Come on children of the land/The day of glory has arrived.
Twenty-years-old when the Voting Rights Act was passed 48 years ago, I took pride in the event, even though I had nothing to do with it—I was not among those Yankees who had driven down to Selma or Montgomery, for instance. I was simply proud that America was striking blows for freedom all over the place. Somehow, I had some sense of ownership for what seemed like an inexorable march out of oppression toward justice.
Ownership? Pride? Where did that sense of ownership come from? I don’t know. No one I knew had slaves in the Connecticut town where I grew up in the fifties, but people who were different—different religion, skin color, country of origin—were talked about differently.
In fact, I have only two memories from second grade. (Nothing else was memorable—not even my girl friend, and I am sure I had one.)
My first memory is of our teacher standing in front of the blackboard, looking out at us as we sat in our desks in their straight rows and saying, “Now kids, there is a new boy coming to class tomorrow, and I want you to be nice to him. He is just the same as everyone else, and I want you to treat him as if he were the same as you because there is actually no difference between him and you and I want you to treat him well…” on and on. The speech had only two points: He’s the same. Be nice. Why was she going on so?
My second memory was some short time later, perhaps that very afternoon. Jerry Boykin, the new boy in class and the only black boy, was sitting in a chair at the back of the classroom with his head in his hands crying. Several of us seven-year-olds were standing in a small semi-circle around him saying, “What’s the matter, Jerry? What’s the matter?”
And Jerry was saying, “I don’t know. I just feel bad. I just feel bad.”
That was 1952, and even back then in sinless New England, we were all caught up in the empathy-violating, emotionally-traumatic, soul-riving pain of alienation from some of our fellow humans. Our self-concept would not allow us (collectively and individually) to acknowledge that we were all living in sin.
The only other memory I have of Jerry Boykin is that he was the only person I invited to my birthday party in third grade. Maybe that’s why I took pride in the freedom movement of the sixties. Maybe that is why I took ownership of the attempt to emulsify that language, those habits and proprieties, those institutions that separated us from people who should be our friends. I guess inviting Jerry to my 9th birthday party, was my freedom ride.
Growing up our brains make maps of “the way things are around here” thus wiring our brains to behave “appropriately” in the culture we grow up in. Nonetheless, childish empathy makes us compare that “propriety” with some inherent feeling of justice. That’s why third graders are always saying: “That’s not fair.”
That’s not fair, Justice Roberts. You say our country has changed, but Jerry Boykin is sitting in the back of the class with his head in his hands crying, “I just feel bad. I just feel bad.” What bubble blinds you to the fact that some good ole American ways still commit insidious injustice to vast numbers of Americans. Government should not defend the right of some people to abrogate the rights of others.
I went through the sixties proud that the battle cry of freedom of the Civil War was finally bearing the fruit of real freedom for many people—Blacks, women and other “minorities” who were relegated to lesser positions in our society for no good reason at all. But now it is clear that freedom does not ensure justice. The tyranny of a king can easily be replaced by the tyranny of free individuals to oppress others. Individuals cannot be counted on to defend the rights of other individuals. This human reality has not changed, Justice Roberts. We are counting on you and your colleagues on the bench to defend Justice.
In and out of school America is only slouching toward democracy, and we have to keep at it until all the third graders are playing together on the playground and working side-by-side in the classroom, proud of their differences.
Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me round.
Happy Bastille Day. Vive la revolution!