It was the forty-fifth day of the year, the last day of Black History Week 1969. I was a senior at the Lanier Senior High School, probably no more than five feet eight inches tall, and weighing in, after being soaked in a rainstorm, at one hundred and fifteen pounds.
Lanier had opened its doors to educate white boys exclusively in Macon, Georgia, three years before Dr. Carter G. Woodson began the first observance of Negro History Week in 1927. Most of the town’s leading white citizens had graduated from Lanier. Many did not go on to college. It was enough to have been a “Lanier Boy.” The discipline and bearing of a Lanier boy were unmatched by any white youngster growing up in Middle Georgia during that day.
In 1964, Vernon Pitts, a rising senior at Ballard-Hudson Senior High School, the town’s oldest Negro high school, was permitted to enroll at Lanier by a federal court order. This broke a forty-year pattern of racial segregation at Lanier. Bert Bivins, a graduate of Ballard-Hudson High School had integrated Dudley Hughes, trade school, the year before after completing his military service. Also, the novelist Tina McElroy Ansa had previously integrated Mount de Sales Academy, a school run by the Catholic church in Macon, Georgia.
The following year, another court order opened the door for me to enroll in the ninth grade at Lanier Junior High School. There were perhaps twelve or fifteen of us. We were sent forth to test whether black and white students could successfully navigate the high school years without the racial violence that was prevalent in the larger society.
Throughout our high school years, we were out-numbered about ten-to-one. We were pioneers and as pioneers, we drew the brunt of white anguish over the changing times. We endured the same verbal and emotional abuse that white adults hurled upon civil rights demonstrators in the streets of southern America.
Our abuse was out of sight of television cameras. We were like captives on an island, with “nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.” There was the obvious name-calling, spitballs, a few fist fights, which in spite of the racial overtones were more boys being boys than racial hatred, and one serious threat painted on the wall of the military science building in 1968: “Niggers go home or die!”
No one went home! No one died! It fired me up.
I had for three years suppressed my desire to observe Black History Week. Needless to say, they did not teach, at Lanier, any meaningful contributions to society made by black people. The closest we came to a discussion of black people was about slavery. The hidden beauty of my segregated education prior to 1965 was in the fact that Black principals and Black teachers made sure that each February their Black students got a reminder of their place in American history.
Contributions of black people to America’s cultural and political development were never acknowledged. To do so, would hasten the day when blacks would be treated with the same equality as whites. And, on that day, no self-respecting white person wanted to give life to this possibility. Thus, my first three years at Lanier were devoid of any honorable mention of Negro History Week, the term that was in vogue in the 1960s.
I did not dare ask school administrators if the school would sponsor an observance of Black History Week. I believed that such a request would have died a terrible death and drawn more silent wrath to my remaining weeks in high school.
The thought came to me, that if all the black guys wore suits one day during Black History Week, we would cause our white colleagues to look at us in ways they had never considered before that day. This was a nice non-lethal plan, easy enough to pull off, one would have thought.
However, the plan presented two obstacles.
First, I had to convince about eighty black boys, some who did not own a suit, to wear a suit on Friday, February 14, a day that the kids usually wore blue jeans and sneakers( Students were required to wear a military uniform Monday through Wednesday and usually wore a nice pair of dress slacks on Thursdays). This was my first community organizing job. I spent a solid week on the phone lobbying all 80 black students. Initially, I was met with resistance. The guys were simply afraid to stick their heads out of the fox-hole.
So I twisted the arms of three popular athletes: Kenneth Nixon, the oldest brother of future NBA All-Star, “Norm” Nixon, James “JT” Thomas, a future winner of four Super Bowls, and Isaac Jackson, who was being recruited to Kansas by NFL All-Pro running back, Gale Sayers. When the word got out that Nixon, Thomas, and Jackson were on-board, the other kids agreed.
I went to sleep the night before the big event not knowing what to expect. When I walked on campus, I was greeted by brothers wearing suits, raised clenched fists, and the salutation: “Right on, Brother Harold!”
It was a spectacular day at ole Lanier Senior High School. The brothers looked good. Each of us represented the best of our people and the best in our families. Their chests were stuck out like never before that day. I could feel the buoyancy of pride puffed up in those black bodies, in those gifted minds.
It was very important to me to send this message to my classmates because they had pretended that we had not been present for school for the previous four years.
The second obstacle, I did not foresee. The racial blowback from white students was fierce. They called for White Power Day rallies and intimated that a cross-burning would occur at Harold Harvey’s house later that evening.
The administration, both the major in charge of the military science program and the school principal, threatened to hold me responsible for any fights that broke out that day.
“Are you kidding me,” was the incredulous look on my face. I told them both in separate meetings that we came dressed in our fine Sunday clothes and fighting was the last thing on our minds.
Also, instead of talking to me, they should be talking with the white kids, because our act of solidarity and display of pride for us and our people was not a threat to them or their way of life.
Perhaps, I was a little naive on that last point.
By 2:00 o’clock that afternoon, the coats started coming off and the ties were loosening at the collar, but the smiles – those priceless big boy smiles – I can still see the brothers beaming with pride.
Harold Michael Harvey is an American novelist and essayist, the author of Paper puzzle and Justice in the Round, Easier to obtain Than to Maintain: The Globalization of Civil Rights by Charles Steele, Jr.; and the host of Beyond the Law with Harold Michael Harvey. He can be contacted at haroldmichaelharvey.com.