I say to you today my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: – ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’
  • —Martin Luther King Jr., Speech at the Civil Rights March on Washington, August 28, 1963

The Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial is now open. The formal dedication ceremonies were postponed due to Hurricane Irene and will be scheduled for a future date.

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Jimmy Zuma splits his time between Washington, D.C. and Tucson. He writes the online opinion journal, Smart v. Stupid. He spent 5 years in Tucson in the early ‘80s, when life was a little slower, swamp coolers were a little more plentiful, Tucson’s legendary music scene was in full bloom, and the prevailing work ethic was “don’t - unless you have to.”

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Brett Davis

The granite statue of Martin Luther King at the King Memorial.

  “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can stop him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.”

— Martin Luther King Jr.

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More photos by Brett Davis.