I hope everyone doesn’t stop learning about black history after this shortest month of the year is over. The more we are exposed to diverse people and cultures, the more we understand about each other, and the greater our empathy will be.
In 1954, a white professor of constitutional law, Charles L. Black, Jr. helped Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. to write the legal brief for Linda Brown, a 10-year-old student in Topeka, Kansas, whose historic case, Brown v. Board of Education, decided May 17, 1954, became the Supreme Court’s definitive judgment on segregation in American education.
It is instructive to learn how Professor Black came to feel the way he did about African Americans. In 1931, as a 16-year-old freshman at the University of Texas at Austin, he happened to hear Louis Armstrong play. He later wrote in the Yale Law Journal,
He was the first genius I had ever seen. … It is impossible to overstate the significance of a sixteen-year-old Southern boy’s seeing genius, for the first time, in a black. We literally never saw a black then in any but a servant’s capacity. … It had simply never entered my mind…that I would see [genius] for the first time in a black man. You don’t get over that. You stay young awhile longer, with the hesitations, the incertitudes, the half-obedience to crowd-pressure, of the young. But you don’t forget. The lies reel, and contradict one another, and simper in silliness, and fade into shadow. But the seen truth remains. … Through many years now, I have felt that it was just then that I started toward the Brown case, where I belonged. … Louis opened my eyes wide, and put to me a choice. Blacks, the saying went, were ‘all right in their place.’ What was the ‘place’ of such a man, and of the people from which he sprung?”
In 1957, as Black was working on the Brown case, and the South was still resisting, he wrote out and published his heartfelt thoughts on the failure of whites and blacks “to recognize kinship.” Black was determined that the law should be formulated as if that kinship were recognized.
The late historian Howard Zinn wrote in 1966 that the source of the greatest leaps forward in history were made by those who acted “as if.” He wrote:
The four Negro youngsters in Greensboro who in 1960 walked into Woolworth’s acted as if they would be served; Garrison and Phillips, against all apparent common sense, acted as if they would arouse a cold nation against slavery; England in 1940 acted as if it could repel a German invasion; Castro and his tiny group in the hills behaved as if they could take over Cuba.”
If we, too, act as if we can alter the world for the better, maybe we can.