The Unfinished Movement for Social Justice
John N. Gardner
We all need reminders of who we could be/should be, me included. Although I like to think of myself as a person who speaks out, takes frequent public stands advocating values based points of view, I could do more. I should do more. This is especially important in terms of the examples we set for our students and our colleagues who may be less powerful than us.
I can’t help but be reminded on this 2015 Martin Luther King national holiday weekend of the person, what he stood for, what he said, what he did, what happened to him, his legacy, and the as yet unfulfilled aspects of that legacy. I also remember the events surrounding his murder, on Thursday, April 4, 1968, and the impact of this national tragedy on me personally.
When I heard the news reports that Thursday the first thing I could think of in terms of how I would respond was the fact that I was to teach a class the next night, a Friday evening. At that time in my life I was on active duty in the United States Air Force, proudly and meaningfully so, where I was a psychiatric social worker. I was also a part-time adjunct instructor for the University of South Carolina’s Regional Campuses, teaching multiple courses at three of those locations. About six weeks before Dr. King’s murder, I had been teaching one February night down in a rural county seat, Orangeburg, about 50 miles south of my base. I was teaching to a class of nursing students. That night the South Carolina Highway Patrol opened fire on a group of African American college students who were protesting the continuing segregation of a bowling alley. Thirty-three students were shot, all in the back; and three died. The wounded were brought to the hospital where I was teaching. This event was memorialized in a subsequent book, The Orangeburg Massacre. This event was one of the contributing factors to the passage that year by Congress of the Omnibus Crime Control Act, to provide funds for training of law enforcement personnel for crowd control. The Highway patrol officers were twice indicted, twice acquitted. Being involved in civil rights protests in that era was a very dangerous matter.
My class the day after Dr. King’s murder was in Lancaster, South Carolina, a small, textile mill town, where most all my students were the children of mill workers or even a few of the mill workers themselves. They were courageous and inspiring students and I was always thinking of what I could do to get them thinking, interacting, rattling their cages. One of my publicly stated goals at the beginning of the semester was to create a learning environment where it would be possible for each student to have an epiphany, an intellectual insight so powerful that it could be transformative when the insight was converted to an intention to act, and then finally some action.
I had very little time to prepare for that class after I learned of the murder, less than 24 hours. But I decided that I would set aside the planned order of business and instead offer a set of readings as a eulogy for the now late Martin Luther King. I dashed out of our psychiatric clinic at the base hospital to our very good base library where they had an almost complete collection of his works. I checked out four of them and poured over them that evening to make my selections.
The next day I carried out my plan. My students were initially stunned, more I think by what I was doing than the news of the death itself. When I asked them for some feedback to the first reading there was an initial stony silence. But I knew if I gave them time I could wait them out and they would gather their courage and open up. And they did. It was definitely the best class of the term—for me and some students, but not all.
The next Friday evening when I arrived on campus to teach the same course, there was a note in my mailbox from the campus chief executive officer, a man I rarely saw because my class was definitely not in the normal classroom period of campus operations. In fact, my class was the only one offered at this time. And this was because the campus was so desperate for an adjunct instructor for this course that they let me teach it at the only time I was available, given my 65 mile drive from my base, and the fact that a Friday night was the only night that I didn’t have to be at my most alert to see patients the next morning. This campus dean was an impressive guy, with a PhD in American Civil War history and a prior career of distinguished service to our country, including service in the Army in World War Two and then in the predecessor organization to the CIA. And I had thought that he and I were on good terms. Specifically, he had offered me a full-time appointment to teach at his campus starting the next fall after I was slated for discharge from the Air Force—and I was looking forward to joining that faculty.
The Dean’s note requested me to come by to see him before my class. So I did so, and it was not a good conversation. He informed me of how troubled he was by the fact that I had “violated the community norms” by my readings the previous week of the writings of Martin Luther King. Apparently, a “delegation” of my students had come to see him to protest what I had done and to formally accuse me of being a “N—– Lover”! And while he was raking me over the coals for my views on the civil rights movement, he informed me of additional student complaints about my views on the Vietnam War, even though I was currently on active duty in the armed forces and had volunteered for such service. He explained to me that because of the long history of discrimination against black citizens and resulting inferior education, that a higher proportion of them were failing the Selective Service mental and physical exams. In turn, that meant that the local draft board had been drafting a higher proportion of white students, a proportion of whom in turn were being injured and killed in Vietnam. He informed me I was doing my students, those men who would not maintain a B average and therefore be drafted into the military, a disservice by telling them the “truth” about the Vietnam War. I was specifically instructed not to say anything that would “disillusion” my impressionable students.
Well, so much for academic freedom. This was South Carolina four years after the Civil Rights Act. And so much for my sense that I would be a good fit for that campus. What did I do going forward? I returned to my course and for the balance of the term I was unreconstructed and remained defiant to my dean’s strictures. And I made a preemptive strike and resigned from the Dean’s offer of full-time appointment for the following academic year. The times were different. I survived to fight the Civil Rights battles another day, at another institution where I promptly landed for the following fall term.
This was my first adult experience of standing up, and paying some price. But my outcomes, unlike Dr. King’s were not life terminating. I had acted on my conscience and my sense of intellectual and academic integrity. I had been moved by a person I admired. I felt like I was a part of history and that I just had to start taking actions as part of this civil rights movement. I was young, 24, unmarried, no debt, no obligations, other than to obey the orders of the Air Force. This was the start of my own professional journey to contribute to the social justice movement, one I am still pursuing.
As I look back, I am confident that this would not happen today, were I still teaching in South Carolina. Subsequent generations of students have moderated their views significantly. Many of them now truly live in great comfort with diversity in all its manifestation. We have made progress.
And I am confident that no academic administrator at the University of South Carolina today would engage in such a gross violation of academic freedom our students still need to be inspired, shaken up, appropriately provoked and stimulated by the curricular and co-curricular experiences we provide.
And, we, my blog readers, are the ones who have to do it, particularly as this is increasingly less likely to be done in other sectors of our society.
So, Martin Luther King Day 2015 reminds me of the origins of my own unfinished work on behalf of social justice. The Day reminds me of the significance of Dr. King for me and many, many millions of my fellow citizens.