When my daughter pulls hard on the heavy glass doors of the Martin Luther King Jr. Laboratory School, and races upstairs into her classroom, she is living my dream.
Thirty two years ago, when my friends and I pulled hard on those very same glass doors, we were unwitting foot soldiers in the second wave of a revolution we knew nothing about. But it changed our lives.
Our parents – working-class and middle-class African Americans and whites – volunteered to send us to this "experimental" school because they believed we would learn something essential by learning together. Indeed, many of the white parents, mine included, moved specifically to Evanston, Illinois because of its historic public commitment to voluntarily integrating its public schools in the 1960s and 1970s.
Evanston today is a city struggling with the same dramatic re-segregation as many cities across the nation. The solution is no longer clear. Parents in our hometown are continually debating whether or not to launch another school integration effort, assessing what's been gained, lost, where to go from here.
What Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day Means Outside the Classroom
As we stand in the shadow of the new Martin Luther King, Jr. monument in Washington, D. C., as we remember his dream on yet another January 16, racial segregation in our nation's public schools has risen to a degree unseen since the 1960s. Ambivalence about integration has hardened into hostility. It is not simple. It is not obvious. But I believe we must continue having these hard conversations together.
There is ample research fully exploring the losses associated with costs of what this massive re-segregation means for students' standardized test scores, falling grades and dropping class rankings. I'm arguing that we must also consider the far less measurable – but equally devastating loss – of lessons not learned, lives not changed and friendships not made.
I believe Evanston was right the first time – that integration was – and remains – the best tool and the right goal. I still believe, even more strongly today, in the essentialness of this public policy as crucial piece of communal infrastructure. In the face of devastating re-segregation around the country, Evanston should again help lead the nation back into a reinvigorated integration revolution.
Frederick Douglass was right, in 1848, when he wrote:
"Let colored children be educated and grow up side by side with white children, come up friends from unsophisticated and generous childhood together, and it will require a powerful agent to convert them into enemies, and lead them to prey upon each other's rights and liberties."
I know this because I grew up in a place that believed in these benefits and lived those beliefs long ago. Our school had quotes from Dr. King all over the school, just as it does today. We didn't just learn them. We tried to live them.
Our Revolution Was Televised
Our hometown understood this long before the studies. The vote in 1966 by Evanston, Illinois to voluntarily desegregate its schools was met with gushing national headlines and news coverage. Our little revolution was televised.
According to press reports, the day the school board unanimously approved the plan was electric. A new course for race relations was launched. The board president stood before the packed auditorium and said:
"The eyes of 80,000 people and 200 years of civil rights look down on us tonight."
What Integration Looks Like When You Live It
Our collective image of school integration is grainy 1960s television newsreel footage of those brave black students guarded by federal troops, walking tall through mobs of raging whites, often somewhere in the South or in Boston.
The integration I remember, for me and the kids I came up with – inside what was then called the Martin Luther King Jr. Experimental Laboratory School – was much quieter. Some of us walked and others were bused from opposite ends of our hometown, at the leafy edge of Lake Michigan.
Learning How to Talk about Race while Living Integration
As children, we spent so much time talking, thinking, dissecting, pondering and learning about getting along that now, as adults, when we get together and we start talking, we always get there: Race, class, power, powerlessness. All the big-ticket issues that divide our nation and alas, too often, our hometown. We dive right in, unafraid, because we learned how to talk to each other, to hear each other, long ago. Many of us have nurtured and continued these deep, enduring relationships well into adulthood. It is also striking to me how many of us are teachers, writers, artists, mental health professionals, scholars, documentarians, who make our living exploring these same themes, trying to reveal and heal the divisions.
Prof. Bernard Beck, a veteran sociology professor at Northwestern University, (just down the road from King Lab) mindfully sent his children to our experimental school 30 years ago, and describes what the experience meant to the original parents. His children and I were classmates:
"You were the first generation that had to – in a sense – live out, through your life experience, the dreams and aspirations of your parents. Going to Lab School, every other day was going to be some kind of public, symbolic event about brotherhood, and there's going to be some classroom event organized around living together. For the parents, we looked at this and we saw INTEGRATION. This was an actual opportunity to overcome a history of injustice, and the belief that there really weren't differences among people, and that given an opportunity, everybody does well. And that the major source of trouble between the races is based on ignorance, based on forced, illogical separation. And especially if you start these kids together so that they don't only run across each other as strangers across a gulf later on. That if they grow up together, and that the bonds of living together as young people before you know about these social barriers, will help to break down those barriers later on. So, in other words, what you experienced is exactly what was supposed to happen."
What The Dream Looks Like Today to Us as Parents
I am reminded again of just this point when I drop my daughter off at school each morning, at our school. Lord, those doors are still so heavy. I pull hard. She runs in, vanishing into a swirling circle of friends of all hues, from all neighborhoods, whose parents all share the same dreams. I watch her vanish into that miraculous, beautiful swirl, I see my past, and hopefully, her future.
A part of this piece appeared on TeachingTolerance.org.