Connecting with the past
in the experiences of others
Birthed in 1935, I came to awareness as the great depression faded. Of course, I got to enjoy many accounts of tough economic times. Tales of not having. Yarns of hard times. As my yellow dog Democratic kin might say, "Hoover days."
Across the days of my youth every new purchase was accompanied by a sermon on "not having." Even unexpected upturns in family fortunes were occasions for gloomy and dire predictions of hard times to come. And like most kids, we rolled our eyes in wordless recognition of "there they go again."
My parents, good and frugal souls, must have been frustrated with the inattention of their children to these tales of hard times. They had lived an experience I could not understand. With maturity I came to a deeper appreciation of how they were shaped by the hard economic realities of their early marriage.
I am a Tom Hanks fan. At least that was the excuse for staying up well past my bedtime to enjoy a Hanks-Charlie Rose conversation on TV. Part of the dialogue turned on Hanks' continuing interest in military related tales.
Tom Hanks is an insightful professional. Thus, his answer was no surprise. In filming Forrest Gump at Paris Island he quickly became aware of a gap in his life experience. He had not served in the military. No boot camp. No basic training.
That's correct. The guy who was Captain Kelly of Saving Private Ryan expressed doubts about how he would have performed at Marine boot camp. And as he observed, either way he would have learned more about himself.
This focus on his missing experience led Hanks to continuing collaboration with historian Stephen Ambrose. Incidentally, it was Ambrose's childhood associations with World War II vets that sparked his professional interest in that war.
Two of the men responsible for spurring heightened public awareness of the furnace which tempered The Greatest Generation were drawn to that era, in part, by gaps in their personal experiences.
The most impressive dimension of Hanks' reflection was his need to try to walk in the boots of those Marines in training. Forrest Gump brought Hanks glimpses of every day aspects of courage and endurance. Snapshots of the heroic within ordinary folk.
The weekend before the holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. brought me other reminders of yesterday, specifically 1964-1972. During those years I had a front row seat to view both heroic and cowardly behavior within ordinary people.
You may recall that school desegregation was a two step process. The first stage allowed students "freedom of choice." In late 1969 the period of "choice" came to a sudden but predictable close. The Fifth Circuit Court ordered an end to shilly-shalleying around. Schools were told to integrate "now, not later."
In the freedom of choice era, few very few Negro youth risked attending the previously white schools. These pioneers and their families were tested in profound ways. Most passed those tests better than we bystanders and order keepers. And all earned high grades for courage and fortitude.
In 1969-70, Meridian Junior College inaugurated a basketball program. The court order ending choice came in late Fall 1969. Thus MJC's initial basketball players were enrolled under the "freedom of choice" option.
Over the past thirty years I've kept up with most of those guys. Some successes, some stumbles, some redemptions. While I don't like to use names, this yarn requires my identifying several people. The first was a graduate of Middleton High School, the "colored" high school serving Lauderdale County.
Sammie Cole came to MJC with the encouragement of his coach and math teacher. I can recall Coach Jesse Palmer, now councilman Palmer, telling me "Sammie can do the work, he's a good student."
Wearing the number 32, Sammie Cole could play the game of basketball, too. Tall, lean and quick, Sammie had a great jump shot, a bit flat but very accurate. During his junior college years before heading to Tuskegee, Sammie Cole continued to mature.
In his second year at MJC he set a single game scoring record that stood for years.
Saturday afternoon I watched Sammie Cole Jr. number 31 and his MCC team mates struggle to defeat at the hands of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. Neither team played well. MCC shot more poorly than Gulf Coast. From turnovers to blown lay-ups it was a long afternoon. Ugly.
Later I pondered if Sammie Cole, Jr. would consider his father's achievements at MJC as "heroic." In fact, I doubt Sammie or his 1969-70 team mates would apply that word to their experience. But it was. Most of the teams they faced were all-white. As the most integrated team in their league, player and fan abuse was common. Hostile and heavy.
In January 1970 the court ordered total desegregation to begin. The "freedom of choice" pathfinders were no longer tokens. However, they remained lightning rods. And keeping school got even tougher. Mutual forbearance was not automatic nor easy. But then nobody ever suggested the path toward a color-blind society was smooth.
So on the holiday honoring Dr. King, I hope the folks who experienced the passage of the "civil rights era" found opportunity to share with others a bit about those times. The is much to learn from retracing that particular section of the road to freedom.
The kids need to hear the stories. Even if they roll their eyes.
Bill Scaggs is president emeritus at Meridian Community College and a senior consulting editor for The Meridian Star. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.