Education is key to fulfilling the dream of equality
I begin with the recognition that I received a good education from the Independence School District. I was a lazy student, opting out of the difficult math courses after struggling to pass geometry. I finished near the top of my class, but only because they did not have weighted classes in 1971. I had many excellent teachers during my 13 years in the district, but I fear the curriculum was deficient in some respects.
Several of my friends and I were recently lamenting our history lessons in school. Eight of us, all lawyers, regularly share observations on recent events. We agree on much, but especially in our lament over the division in our country. We also agree that our history educations were sterile and uncontroversial.
I even took a Black history class in my undergraduate program as I was a history major concentrating on American History. Even that course, led by an African-American professor, was sterile and bland.
One of my friends asked why we did not learn about some of the more controversial issues in American history. The discussion was prompted by my former law partner’s suggestion that we watch a public television program on Tuesday about the story of Isaac Woodard, a veteran of World War II, who was on his way home after the war and was savagely beaten and blinded by a racist sheriff in rural South Carolina. I previously wrote about this remarkable story on June 13 of last year. I highly recommend watching the two-hour program on public television. It is called “The Blinding of Isaac Woodard.”
I wonder if we had been exposed to the racism that existed throughout American history if we might have a more sensitive view of it today. Racism is acquired through education that comes from friends and family. The only way to battle that education is to enlighten minds in the classrooms.
Fortunately, I grew up in a family that was not racist. I was taught that no one is better than anyone else and that truly we are all created equal. My core belief that opportunity should not depend on who your parents are or where you were born was derived from the education I received from my parents.
I strongly recommend that you watch the PBS program. You will discover as did I that President Truman played a remarkable role in the story of Isaac Woodward. As I was listening to this story, I wondered why I was hearing it for the first time almost 50 years after I graduated from high school as I literally live near the shadows of the Truman home. Shouldn’t my education have included an extensive discussion of Truman’s transformation in his own beliefs about race spurred by the story of an African-American soldier? Or how his own awakening spurred incredible changes in race relations in this country.
We know that President Truman made the bold decisions during World War II to end the war with Japan. We also know about the remarkable victory in the presidential election of 1948, and we all have seen the picture of the president holding up the newspaper proclaiming Thomas Dewey as the victor in the election.
Did we learn the story of Walter White, the leader in the NAACP who met with the president to persuade him to take action on the Woodard case? Did we learn that the president was so outraged after hearing the story that he took the unprecedented step of asking the attorney general to prosecute the racist sheriff who brutally beat Mr. Woodward?
Did we learn that President Truman addressed thousands of members at the annual meeting of the NAACP on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in June 1947 to proclaim his courageous stand for improved race relations in the United States? He said: “It is my deep conviction that we have reached a turning point in the long history of our country’s efforts to guarantee freedom and equality to all our citizens. Recent events in the United States and abroad have made us realize that it is more important today than ever before to insure that all Americans enjoy these rights. And when I say all Americans – I mean all Americans.”
Did we also learn that the president appointed the Committee on Civil Rights to look at the issues, almost 20 years before the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964? Did we learn that he not only desegregated the armed forces with an executive order, but also the entire federal workforce?
The Democratic Party was firmly entrenched in the South, and it was controlled in large part by white men. He undertook these bold steps after the Republicans won the 1946 midterm elections and controlled both houses of Congress. He was also running for the presidency. His courage is most notable because he grew up in rural Missouri with grandparents who migrated to Missouri from Kentucky with their slaves, and some of his early writings have strong language of racism.
If the story of Isaac Woodard is true – and it is apparent by what transpired after it happened after it that it is – then the actions taken by the man who lived three blocks from me were some of the most courageous acts in American history. The Truman Library is reopening soon, and I hope that all students have an opportunity to experience the story of a remarkable president. Racism is still very much a part of our culture, and the only way to combat it is to educate our children.
Bob Buckley is an attorney in Independence. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.