To the editor:
I was happy to see The Daily News article, “Seniors give River Valley kids a history lesson” because my son’s participation in this project opened up his eyes to the civil rights era. Not only did he hear many personal experiences of a transitional period in our nation’s history directly from people who witnessed this difficult time, the experience also deepened my son’s relationship with his grandfather, whom he interviewed as part of the oral history project.
Now, my father and I often find ourselves on different sides of the political spectrum; I wouldn’t have thought he had been particularly attuned to issues of justice and rights in the years leading up to civil rights legislation. Yet a story he related to my son showed why Jim Crow was an insidious system that hardly veiled the pervasive racism of the South. While my father was in the Army Reserves in the early 1960s, he and his fellow soldiers traveled from Fort Dix, N.J., to Kentucky as part of their training. Waiting in a Kentucky bus station for the return trip north, they decided to have a meal at the lunch counter, only to be told that their African-American fellow soldier would have to eat in the “colored section.” In a gesture of solidarity, my father suggested that all of the soldiers should eat at the segregated counter with their friend. And when they returned to Fort Dix, they sought further solidarity from soldiers who agreed to always eat in the colored section of the Kentucky bus station during future trips south.
My father is not someone who makes social justice a cause in his everyday life, yet he encountered an injustice that required action in the moment. Perhaps these small gestures by people who didn’t see themselves as directly invested in change offered a little momentum to a growing civil rights movement the early 1960s. These gestures certainly did not carry the immense risk associated with organized activism, but perhaps they show us that change can take place in society when people move from being mere abstractions to concrete fellow citizens. My father’s association — his sense of collegiality with this man — made him want to throw a wrench in the machine of racism. This suggests that we have to do better to get to know people on a personal level if we want society to change. Broad abstractions about justice are only effective if we connect them to our neighbors, friends and associates.
My hat goes off to the teacher, Colin Gibney, for taking a history lesson into lived experience across decades and across generations. It’s important to note that the teachers at the school are not old enough to fully grasp the extent of civil rights struggles. We need to enlist those who remember the past if we want to continue trying to create a better society in the present.