John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

One Person/One Policy Makes a Difference

January 15, 2014John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

Of all the one-liner adages I used repeatedly with my students it was “one person makes a difference.” As my career has progressed and I have seen what a difference both public and institutional policies can make in student success, I now combine the notion of “one person makes a difference” with “one policy makes a difference.”

Next Monday most US colleges and universities will be recognizing the slain civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, one of the best examples I can think of for one person who made a difference. And that one person’s courage, vision, articulateness, more than any one person except perhaps President Lyndon Johnson, led to the one policy in my lifetime which has made more of a difference in terms of how we all live with each other, the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

 I am writing this piece coincidentally, 47 years almost to the day when I first arrived in South Carolina, in 1967 on active duty with the United States Air Force.

I began to immediately realize how far ahead the US military was than the rest of US society, especially South Carolina at that time, because of public policy, forbidding discrimination, in terms of fostering equal opportunity and a more enlightened approach to many things. The base, Shaw AFB, was an island of tolerance and opportunity surrounded by a desert of prejudice and de jure discrimination:

  • Inside, on the base, all children went to school together. Off base the children were legally segregated.
  • On the base, people of equal or comparable military rank were housed together. There was no housing segregation based on race.
  • On base if one wished, it was possible to buy a cocktail, but not off base, at least legally (there was a restaurant about 15 miles from the base that did serve drinks illegally).
  • On the base my boss (squadron commander) was a black man. Believe me, I did what he told me! And the first thing he told me was: “Gardner, you have a lot of education, more than anyone in the Squadron except the doctors (I was a psychiatric social worker in the 363rd Tactical Hospital) and I want you to do some ‘public service’.” When I asked him what he meant by “public service” he explained “college teaching at the University of South Carolina Extension Centers” and that’s how my career got started. Off base, I didn’t see black men supervising white men, anywhere.
  • On base at recreation centers and all forms of “public accommodations”, we all (all races) recreated together. Off base, about 15 miles was a great state part (Poinsett State Park—named for a former US ambassador to Mexico who brought back with him the plant now named for him and universally gifted at Christmas time), and during my first visit to the park a ranger told me: “Our government in Washington is going to ruin this park by us ultimately having to have n—— in this park. And I tell you, the white folks, they will just stop coming…..”
  • On base, we all ate together. Off base, many restaurants had this sign clearly posted on the front door: “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.” And they did. And all knew to whom this code message was directed.
  • On base at the University of South Carolina center, students of all races and ethnicities sat in my classes together. Off base at two USC centers I taught at in Lancaster and Orangeburg, only white students attended.
  • On base, condoms were openly displayed at the checkout counter, next to the candy in the PX. Off base, they were obtained only by whispering to a pharmacist what you wanted but couldn’t find on any shelf.

But that was then. And this is now. In some respects most of today’s college students in the Carolinas have no recollection of anything being legally segregated. Many of them, nationwide too, don’t understand what all this remaining fuss regarding “affirmative action” is all about. I understand. When I look at the data at every campus with whom I work and see the differential performance between black students and all others, I know the legacy of discrimination, as well as continuing discrimination is alive and well.

Today, 47 years later, blacks are coming to that park in South Carolina. And the whites didn’t stop coming at all.

And all children can go to school together, legally, and have been since 1970.

And all campuses, centers, and programs of the University of South Carolina are inclusive of all students. I had the privilege of teaching the first black student who enrolled at the University of South Carolina, Lancaster in 1968. I was thrilled to have him in my class.

And the signs on restaurant doors threatening discrimination are gone.

And we have equal access to all forms of public accommodations. And we can all go anywhere together. And we do. And we date, live with, and marry each other, the latter unless we are of the same gender.

While residential discrimination still exists, it is no longer a matter of legal practice.

And not only all persons of color were covered by the Civil Rights Act, but women too. That came as a surprise to many at the time when protection for women was slipped into the bill. This illustrates how broadly impactful Dr. King’s work was and still is.

We can take this opportunity to remind our students that any of them, and any action of theirs that may lead to institutional, organizational, or legal policy change, can make a huge difference. And that’s another good reason for them to be in college with us now. We need more game changers.

One man, one person, one act of public policy made all this possible.

And that is what I am going to remember and be thankful for next Monday, January, 20, 2014.

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