Commentary: Maybe the next generation will be the colorblind one

At a Fort Worth public school this week, my job was to give the young elementary and middle school students a dose of black history and try to make them understand what they still find very hard to believe.

For most of them, it is inconceivable what some Americans experienced in this country just a few years ago. For these students at Como Montessori School, those past injustices represented not only a different time, but a different world; certainly not the America they know.

As I looked into the audience gathered in the auditorium -- a space that seemed to be an exact replica of the auditorium where I had sat as a student at Riverside Elementary many years ago -- the kids reminded me of me. Except, as I told them, all of us would not have been in this place together.

"If I were here," I said, "most of these teachers wouldn't be here -- do you understand?"

One young white boy raised his hand and asked, "Was it because of segregation?"

"Yes indeed," I said, as I noticed several students with puzzled looks, apparently wondering about what the word segregation really meant.

To demonstrate, I asked the first six students in the second row to join me up front. They eagerly obliged.

Immediately I asked two young boys to separate from the group, and put them to one side, explaining that for this moment, one of them would be me and another would be my brother. Bobby and Andrew, I named them.

We were going back in time to 1960, so Bobby and Andrew needed to understand that they would no longer be going to this school because the other three boys and young girl attended, and black kids weren't allowed to go to school with white kids.

All of their eyes widened with surprise as the students gasped at such a suggestion.

The four white students cheered when I told them, "By the way, you guys can go to Forest Park and the zoo any day you want to."

Their faces turned to frowns, however, as I turned to their classmates and said, "Bobby and Andrew, you can only go to Forest Park one day out of the year, and you can even swim in the swimming pool that day. But the next day -- the day after June 19th -- the city will drain the pool because they don't want the white kids to use the same water where you swam.

"We're also going to have separate water fountains for you, one for whites and one for blacks. And Bobby and Andrew, you'll have to ride on the back of the bus, and you won't be able to go to movies downtown."

Turning to the audience, I asked, "'Hablas español?" About one-third raised their hands. Motioning them to put down their hands, I said, "Remember, this is 1960, and if any of you are caught speaking Spanish at school, you will be spanked."

Shock came across their faces as I explained that they had witnessed just a little taste of segregation, something I lived with daily while growing up in Fort Worth.

Although we have made tremendous progress since those days, as illustrated by our very presence together that day, I told them that sadly there are still people in the world who discriminate against others based on the color of their skin, their religion or the country their parents came from.

One young man stood up and said, "I think we should ban racism forever."

I pointed out that through laws and court rulings we had banned many racist acts, but in reality there is no way we can ban what is in a person's mind or heart, the places where racism lives and thrives. It was up to them, I said, to help change things by vowing to treat all people like your brothers and sisters.

"We're one big family," I said. "And even though every now and then somebody in the family may get on your nerves, you still love them. You still respect them."

The students took that vow, promising to treat each other, regardless of their ethnic differences, with dignity and respect.

We spent the rest of the period addressing questions of "Why?" and "What if?" and "How would it make you feel ...?"

I left Como Montessori feeling hopeful, having made a few hundred new friends -- a few more little brothers and sisters whom I know will make us proud some day.