Friday, April 15, 2016

Malala, Melba and Minniejean

Malala’s story is known all over the world. A young Pakistani girl who just wanted to go to school and was stopped by terrorists threatened by the idea of her getting an education. The story deserves every ounce of attention it has gotten and then more. If you don’t know it, swallow your shame and educate yourself. It’s a story of courage, determination, perseverance, dedication to furthering her own intelligence and spreading light into the dark corners of ignorance. It speaks to our nobler impulses and confirms our sense that these fundamentalist Pakistani groups opposed to educating women are living in some Dark Ages of the human spirit. It’s easy for us to hear and swallow because it takes place over there with those people.

Tonight I write this from a hotel room in Atlanta, Georgia, with twenty-nine 8th graders from my school down the hall. We are on a unique social justice field trip and have just met Minniejean Brown, one of the Little Rock Nine African-American students who integrated Central High School in 1957. Some ten years ago, I met Melba Beals, another one of the group and Minniejean’s good friend, when she came to our school to talk to the kids.

And guess what? Their story is the exact parallel of Malala’s. Two girls who just wanted to get the education promised to them from the Constitution and a culture determined to refuse them that right. And instead of one severe act of terror, it was constant terror and torture as they went from class to class, terror supported by the Governor of Arkansas, allowed by the teachers and parents and city police and church ministers and newspapers and more. And how many Americans really know that story?

It’s a bitter pill to swallow because it’s about us and the logical inheritance of a country founded on extraordinary ideals that failed to include so many of the actual inhabitants of the land, both native and those imported for free labor. We’re the ones living in the dank caves of ignorance and small-mindedness, determined to carry on white privilege and supremacy at all costs. And all of it still going on today. So we don’t want to hear it. We can idealize Malala, but conveniently ignore Melba and Minniejean.

So we’ve committed four days to making sure 29 hopeful, mostly kind and intelligent 14-year old kids will hear the stories that they can never unhear. Meet the people who worked for the rights they have today and who are still working for the rights constantly threatened by those determined to harness power and money for the few.

It promises to be an extraordinary four days. I’ll keep you posted.

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