It's the highlight of my year: a visit to Governor's School at Hendrix College in Conway, which brings together promising young people from every corner of the state during the summer between their junior and senior years in high school. It's something for an old man to anticipate, then enjoy, and most important of all, learn from. I always leave refreshed, cheered, buoyed. There's hope after all.
It is the great indulgence of the old to lecture the young, and it is the great kindness of the young to pretend to listen. It is a curious experience to be a guest speaker anywhere, but especially here at this annual school, camp session and general kumzitz for Arkansas' best and brightest young people--or most interesting, anyway. They're all here not because their grades are necessarily the best, but because they seem to be the most interested in things intellectual, artistic, scientific or all of the above, which is what makes them interesting.
So here's how being a guest speaker works: You listen to the glowing introduction, then settle back to hear what so august a personage has to say, and then it hits you -- You're on!
Surprise: That's you who was being introduced.
There's nothing to inspire a little humility -- even in a full-time opinionator and therefore egoist -- like looking out at an auditorium of several hundred bright young people. Which means they're bound to be judgmental young people. They can't help it, being both intelligent and probing. Though they're much too polite to show it.
That's something else I've noticed about the kids at Governor's School over the years. They're invariably well mannered. Maybe it's just because they're Southern, or maybe, I'd like to think, it's because they're already discovered that manners are the best lubricant when it comes to intellectual intercourse. Powerful thing, good manners. They may even induce a minimal humility in us know-it-all types.
This year I had a hopeful theme to elaborate on. Because this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, perhaps the most influential Civil Rights Acts in the long succession of them that marked this country's slow ascent out of a history of first slavery and then racial segregation. It's an anniversary worth noting. It deserves more than noting; it's worth celebrating. More to the point, its passage half a century ago sets an example worth following.
Lest we forget in all the to-do over how far we've come, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was born out of the racial turmoil that claimed the life of Martin Luther King Jr. The law was enacted only a year after the assassination of an American president, John F. Kennedy, and showed that Americans of good will, whatever our party or politics, could unite to do the right thing. Deadlock needn't be a permanent feature of congressional politics after all.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a legislative vehicle with a lot of moving parts. It contained a long list of reforms, as if America had finally gotten around to cleaning out a bunch of skeletons in our national closet. Perhaps its most influential section was the one that gave all Americans equal access to public accommodation -- places like hotels, hospitals, schools, restaurants, theaters ... you name it. Whether they were private businesses or public institutions.
Even more impressive, for those of us who lived through those days, the law was accepted immediately and with no significant resistance or even evasion. Which was remarkable in the days when Arkansas -- and other Southern states -- had politicians like Orval E. Faubus and J. William Fulbright, the kind of opportunistic politicians who'd made something of a career out of massive resistance to simple justice. Simple justice long delayed.
I remember driving up to Missouri, where I was going to the University of Missouri's school of journalism back then, and stopping at a filling station up around the Arkansas border. A black family -- in those days we'd say a colored family -- pulled in behind me to get some gas for their car and use the bathroom. No, said the attendant, we'll sell you the gas but you can't use the rest room. That's reserved for white customers.
I'd grown up with that sort of thing. But for some reason having to watch that one little scene out of the whole vast panorama of racial injustice made me furious. I yanked the hose out of my car's gas tank, let it drop with a clatter, and told the man I didn't want a drop more of his damned gasoline. When you're young, you still have that keen sense of justice most of us do as children, before we've learned to avert our eyes and accept its opposite. I'd like to think the kids at Governor's School still have that innate sense for right and wrong. And won't let the world and the years grind it down.
Nowadays, I'm keenly aware of what's politely called "the indignities of old age," but that's part of a natural process to which all mortals are subject. But the indignity I witnessed that day so long ago was purely artificial, man-made and infuriating. Those little kids, cooped up in the family car for a long trip, just needed a rest room -- but old Jim Crow wouldn't let them, and I'm glad this generation of Americans doesn't have to put up with that kind of accepted, corrosive, day-to-day ugliness any more.
I'm glad that's over with -- thanks in great part to a leader like Lyndon Johnson, the Democratic president and before that a masterful leader of the U.S. Senate, who pushed that Civil Rights Act into law. And thanks to another master of the Senate, old Everett Dirksen, the grandiloquent orator from the Great State of Illinois and Land of Lincoln.
In his time, Senator Dirksen was known as the Wizard of Ooze for his love of wordplay and his basso profondo delivery. He always sounded as if he had a very sore throat. The senator took one look at the laundry list of reforms included in this one civil rights act and declared it an attempt "to unscrew the inscrutable."
And yet the bill passed.
You have to wonder if the country could unite now as it did then in bipartisan unity and support a cause that had nothing going for it except that it was right thing to do. Could we today tackle the long-ignored need for a complete reform of our broken immigration laws? Or the need to keep this country America actively engaged in the world instead of yielding to our old isolationist impulses -- and assuming that the world's troubles will never affect us here. Despite what we should have learned again and again -- from December 7, 1941, to September 11, 2011.
I'd like to think these bright young kids at Governor's School -- and their generation -- know better. And will do better than their elders. Which is another reason I wish each and every one of them Godspeed.