Making a statement for tomorrow, in school

October 15, 1997|By Harold Jackson

TWO YEARS after the Million Man March, Louis Farrakhan wants another symbolic display of atonement for African-Americans' sins against each other that would also serve as a display of black power. He wants black school children to stay home tomorrow. Their parents, too.

Such calls for community action put black people in a quandary. Recognizing they are too often viewed as monolithic, they also know that in unity they can find strength. But should they unite behind Mr. Farrakhan, whose message of segregation -- a tenet of his brand of Islam -- is revolting to many African-Americans?

It is ironic that although Martin Luther King Jr.'s goal was integration, his decision to put children in the forefront of the civil rights crusade raised a similar question among black parents 34 years ago in Birmingham, Alabama.

An economic boycott of white-owned stores to get them to hire African-American clerks, desegregate lunch counters and provide bathrooms for blacks was making little headway. King made a tactical decision to involve children in mass marches to help gain the nation's sympathy for his cause. Black children were also asked to boycott their schools.

The request struck at the very heart of what blacks in Alabama since the days of Booker T. Washington had been taught to hold almost as sacred as religion -- education. Many families drew the line at boycotting schools, no matter how much they agreed with what King was trying to accomplish.

The matter wasn't even discussed at my house. If school was in session, we were expected to be there. Thus, as a 9-year-old, I was totally unprepared while walking to school with one of my brothers one morning to be confronted by two older children who demanded we turn around and go home.

Their tone of voice was a mistake; my brother, Don, even then one of the most stubborn people you will ever meet, didn't much like demands. As teen-agers, his stubbornness gained our passage through areas where knife-wielding gang members demanded tolls of others.

Child's conviction

But the young civil-rights activists, each on a bicycle, didn't threaten us that day. Their belligerence grew out of their conviction. They expected other children to see things as they did and couldn't understand why some of us did not. I don't remember all that was said. I do remember my brother and I went to school.

Some of my friends stayed home. Some even marched. A third-grade classmate, Audrey Faye Hendricks, was one of the youngest jailed by Bull Connor. Her story is among the most compelling in the 1993 book, "Freedom's Children" by Ellen Levine.

What Audrey and other young civil rights demonstrators did in 1963 made a difference. The world watching their brutal treatment by Connor's police officers and dogs reacted with horror. King won the battle of Birmingham as a result, gaining reluctant agreement to his modest demands.

Minister Farrakhan's call for children to stay out of school tomorrow won't have that kind of impact. It won't even reproduce the afterglow of the Million Man March, which brought hundreds of thousands of black men together, only to see Mr. Farrakhan squander the opportunity to build an organization to harness the energy produced by that event.

On the second anniversary of the march, all Mr. Farrakhan has to suggest is a lesser act of symbolic unity -- that black people not go to school or their jobs. Shall we turn on our porch and car lights during the daytime, too?

Mr. Farrakhan betrays his own archaic view of America by suggesting his message will resonate "when whites of the nation wake up on that morning and they don't see their cook or they go to the airport and we don't see the baggage carrier." Black people hold more important jobs where their absence would be felt.

But it shouldn't be surprising that Mr. Farrakhan doesn't have better ideas to spark movement on the issue of race. Who does? Not President Clinton's race commission. Not the organizers of the upcoming Million Woman March. Like its male predecessor, the woman's march will make people feel good for a while. But, unlike going to school, its tangible results will be hard to quantify.

Harold Jackson writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 10/15/97

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