Black History Month In Lakewood: A Letter To Lakewood, By Way Of Birmingham
It does not seem possible that fifty years have passed since Dr. Martin Luther King and some of his associates were incarcerated in the Birmingham (Alabama) city jail for civil disobedience actions relating to the Civil Rights Movement in the spring of 1963.
While in the Birmingham jail, King composed an open letter in response to some pastors who had questioned the necessity for King's methods of non-violent civil disobedience. In that letter, King essentially laid out a thoughtful rationale for his actions, and also provided inspirational words that have guided many of my own thoughts and actions ever since I first read them.
That letter should be required reading every year in every school in this country.
As regular readers of my column know, through an utter coincidence of fate I found myself in Birmingham, Alabama, many times as a youngster. I almost got into trouble once for trying to drink out of the "wrong" fountain when I tried to discover what color the "colored water" was. Each spring break, or summer, depending on the weather and family circumstances, Mom and Dad would pack up the car and we'd go visit Mom's southern relatives. At that time, her parents lived in a suburb of Birmingham. Little did we know that our family would end up converging with an epicenter of historic events of monumental proportions.
From those Alabama childhood memories, I can even recall one tepid moonlit evening when a relative drove us past a place where civil rights prisoners were being held. We could clearly, but faintly, hear them singing their freedom songs.
I haven't stopped singing ever since that day.
There's much here that I can write about those times, as well as some that I can't, and even more that I won't write about. I was pretty young during the time of the Birmingham demonstration, but that wasn't the only demonstration that happened in the South during the decades of the '50s and '60s. In other northern Alabama towns where Mom's relatives lived, there were other marches and often very dangerous violence. Around the time of the Birmingham troubles, a civil rights worker had even been shot and killed while walking along a highway. Several years before, on Mothers Day, 1961, a bus carrying "Freedom Riders" (people who were involved in the desegregation movement) had been bombed, and its occupants badly beaten not far from where our relatives lived. Tensions ran rampant in northern Alabama in those days. Adding to that tension, for my own little family, was the historic fact that invading Ohio troops had once been heavily involved with Civil War conflicts in that area...and of course, we had an Ohio license plate on our car.
We might as well have painted a target on it.
Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. (Or perhaps in retrospect, it was indeed the right place at the right time!) There were numerous occasions where my family was confronted by hostile looks, remarks, and potentially dangerous situations. Fortunately, we survived them all, but those experiences put an indelible mark on me regarding my empathy towards people whose rights had been denied to them because of the color of their skin. Those experiences also served me well when I went through some very similar prejudicial trauma due to my own speech and hearing so-called "disabilities."
Speaking of which, by now, Lakewood, you must be feeling pretty smug and self-righteous. You've never had any race riots or other significant racial or discrimination troubles...have you? I mean, that sort of stuff just happened in the South....right?
If I had a front row seat to what happened in Birmingham, so too have I had the displeasure of seeing and personally experiencing some of the more disguised but just-as-prevalent prejudice up here in the North. It was true that slavery never existed in Ohio, but have you ever asked yourself why some communities up North were virtually all-white, while others were not? There was a practice called "redlining" going on for years that discouraged "certain" people from moving to "white" communities. In other cases, those "certain" people who dared to move into "white" communities were often confronted with warnings, threats, arson and worse.
When cross-town school busing to achieve integration happened down South, many Northerners smiled in smug satisfaction with the thought that the South was getting what it deserved. When the same thing happened here in Cleveland and in other northern cities, there arose a hue and cry of self-righteous disbelief. Northerners simply couldn't believe that they too were prejudiced. The truth be told, a significant part of the North was. People simply refused to come clean and admit it. Eventually, the practice of "redlining" became illegal. Interestingly, one of the only reasons that suburban communities like Lakewood escaped the desegregation order of cross-town busing was that, because they were separate governments and school districts, it could not be proven that they had conspired to segregate people, even though it was blatantly apparent that, particularly here in Cuyahoga County, there were certainly reasons that primarily "white" cities had been quietly and unofficially kept "white" for many years.
There are many kinds of prejudice too. Racial prejudice during the 1960s was the big issue of course, but other forms of prejudice were also becoming apparent. There was also prejudice against people having physical or other so-called "disabilities." With my own speech and hearing issues, I fit into that category, and I unfortunately suffered much in my childhood from you, Lakewood. I stand today as an eyewitness to your own inadequacies during those times.
To the best of my knowledge, I was the first person having a speech impediment to graduate from an Ohio college program for teachers. Back then, I had been informed that there were rules barring people having speech impediments from entering certain professions. I was even informed that I could probably never become a teacher because of my own speech impediment. Remembering the words of Dr. King, there was no stopping my efforts to enter the classroom as a teacher, and by 1973, I had done so. Disabled rights became a part of the civil rights picture in the mid 1970s, so whatever unfair rules there may have been were eventually found to be unconstitutional.
These days, I have observed that things are very different in our schools, and in very positive ways. As a retired teacher and presently a Lakewood Schools volunteer, I have walked school hallways many times and have marveled at the wonderful and eclectic mix of humanity that comprises our student body. Acceptance of differences, whether racial or physical, has become the expectation for all Lakewood staff and students.
Still, are we all the way to the place, here in Lakewood, where all of this is behind us? Perhaps not yet. Our schools may be closing in on the goals of greater toleration and acceptance, but could our wider community be doing more than we have thus far to work for the social and economic justice that all people need so very much? Cities are indeed struggling with more limited resources these days, and that can adversely impact how we look at the ones who suffer in the socio-economic circumstances that presently surround us. While Lakewood has done much in the past few years to cosmetically beautify our external city, at the same time, have there not been any number of other significant civic, social, and moral issues that perhaps could have been better addressed? Are we REALLY working as hard to beautify our "internal" city as much as we are beautifying the "external" one? One thing's for certain: The justice that Dr. King spoke of does indeed roll on, and will inevitably prevail.