Strange the things that come to you through your kids. A week ago my daughter, Ruby, came home with an eighth-grade social studies assignment on the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
“You know,” I told her, “your grandparents were involved with civil rights when I was a kid. Maybe you should talk to them. When I was your age, in the ’60s, I remember my parents going to marches and taking part in protests.”
Ruby contacted my father, hoping that maybe he could share a great, I-once-met-Martin-Luther-King moment or something. Instead, he sent an e-mail account of traveling with some colleagues from Illinois to Mississippi in 1966, shortly after the Voting Rights Act was passed in Congress. Their delegation, along with other groups, went to the South to help register black voters.
He remembered the tension in the air that week in the town of McComb, Miss.—the roadblock checkpoints, the squad cars escorting them from the airport with lights flashing, the trucks with gun racks that circled the house they stayed in, where they slept on the floor in sleeping bags.
He told her about going door to door in black neighborhoods, asking residents to register and offering to help them through the process. I pictured my dad, younger than I am now, walking up to a door and trying to talk to whoever peeked out. What stands out in his memory is the palpable terror in the people he met. The people in this Southern town were scared to be seen even talking to whites because that contact might have dangerous consequences.
Black residents were caught fast in a time of hatred and violence that didn’t stop simply because Congress had passed a law to give them the vote. While he acted with the best of intentions, my father feared that he might have brought more danger and misery to people held in the grip of a racist society.
He wrote that because of the news coverage that came out about the trip, he became estranged from several friends and family members. For whatever reason, they thought traveling to the South to help black people vote was wrong. But his involvement convinced him of the importance of showing up for the causes you believe in, and it helped shape the course of his life.
For my daughter, the history in textbooks suddenly came alive. The images of attack dogs and fire hoses and tear gas and masses of people standing up for their rights now have her grandfather somewhere in the frame. She imagined the 80-something man she plays saxophone/clarinet duets with on vacations on the frontlines of a culture war. She imagined him standing in the pulsing light of police cars, or sleeping restlessly on the floor in a strange house, or meeting the black residents of a tense Southern town who didn’t know how to react to a white stranger knocking on their door with the hope of a new day on his face.
Ruby showed her teacher the e-mail. She cried when she read it. She asked Ruby if she could perhaps bring her grandfather into the class next time he visits so students can ask him questions.
Ruby’s experience made me wonder if our kids’ social studies classes might be better served by meeting people of my father’s generation, or people with different backgrounds, and simply hearing their stories of war, of immigration, of the Depression or the Dust Bowl. These are stories of hardship and exhilaration, triumph and disappointment, cultural glory and ignominy, greatness and meanness. They make up the human grist of history.
It made me think about my parents, the passions that drove them, and still drive them. For in the span of my father’s adult life, our nation has gone from rampant, naked, legally sanctioned racism against black people, to the possibility that the first black man in our history might be elected president. We’ve moved from a time when black people were oppressed in every conceivable way to a time when their votes might help swing a presidential election.
I like to think that some of the people who answered the door to my father’s knock in McComb, Miss., back in 1966, will be proudly handing in their ballots in the broad light of day in the fall of 2008.
Alan Kesselheim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Bozeman.