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The national holiday honoring the birth of Martin Luther King Jr. has come and gone now as quietly as Presidents Day, that nebulous excuse for a day off from school when students and parents alike barely remember which presidents we're talking about.

Admittedly, I treated the King holiday as just another day when my kids got to sleep late and I didn't have to drag them out into the cold, dark morning.

But the next day, Tuesday, I felt a deep sense of shame at my apathy. Reading the local daily newspaper, there was little evidence that my community considered a remembrance of the civil rights movement leader's life as a significant or necessary civic act.

Surely, some would say, that is because King's work has been accomplished in America and there is no longer a need to beat the dead horse of political and social integration and equal rights for people of all colors. That has been accomplished, right? Do we really need to keep talking about it?

Of course we do.

In the current climate, when discourse about our government's role in the world is discouraged and the faintest act of civil disobedience is seen as treasonous, it seems more important than ever that we continue to look at that remarkable time, at King's leadership, and at all the remarkable players in the civil rights movement as heroes of democracy in action.

We forget so quickly how hard and long it took for change to come to the white segregationist strongholds of this country. When I was growing up in the mid-South, I was in the middle of civil rights history and didn't even know it. Sixty miles up the road from my home, in Nashville, students from black colleges were staging sit-ins at the Woolworth's lunch counter while angry white men spit at them and berated them, standing firm in their position that blacks and whites shouldn't be allowed to eat from the same table.

When my family moved to Jackson, Tennessee, in the mid-'60s, I thought I lived in an all-white town. Although legally the schools were supposed to be desegregated, a white kid in Jackson could easily go through elementary school, junior high and high school without ever sharing a classroom or a lunchroom with an African American. Black teenagers attended Merry, the black high school, their parents shopped at stores white people never saw, and the white leadership of the town saw no reason for things to change. Our lives only intersected at track meets. The only black adults we saw were maids in the homes of rich white people, porters at the all-white country club, or sweaty rhythm-and-blues bands brought up from Memphis to entertain a feverish roomful of white teen-agers at a Moose Club dance.

I didn't even know that there was a black college in Jackson until 1969 when student riots there ended in the burning of the science building. White students were not taught about the brave students from Lane College, the oldest historically black college in that part of the country, who took to the streets in 1960, marching past the Confederate monument in Court Square. And if you had picked up the Jackson Sun, the local daily newspaper, the next day, you wouldn't have known that 144 of those demonstrators were arrested and thrown in the county jail for disorderly conduct. The story was buried on page 14 of a 16-page edition, past the sports and the social column.

We were not taught that those Lane College students marched in support of black sharecroppers in the surrounding rural counties who were kicked off the land they worked by white landowners when they demanded their right to vote. We were oblivious to the fact that some 40 black families lived in tents for as long as two years in those counties, waiting for the courts to assure them of their rights.

We didn't think it strange; it didn't even enter our consciousness that until the mid-'60s the West Tennessee State Fair was staged in two sessions -- the first week for whites and the second week for blacks.

On Tuesday of this week, feeling distanced and estranged from Martin Luther King Day celebrations, I looked up the Jackson Sun on the Internet. The Web site featured a series completed a few years back on the untold story of the civil rights movement in Jackson, including the paper's complicity in covering up the activities of Lane College students. That series is now reprinted, distributed and taught in every school in Madison County.

And page one of the Jackson Sun featured three stories about Martin Luther King Day activities in Jackson and the surrounding communities.

We need to keep talking about it because it's important to remember heroes and it's important to remember who we were in this country just 30 or 40 years ago. We need to look at ourselves now and ask the hard question: Are we living up to the promise of Dr. King and his movement?

For every Lane College story, there are hundreds of others likely to be forgotten. Remembering, it seems, is the very least we can do.

  • The national holiday honoring the birth of Martin Luther King Jr. has come and gone ...

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