Commentary

A Selma Reunion

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This time, when history prompted, our gift for improvising failed us. In June, my high-school graduating class--or part of it--held a 20th-year reunion. When I first heard that classmates who still lived in my hometown were organizing a gathering, I thought that, for reasons more compelling than social amusement, I might like to attend. The occasion could serve both to commemorate our unusually troubled, yet accomplished past and to symbolize our acceptance of a promising but difficult future. For we were a historic group: the first class to graduate from a fully integrated public school in Selma, Ala.

By following our academic tracks, a student of the civil-rights movement might map the course of desegregration during the decade of its greatest gains. We attended segregated kindergartens and elementary schools in the late 1950's and early 60's. Even though we lived in a town whose population was divided nearly equally between black and white, few of us would have had any contact during those years with a contemporary of the other race. But by the time we finished 6th grade, in 1965, we had certainly learned that, whatever our experience, whatever our wishes, racial conflict would color our future lives.

In March of that year, we witnessed the events that would make Selma synonymous with hate. Watching the evening news, we learned our lives again. We heard a language of aspiration and anguish that we were too young to understand; we saw billyclubs and blood. We did not play outside much during those days. A classmate's father was named among a group of three men alleged to have beaten and killed the Rev. James Reeb, a Unitarian minister from Boston who had come to participate in the march to Montgomery.

By the time we moved into junior high that fall, two segregation academies had opened in Selma. Many of the students who remained in the white public schools, more often expressing their parents' sentiments than their own, decorated their lockers with blue stickers bearing the simple white legend "NEVER." In September 1966, however, three blacks joined the white 8th-grade class. Conditioned against acceptance yet hesitant to hate, most of the whites reacted with a kind of edgy neglect.

At best, the black boys and girls must have suffered in an Ellisonian invisibility. Petty abuse must have been more common than I knew. Still, through the brief era of token integration, episodes of physical or even psychological violence were rare. My class included some rigorously trained young bigots, to be sure, but even they preferred, I believe, not to live down to what all of us perceived as an expectation for ugliness in our school.

Since the Selma-to-Montgomery march, we had begun to feel that we were performing in the spotlight of a national drama. Not completely inured to our town's infamy, more than a few of us wanted to create our own roles rather than simply follow those scripted for us by either outside observers or our parents and local officials.

In 1970, the formerly all-black and all-white secondary schools merged to become Selma High School. We seniors knew our parts. In retrospect, portions of the scenario might, for some, make a ludicrous read. Even my children snicker at what they see as a parody of equity in our yearbook's "Who's Who," with its black and white matched pairs for each office. But the naivete of some of our stage tricks notwithstanding, our performance deserved applause: We finished the year without "incident"--and with at least good will toward one another, if not full understanding of the drama in which we had been asked to act. We surprised and surpassed our elders by behaving in a manner they had not modeled for us: rationally and humanely.

The idea, then, of a 20th-year reunion that could assume a significance beyond its social dimension immediately appealed to me. But we are no longer who we were. When the detailed plans for the event arrived, I saw that this "reunion" would include our contemporaries from both of the white-flight schools; it would not, however, include the black members of the class of '71.

We have become the adults we bettered 20 years ago. Making history hurts, we have learned. Given a choice, it is easier just to look away, to forget and--a consummation for which every Selmian devoutly wishes--to be forgotten. Perhaps, as the example of generational conflict had suggested even when we were teenagers, growing up does mean yielding ideals to contentment.

Of course, the reunion's planners were not thinking about history or ideas. They simply wanted to see old friends and have fun. The decision not to include their black classmates sprang not so much, I would guess, from an enduring resentment against them, but simply from a lingering perception of them as strangers, as outsiders who might strain the day's festivity. The whites and blacks who stayed in Selma, after all, have not mingled with each other any more than they have with contemporaries who have moved hundreds of miles away. To strike a pose of ease or friendship after 20 years' distance mandated by a social structure more powerful than any court order would only be putting on a show.

But then, putting on a show was what we were especially good at. And public education in Selma, the South, the nation, needs stories with happy endings. Only 18 months ago, after several years of growth in white enrollment, Selma's schools were set back by violent controversy surrounding the firing of the district's first black superintendent by a majority-white school board. The almost exact coincidence of the 25th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery march--which might have been a moment for sober, hopeful measure of achievements and prospects in race relations--only expanded the context for bitter recriminations on both sides. What a show it could have been, our half-white, half-black reunion; what a gesture toward healing.

I do not blame my white classmates for electing, this time, to avoid the risk of tension. I, too, have learned to shun discomfort. Still, I skipped the reunion. Seeing who we are might have made me miss even more the people we used to be.

Vol. 11, Issue 10, Page 27

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