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MLK Day: A Fresh Look From Dr. George Henderson

I came for the gospel choir. I left with a few new insights. Win-win.

Celebrating MLK Day

This past Monday, I attended a student-ran event that celebrated the life and mission of Martin Luther King Jr. I expected the event to be relatively light, with a few interesting commentaries and gospel music (this I gleaned from the event’s advertising—to be sure, there was excellent gospel music the likes of which cannot be replicated in the church of my childhood). What I received was the equivalency of a keynote speech on the history, and future, of civil rights represented in the man Dr. George Henderson.

Enter Dr. Henderson

Dr. Henderson, OU professor emeritus, was the university’s third African-American professor. Born in Alabama before his family moved to Chicago to escape local persecution, Henderson came to adulthood at the dawn of the civil rights movement. The story of his decades teaching at OU reflects how the struggle for race equality played out within the University of Oklahoma and Norman.

I received a thorough education in the civil rights movement in grade school, but I lacked the context to understand it. In my young mind, race riots and KKK rallies are things that happen in the deep south, such as Henderson’s home state of Alabama. I never think of the race riot that hit my hometown in the early 20th century, and I certainly never consider my college town’s role in the grand narrative. For me, it is sometimes hard to view OU separate from my own experiences.

According to Henderson, the town’s reception was less than hospitable. When he moved to OU to teach, real estate agents refused to sell him a house. The one that finally did went out of business five years later as a result. People threw trash on their lawn. The police verbally harassed him. Norman’s race ideology in the 1960’s was no further advanced than the rest of the south.

The story of the civil rights movement is well known, and with contemporary movies like Selma out I do not think it necessary for me to recite history. What is still interesting are the unknown stories of men like Dr. Henderson; the men of color who taught at universities played a unique role in the racial tension between young people. Henderson may not be known by millions, but nevertheless he served as an ambassador of the movement at my university just by being a professor of color during this era.

The Call to Action

Near the end, the man interviewing Henderson asked if he had any advice for the people in the audience. This is what he said in response:

“[To the young people, concerning equality:] Get it right this time. South Africa learned apartheid from us…Get it right this time. Get it right this time because there may not be a next time…Don’t spend too much time saying what you can’t do, celebrate what you can. You are not tomorrow’s leaders, you are my leaders today. We focus too much on charismatic leaders, we had to wait for [Martin Luther King] to move…do it your way with honesty and integrity. It doesn’t happen over night. It’s serious work. Don’t segregate yourself. You have more opportunities than [my generation] did. What’s your excuse?”

I wish I had the audio to go with this. The words are powerful, but it was the conviction that drove the message home.

The Takeaway

In my primary school days, the message of King’s life was racial equality between whites and blacks. This was what my education gave me, and it’s about all I could intellectually process between snacks and recess. As I grow and my comprehension continues to unravel the original story's complexities, the meaning deepens to a richer definition of the word equality.

My time abroad really added to my understanding of this concept. I cannot empathize with all the burdens of Chinese (true poverty, extreme social pressure to excel), but I can relate to the students that are here at OU as exchange or long-term students. While they do not suffer the mainstream racism that Henderson’s generation bore, they are still socially estranged due to the gap of understanding between them and the rest.

I think that this is one of the modern issues: the cultural understanding gap, both inside and outside our borders. Globalization makes it easy for Americans to not care about bridging the gap, so that gap remains unconnected. Even within our country, certain cultures are excluded due to a lacking desire to bridge the gap.

This is not an end world hunger blog—I won’t pine over a fuzzy utopic picture of comprehensive, holistic cultural understanding. But I know my time abroad and my education have armed me with the skills to better understand Asians, particularly Chinese. It’s my hope that as I move forward in life, I can find opportunities to bridge this small portion of the gap.

After all, as Henderson said: “You have more opportunities than we did. What’s your excuse?

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