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June 1, 2004
Vol. 61
No. 9

Once Upon a Time Before Brown: A Conversation with Clifton L. Taulbert

    Clifton L. Taulbert is a renowned speaker and author of several acclaimed books. Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored, a memoir of his life in the segregated South, was the basis for the feature film of the same name. Corporate executives use the reflective exercises in Eight Habits of the Heart in leadership and community-building activities, and many children are familiar with his Little Cliff books. Here he talks with Educational Leadership about the legacy of a community that overcame poverty and racial discrimination as it instilled in the younger generation a desire to make a difference.

    Once Upon a Time Before Brown: A Conversation with Clifton L. Taulbert- thumbnail
      You grew up in Glen Allan, Mississippi, in an era of legal segregation. Would you describe for our readers that period in the 1950s right before and after the Brown v. Board of Education decision?
      Growing up in Glen Allan, Mississippi, was life during the best of times and the worst of times. It was the worst of times because segregation had horrific effects, but it was the best of times because I encountered an incredibly unselfish community, and our elementary school was at its center. That community was so powerful that it overshadowed the full reach of legal segregation.
      What was your school like? How did it create that sense of community?
      The school was a plain white building, but it had long windows almost from the floor to the ceiling. There were no bathrooms, just outdoor toilets. And the building was pristine. All of the students were in one room. Mrs. Maxey, the teacher, separated the different classes by aisle. When she wasn't teaching your class, you were told to lay your head on the desk and rest. What happened is that you had nothing to do but listen, and, as a result, you got prepared academically for the next grade.
      Surrounding our school and community were groves of plantations. The cotton industry was going strong at that time. African Americans provided the bulk of the labor to sustain these plantation systems. African American children were not viewed as future partners in shaping our society, but rather as additional labor to continue the system that was in place.
      But our school was ours. Our teacher took us out at night and pointed out the stars. She said to us, “You are among the stars. You are bright, and you are constant, and you are always expected to shine.”
      Black history was not codified as a subject then. But within our black schools, the teachers always brought to our attention the fact that not everyone who was succeeding was white. There were black Americans who were making wonderful contributions to this country.
      Sometimes people don't realize the power of the printed word and the power of photographs. When your life as a black American is not pictured in the media, that absence leaves an indelible imprint upon your brain. You see everybody except yourself. It becomes incumbent upon those who are building community to show you a different picture—a picture of yourself, who you are, or who you can become.
      We always talked about Joe Lewis, for example. Joe Lewis was more than a boxer. He became a voice for all people who were not able to express themselves. Mary McLeod Bethune was a founder of a historic black college. She was a role model before the term came into use.
      Because singing was such an important part of our lives, Marian Anderson was another role model. Her songs reached into the front rooms of men and women around the world. And when she was not allowed to sing at the building owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution, she stood at the Lincoln Memorial and sang “My Country 'Tis of Thee” to thousands. Our teachers wanted us to take notice because those people were causing our country to think about change.
      In addition to having to attend a segregated school, what kind of Jim Crow laws did you have to obey?
      The Jim Crow laws of the South were intimately tied into the social fabric of our lives. Segregation penetrated nearly everything that we did. Not only were schools legally segregated, but there were also places we could not go. If you wanted to buy clothes at a store, your parents had to eyeball you up and down to estimate your size because you weren't allowed to try clothes on. And when I got a job in Hilton's Food Store, even though I cleaned the bathrooms in the store, I was not allowed to use them.
      These are the things that went on day in and day out, year in and year out that were defining moments in a person's life. And because of that, we needed a real sense of community.
      Picking cotton, contrary to popular belief, is not romantic. I picked enough cotton to last a lifetime, so that job at Hilton's Food Store was a godsend. That particular job had been held by white kids for a long time. It was courageous for the owners to step out of their comfort zone and hire me.
      A lot of people don't realize that in those small communities, you could live almost your whole life and maybe only nod at a white person, never holding a full-fledged conversation. Your life was separate, and conversations that built community between people of different races just did not happen. But once I was hired at the store, I had to talk to white customers. There was a lot of social enculturation that took place, on my part and on the white customers' part. But it was a good job, and it kept me out of the sun, and I didn't have to pick cotton.
      Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954. And yet you graduated from an all-black high school in 1963. Did your school or your community change at all as a result of the new court ruling?
      Nothing changed. Jackson, Vicksburg, and larger cities changed more quickly because of their connections to black lawyers who had a pipeline to Thurgood Marshall and to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. There were no black lawyers in Glen Allan, Mississippi. The expectation of change passed our small community by.
      Brown prompted conversation that lasted into the 1960s, partly because of the wording that said, in effect, “We will integrate, but with all deliberate speed.” Many white leaders in the South took “all deliberate speed” to heart and slowed down the wheels of progress with all the fervor that they could bring to bear.
      And you traveled 100 miles round-trip to a black high school?
      For four years, even though the white high school was within walking distance of my house. I passed two other white high schools to get to the colored school in the county seat near Greenville, Mississippi.
      How was your high school different from the schools that the white kids were attending?
      I have no idea. I never, ever entered a white school. I could see the kids, hear them playing, and read about their football and basketball games. But there were no comparisons. In some ways, that was good because we competed against ourselves. Our teachers kept a standard of excellence in front of us.
      Did teachers build a sense of community at your high school as they did at the elementary school?
      After a while, we felt a sense of community. At first, we were the new kids from the country. The teachers had known most of the other students all their lives. But the expectations were high for all. We had an incredible class of 33 students. I was valedictorian. I looked at those 33 as the top 33 in America, and I had to really fight hard to be number one.
      How did you manage to go on to college?
      If the high school had been in Glen Allan, I think I would have been flooded with scholarships because there would have been that total community connection. But most of the scholarships went to students who had grown up in Greenville. What I did was go to St. Louis. I went there with the idea that total equality existed north of the Mason-Dixon Line. It was a real slap in the face to discover that St. Louis was not that different from Greenville, Mississippi. St. Louis was having its own struggles.
      I was 17, and I was on my own. It's difficult to be on your own at 17, but it's doable. I did it. And so have thousands of others. But it's much easier when you have the support of family when you're that young.
      I lived with distant relatives. On my mind was getting a good job because I had to take care of myself. Today, I am so thankful to McDonnell Douglas Corporation for not giving me a good job. Because had they done so, I would have become part of the labor force of St. Louis, earning more than I had ever earned in my life. At the same time, that kind of a job may have dimmed my view of the value of education.
      The job that I got was washing dishes at a major department store. Every time I washed dishes, I thought of how I wanted to go to college. I stayed in St. Louis just shy of two years before I found myself in the military.
      Did you go to Vietnam?
      The Vietnam War was on the heels of all young men, especially on the heels of urban black young men. I enlisted in the Air Force for four years. I always lived with the fear that I would go to Vietnam because all of my friends were shipped away. But when they got to my name, I was always sent somewhere else.
      I was fortunate that at Dow Air Force Base, I worked for the base commander. He had seen me reading Walden. I don't know what it did to him, to see a young black man reading Henry David Thoreau, but it changed his opinion of me that day, and maybe his opinion of a lot of African Americans. And he provided me with afternoons off to drive to the University of Maine and attend college courses.
      The belief in the power of education was such a strong impetus for you and your family to overcome poverty. Do you think that struggling African Americans in urban areas today have lost that belief in the power of education?
      Not really. Today the main purpose of education is to launch young people into the world of work. In my day, we viewed education as a major sledgehammer that would break down the wall of segregation, introduce us as equals, and also prepare us to make a living. Today, education is just as important to the black community, but its purpose is more narrowly defined.
      The researcher Gary Orfield notes that today U.S. schools are increasingly becoming resegregated. Do you think the benefits of integration are not valued today?
      No question that integration has great benefits for society. Yet perhaps some African Americans do value it less to some extent. It's almost like this: Let's say you want to play soccer. You've never played soccer before. After so many years, they tell you that you can now join the team. And you're on the team and they give you a suit, but you're never called to play. You're never called to sweat with the rest of them, do the things that really build the team.
      We thought integration was going to get us onto the team and into the game. As a human being, you can only sit on the bench of life so long before you think, “I was playing kickball with my friends before I got called to play soccer. Maybe I should play kickball.”
      There's a human inside each of us that has no color, that has only the human qualities of wanting to be embraced and aspiring to achieve. When you find yourself halfheartedly embraced when you had expected to be totally accepted, you can find yourself stepping back and laughing at your efforts to be included.
      We have resegregation simply because full integration has never happened. We still have to deal with the issue of color. So many unnecessary stereotypes and misguided ideas are tied to color. When you've been told for 400 years that people of your color have certain qualities, you find yourself working hard to dispel those myths and lies. At the same time, seeking full acceptance from those who believe these myths and lies may be fruitless. Yet we must continue our pursuit of liberty and justice. Historically, integration rested on white shoulders. Today, because of the many legal and social changes, all of us of all races—students, too—more equally share the responsibility to make integration work.
      Were you active in the civil rights movement?
      I was not involved in the Mississippi struggles. Those happened after I left home. But the civil rights movement happened all around me. For a while in the early 1960s, St. Louis was on the news every single night because of the riots in the streets concerning what was happening at Jefferson Bank and Trust. The protests brought banking there to a standstill.
      Historically, there were no African Americans working inside a bank where many African Americans did business. The bank had one black employee, Ernie, who was a door opener and messenger. To appease the protesters, the bank decided to move Ernie inside—into the basement—in the accounting area. But they couldn't do that until they had hired another black person as messenger and door opener. They hired me. So you could say, in some regard, I ended the demonstrations at 2600 Washington Avenue. I came to St. Louis to escape the South, and I ended up trying to integrate St. Louis!
      I want to talk about the achievement gap—the statistics that say black students are almost four years behind white students in math and language arts achievement. What's happening, and what should we do about it?
      The statistical achievement gap is real. The numbers speak for themselves, but the people behind the numbers must always be our focus. I think we weigh the statistical data more heavily than we need to. As a country, we are totally enamored with statistics and quantification. When we quantify a person's ability, we often miss the opportunity to maximize the individual's potential. We roll with the number.
      The numbers are the way they are for historical reasons. You don't eradicate 400 years of slavery with a Supreme Court decision or a voting rights act. The legacy of slavery is almost as dire as the practice itself.
      You have to look at where a person comes from, from their vantage point. Consider your own great-grandparents on their way to America with a dream of a better life. When I look back, I find my ancestors stopping at Goree Island and being forced to come here, not to better their lives, but as another item, loaded right along with the molasses and the sugar.
      They had no expectations for deciding their lives at all. Even the poorest white person who came to America had expectations. To experience a total lack of expectations can leave you destitute for a long, long time.
      Going back to the achievement gap, let's look at what has happened in urban America. Parts of urban America have been forsaken by the mainstream. Many blacks are economically disenfranchised. You go to some urban settings and you see skeletons of buildings where businesses once stood. People take their taxes and businesses elsewhere.
      In places where you don't have vibrancy of economics, why would you expect vibrancy of academics? When your parents are making a good living, it's much easier for them to say, “Sit down and study.” When you live in a warm, safe home where you are cared for, and when your friends are studying, it's easier for you to study. You hear stories of personal breakthroughs about students who defy the odds, but they are all too few.
      Do poverty and the lack of community go hand in hand more so today?
      I would not say they go hand in hand, but when poverty of will and determination is present, community falls short. There is no question that we suffered a lack of things in my community growing up. We had secondhand books that came over after the white kids had finished messing them up. But the teachers never let on that these books were the old edition. The teachers bore that burden themselves, for which I'm very grateful today. There was such a strong sense of community—will, vision, determination—and an expectation for us to exceed an earlier generation's achievement.
      Did you encounter violence in Glen Allan, Mississippi?
      Not the kind you see today in some urban settings. The small African American communities that dotted the American South were enclaves of safety. Even though the times were bad, the people rose to the occasion of taking care of their children. Once in a while when kids would get into a fight, the whole town would come together to figure out what was going on. The sense of community in black communities was absolute.
      Is not having such a community to rely on a major loss for us today?
      I won't say a major loss, but a major misplacement. If we think that we have lost something, we give up. When we think we have misplaced something, we hold on to the idea that on a good day, we can take some time out and try to find it. The sense of community that I knew as a child has not been lost, but it has most definitely been misplaced.
      How do we start getting the sense of community back?
      In African American homes, the stories of our strength and accountability must permeate our conversations. Knowing those stories is akin to being warmly attached to life.
      The media could also play a role by telling positive and true stories of who African Americans are. There are an incredible number of good books that are being written by and about African Americans. But are a lot of young people reading those stories? I'm not sure.
      The black churches play a very important role in the overall socialization of African Americans. Community- and family-building conversations should be an integral part of the black church's prime-time agenda.
      My books, Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored and Eight Habits of the Heart, introduce students to the power of community. Once Upon a Time shows you the timelessness and the universality of unselfish principles, when we live them out and pass them along. Eight Habits of the Heart has become the basis for character education courses in schools as far away as Kenya and China and has been used for diversity training with Fortune 500 companies. Those people I wrote about from the Mississippi Delta have opened their lives to an audience that they could not have even imagined.
      Denis Doyle recently wrote in Educational Leadership that the No Child Left Behind Act is a continuation of civil rights legislation because it is trying to guarantee a quality education for every child. Do you agree?
      I've heard the Secretary of Education speak, and I've heard his heart when he has spoken. He has come from a world that was not too dissimilar from mine. He understands that a good community can ensure that no child is left behind. But I often think that many of those crafting the legislation have not experienced being enveloped by such a community.
      To leave no child behind requires heart and intellect to be intimately tied together. And I'm not sure that the law ties them together successfully. I believe in the concept of leaving no child behind. But how do you do that? How do you fund that? What becomes the groundwork that will help the achievement take root and grow? If we build good community among parents, teachers, and students, achievement will follow.
      We rely on numbers and statistics and technology more than ever. However, real people with real feelings are still key to teaching and learning. Everything can't be measured, but every child can be expected to shine. One of the greatest tools within the classroom is common sense. My teachers used common sense when little else was available. Accountability is valuable when it springs forth out of a good community.
      Is there a need for affirmative action today?
      On board the Portuguese ship that left Africa was a manifest—a document that indicated what cargo was of worth and value. It noted molasses, tobacco, and slaves. Slaves became shadow property, just another item.
      Now, am I asking to have one race preferred over another? No, but keep in mind that part of our society was crippled from slavery. Getting rid of the “limp” caused by slavery is still our challenge and opportunity. As long as you have the limp, you're not on equal footing.
      Sandra Day O'Connor wrote that 35 years from now, the use of racial preference will no longer be necessary to ensure that university classrooms are diverse. Do you agree, or is that wishful thinking?
      I would call it visionary thinking. It's the type of thinking that could lead people to do better things in order to fulfill that prophecy. But in reality, I'm not so sure.
      You mentioned that you felt few effects in Mississippi when Brown v. Board of Education was decided. What has been its overall impact?
      It was a defining moment in the history of America. It was one of those maturing moments when America said to itself, “I can be better than this.” Brown v. Board of Education was an incredible and necessary step forward in the journey of our country.
      Whom do you celebrate as the heroes of that period?
      As an African American, I can't help but single out Thurgood Marshall because he took the charge forward.
      But we have to remember to applaud not just the person out front with the name and the profile but also many other people of all races who contributed to the struggle. When you start pulling back the peel, you begin to find the truth of the old adage, “America is great because America is good.” Even if only a small group of people decides to do right, the power of that right act is absolutely mind-boggling.
      What makes you hopeful today?
      Why am I hopeful? I am hopeful because my life, my dreams, and my ambitions were fueled by men and women with unselfish vision. They placed the needs of others above their own, and they passed that vision along to me. Unselfish vision means knowing that you must involve yourself in creating a better life for others.
      Even though my great-aunt would wake every morning to the prospects of working in the cotton fields, every night she would say to her great-nephew, “Clifton's tomorrow is going to be just fine.” And by providing the love, the books, and the courage, she set out to make it so. That's why I can be hopeful. She taught me that “tomorrow awaits our best acts.”

      Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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