I first met Rev. Dr. Mark Morrison-Reed several weeks ago when he spoke at my church and gave the sermon on Sunday morning. Upon hearing about his life story which led him to becoming an Unitarian Universalist minister, I decided to purchase and read one of his books – In Between: Memoir of an Integration Baby. The book is both a memoir and a valuable and poignant history lesson about what it was like growing up as an Afro-American during the Civil Rights movement.
Throughout the book there are thoughtfully vivid and endearing reflections about his family and childhood, important facts, and above all, crucial discussions about race relations in the United States and elsewhere. Having personally grown up in a fairly privileged, white family just a few years after Dr. Morrison-Reed, I could relate in part to his general perceptions about those tumultuous times, but not to the direct, day-to-day impacts he and his family faced. As a result, I found his perspective enlightening. At the same time, I found my poor understanding of the differences between our experiences to be troubling, which caused me to reconsider my “semi-Pollyanna” memories of youth.
Right from the get go, the book noted an important historical fact that I had either forgotten, overlooked, or was never taught – all three of which are pitifully shameful excuses — the United States Capitol building had been built with slave labor (page 4). I have no idea why that historical detail escaped my attention all these years when it makes perfect sense, given the time frame of the building’s construction. If I didn’t even know that factoid, then how in the world could I ever considered myself to be an enlightened and open-minded person regarding the topic of race?
To this day, I can recall being on spring break with my family at Longboat Key, Florida when Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. I can remember my parents discussing whether they should try to bypass Atlanta and Nashville on our way home back to Indianapolis – neither city had a completed beltway at the time. In the end, we took the traditional route through the two cities.
I can also clearly remember the debate, both in the media and around the dinner table about school busing and desegregation in my hometown of Indianapolis. I was opposed to the idea of transferring to a private school after eighth grade, but not because I was taking a righteous, ethical, or moral stand in favor of integrated schools, but because the majority of my friends were staying in the public school system. Wow…does that memory ever sound selfish, ignorant, and hypocritical in hindsight.
The reason I am potentially boring everyone about certain segments of my youth is that is what is so great about Dr. Morrison-Reed’s book — it causes one to look back and reflect. Not just on one’s own life, but at our society as a whole. When two people as well-educated and esteemed as Mark Morrison-Reed’s parents can still face the ugly blots of racism, one must rethink our precepts about the United States. Even today, Afro-Americans, Muslim-Americans, women, and immigrants continue to face similar treatment by so-called freedom-loving Americans who think our country is some sort of massive, private, white males-only, flag-waving membership club.
One only need to turn to the recent tragedy in Sanford, Florida to see exactly what the Mark Morrison-Reed is talking about in his book when he cites the differences in growing up as an Afro-American in our nation. Here is an example that eerily sound like it could have come from today’s headlines:
“Many white folks find this impossible to believe, but being a black man in America is risky business — you never know when something bad is going to happen for no other reason than that you’re black and you’re there.
Several years earlier, it had happened to my brother, Philip. After he had moved to Denver he’d been riding his bicycle home from work when he found himself pinned spread-eagle against a squad car, and all he could do was pray that the cops didn’t do anything even more idiotic. His crime was riding through Lakeview, a white neighborhood, just after a drugstore had been robbed, and he happened to be the first black man the police encountered. Philip was carrying his security clearance for the United States Geological Survey, but they just wanted to know how he got his hands on it. They kept him sitting on the curb until their supervisor arrived; the, opening his backpack, they found a geology textbook and a research paper. They eventually released him, but offered not a word of apology, and it took the threat of legal action by the director of the Geological Survey to force them to expunge Philip’s arrest record.” (page 178)
In Between is a superb and thought-provoking book that I highly recommend reading. I also believe it would be a particularly useful textbook in high school and collegiate history classes which focus on the 20th century, Civil Rights, or Afro-American history. Dr. Morrison-Reed’s book will make you smile, laugh, shake your head, and cry. Above all, it will cause you to reflect — and that in itself is an important step towards healing a nation so fractured by race relations for far, far too long.