As a graduate student, I was a Teaching Assistant (TA) for Civil Rights leader Julian Bond’s popular “History of the Civil Rights Movement” class at the University of Virginia. Bond was whip smart, like many of my professors, but unlike them in style: he was suave, debonair, slyly funny. He was a college student at Morehouse when he joined the movement, helping to found the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Poverty Law Center. He served in the Georgia state legislature for years before beginning his teaching career. And, he could hold an entire lecture hall of students mesmerized for hours on end.
I learned so much in that class, sitting alongside my fellow TAs and guiding hundreds of undergraduates. Bond taught me the complexity of the movement, the layers. Of course, we learned about the leaders of that effort—Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Bob Moses—but Bond always emphasized its bottom-up nature. To him, it was “a people’s movement. It produced leaders of its own; but it relied not on the noted but the nameless, not on the famous but the faceless.” This theme shaped his lectures and our readings. Bond didn’t idolize King—he respected him. He emphasized that everyday people, particularly women like Fannie Lou Hamer and Jo Ann Robinson, played unsung but crucial roles in making change.
I thought of Bond and King last week when we had a Morning Ex about people who have fought for change in our history. King was mentioned, but he wasn’t the focus. (I think Bond would have approved.) Lower Schoolers reported on different changemakers they had studied and how they represented the “five words” that guide their studies: respect, integrity, compassion, kindness and inclusion. Middle Schoolers spoke about “lollipop moments,” a reference to an inspiring YouTube video that reminds each of us that we have the capacity to make a difference in the lives of others and prods us to thank those who have done so for us. Upper Schoolers gave examples of ways they have used their voices, or paintbrushes, or laptops, or feet to make their views heard. It was hard not to be moved by the eloquence and heart of our students—JK-12.
The optimism of the young was inspiring, and I have no doubt that King and Bond would have been impressed had they been in attendance. I’m quite sure they would have effusively praised our wonderful students. And then, once classes had begun, perhaps lingering after for conversation, they probably would have asked hard questions of the adults in the room. Are you teaching students about the problems of the day? What does it mean to “Live and Serve”? What are your values and how do you live them?
I think a lot about these questions and how North Shore can respond. In a complex world, I find only complex answers. Surely, it is easier to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day than to probe economic and social inequality in America—but we fail our students if we don’t. It is easier to state our values on the website than to live them day-to-day, but we fail our mission if we don’t. It is easier to ignore those who are marginalized in our society—including members of our own community—than to speak out against hateful rhetoric but we fail our students and our mission if we don’t. We must hear different voices, affirm our values, lean into discomfort and do our best to help our students and ourselves understand and navigate a tumultuous world. We will stumble along the way but we must keep trying.
King once argued that “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” The change-makers from Morning Ex—famous and nameless, historic and present-day, adult and student—had an answer: they worked to educate others and sacrificed to make positive change. We can’t be afraid to do the same. We must “Live and Serve.” We must keep trying.