The Legacy of 350 Years Can't Be Undone in 30

January 25, 1994|By LINDA R. MONK

ALEXANDRIA, VIRGINIA — Alexandria, Virginia.--A television special about Vernon Johns has been airing in syndication this past week, to celebrate the recent holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr.

A brilliant scholar and fiery preacher, Johns was the minister of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, during the late 1940s and early 1950s. He criticized his congregation, composed of the city's African-American elite, for adapting to segregation rather than demanding change. Johns attempted to lead a boycott of the city's buses, which forced blacks to sit in the rear, but he was unsuccessful. His confrontational style alienated Johns from the church leadership, and he was eventually forced out.

His successor was a 26-year-old minister with a newly minted doctorate in theology from Boston University -- Martin Luther King Jr. King was thrust into the national spotlight in December 1955 as the leader of a year-long boycott of the Montgomery bus system, which began after seamstress Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man. A massive civil-rights movement had been born, and -- ironically for Johns -- the Dexter Avenue church was its cradle.

As Johns' story makes clear, the Montgomery boycott was not orchestrated by King alone. Indeed, the person perhaps most responsible for the initial success of the boycott was Jo Ann Robinson, an English professor who mimeographed 35,000 copies of a promotional flyer and distributed them a few days before the boycott began. She herself had been forced to take a back seat on the bus in 1949. As a result, she formed the Women's Political Council, which complained unsuccessfully to bus-company officials and developed plans for a city-wide boycott. When Rosa Parks was arrested, the women's council implemented its plan.

It does no disrespect to King for us to remember that no one person is solely responsible for the civil-rights movement. For all King's strengths as a leader and a reconciler, he could not have changed a nation alone.

The person who most changed my life during the civil-rights struggle was not Martin Luther King, but a young black girl named Sandra Gross. My Mississippi school was finally integrated in 1970, and Sandra Gross was in my seventh-grade English class. Our teacher divided the class into teams to re-enact the story of Rip Van Winkle. I was particularly excited by the assignment because I directed a drama troupe that had already performed several plays for the school. When the teacher chose me to be captain of one of the teams, I immediately picked the members of my troupe to be on my team.

The teacher had neglected to designate any of the black students as captains, and when the selection process was over, they were left unpicked at the back of the room. Realizing her mistake, she immediately assigned one black student to each group. Sandra Gross had the misfortune to be assigned to mine.

I was angry that my troupe had been invaded, by anyone, but I was also a very racist little 12-year-old. Growing up poor and white, I was taught that black people were lower than me in social status. I held on to the belief that at least I was one rung up from the very bottom.

I tried to impress that fact on Sandra Gross. I criticized her speech, her grammar, her clothes, her looks. I tried to subordinate her to me in a hundred ways. She obviously didn't like it, but she didn't go away. She stuck it through. Her very presence was a rebuke to me.

My attitudes didn't change right away. It was more a slow metamorphosis, in which Sandra Gross and hundreds like her were the catalysts. Before my school was integrated, I never had much contact with black people. Our family was too poor to afford domestic help, and no black families lived near us. School was where I was finally able to learn about blacks as people, not as caricatures, and it was a painful learning process. By the time I was in the tenth grade, classmates who had known me earlier could see the change.

Today I am profoundly grateful for that change. I shudder to think what kind of person I would have become if Sandra Gross and others had not dared to confront my delusions. And I am deeply ashamed. It's tempting to try to rationalize the shame away: I was only a child; I was just doing as I had been taught. Yet there were other children like me who did not react as I did. That knowledge continues to haunt me. I know all too well that I am not ''naturally'' an enlightened person. I had to learn better.

So did our nation. While we declared that ''all men are created equal,'' we enslaved our African brothers and sisters. Even after 250 years of slavery and a civil war, our nation still had a lot of learning to do. Another 100 years of oppression led to the civil-rights movement. And that was only 30 years ago. As a country, we'd often like to pretend that in those 30 years we've resolved the legacy of the previous 350.

It's hard to face the worst about yourself, to know your own capacity to inflict suffering -- as an individual or as a nation. But such acknowledgment is the only path to redemption. Thanks to Vernon Johns and Martin Luther King and Sandra Gross, I know first-hand.

Linda R. Monk is the author of ''The Bill of Rights: A User's Guide.''

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