Again in the last semester of my senior year, the Illinois Wesleyan Political Science Department gave two other students and me another opportunity to represent the school at a special gathering, the annual Public Affairs Conference at Principia College. (By that time I was also taking the first political science course of my college career.) The conference theme was “Combatting Racism.”
The agenda of the conference included a variety of experts. The immediate background of the theme was the February 29,1968, release of the Kerner Commission Report, formally called the President’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, which branded racism as the primary cause of the surge of riots that had recently swept several major American cities. It was the conference objective to consider and design programs and laws that would reverse the separation of America into two racial cultures that were separate and unequal. It was an ambitious undertaking, especially considering that minority groups were barely represented among the participants.
With the division into working groups, I found that my group had one young eloquent black man. He dispensed with the group assignment with the observation that we could imagine many fine ideas for state and federal action that would go nowhere. Instead, we could design goals for ourselves working in the families and communities in which we lived, and these might have some chance of accomplishing something if we were courageous enough to follow through. I was hooked, and so were the other members of the group. Around the circle we considered the actions and processes that would disturb the racism that prevailed where we lived. It was not comfortable, but it was real.
I had grown up in a northern community that was thoroughly segregated, even though it was only a few miles from Chanute Air Force Base. Air Force families of many racial backgrounds lived off-base, but only white families lived in Paxton, where people still boasted a “sunset law” that threatened any darker-skinned person who might be caught there after sunset. I had spoken about racial justice in the few sermons I was invited to preach in my home church, but I had not approached the members of the Paxton City Council that I knew, who had it in their power to renounce the “sunset” idea and prepare the town to be open to all.
Black friends lived in neighboring towns, but they would not risk coming to Paxton, even to take part in such common activities as bowling, seeing a movie, swimming, or roller-skating. I was welcome in their homes to eat meals and enjoy their company, and they were welcome in my home, which was miles from town in the countryside. The town’s segregating attitude had to change. That would change, I was confident, as the months went by.
We resolved to implement the plans we made. The other groups reported ambitious government programs that would take large scale political action. Our group’s report seemed pale and meager in comparison. In hindsight, few of the ambitious goals that were formulated there, or in the Kerner Report, came to be embodied in actions in the decades that followed.
I returned to my home town and approached the public officials that I knew. To a one, they thought it was “too soon” or “too radical” to do what I was suggesting. Furthermore, the time for me to do the organizing that was needed even to accomplish such a modest goal was short, as I was preparing to marry and begin my graduate education in Chicago. There, in Chicago, I would learn what life in an integrated community was like, and how deprived my own background had been.
Fifty years later, returning to Paxton, finding a mix of people in the school system, working in the businesses, and living in the town, I wonder why it took us so long, and why we still have so far to go. There is still a lot of room for both large-scale and meager goals and the courage to embody them.