By Betty Brink Kountze ii T IS NOW a pleasantly warm, April night in 1982, 20 years since Michael Harrington’s book shamed and star tled us and stirred us into action in what was to become known as the War on Poverty, a social revolution of momentous, and until then unthinkable, dimensions. But this night, Charlie and I are wandering through a large, milling crowd at an NAACP fundraiser in Orange, Texas, searching for nothing more momentous than two chairs still together \(after all, we had been away for 15 years; who suddenly, I see her: gentle-eyed, still lovely, Magnolia Price with her sweetly-handsome husband Kelly, working her way toward the head table, talking, laughing, grabbing hands, and carrying an armload of memories. We have not seen each other since 1967. She had changed little and said the same of me as we both grabbed for each other, laughing and talking at the same time. We have changed, of course; we’re friends have that wonderful way of looking into each other rather than at each other and so remain beautiful and ageless throughout their lives. We talk briefly and agree to find each other after the .speeches and spend some time catching up. I sit down, pick up the fork, poke a Sit at the cold peas and mashed patatoes, 16 OCTOBER 29, 1982 look across at Charlie, and suddenly it’s 1964. He and I and our five young children were living in Orange then, a small, deep East Texas town just waking from a long sleep. John Kennedy had been dead less than a year; Lyndon Johnson was promising justice and equality for America’s poor and telling us that Asian “boys” would have to do their own fighting; “Brown vs. the Board of Education” was ten years old. It was also the year that I met Magnolia Price. It was early spring that year too, but already warm and uncomfortably humid. The summer would be miserable, but the fall promised to be worse. The Orange Public School system had just announced that it was going to integrate a with the next school year. There were dark rumblings about the town. We had watched and waited as “integration” began to inch its way across the South toward East Texas. Just that year we had ers spitting on and cursing young black children as they were escorted into a New Orleans elementary school escorted, by the way, by armed guards. New Orleans was only a couple of hundred miles away; White Citizens Counevery little town. Some few of us determined that in Orange, black children would not suffer that kind of humilation and fear, if we could prevent it. Our plan was simple and straightforward. We would visit the black schools and come back to our then all-white PTA’s, neighborhoods, and churches and say “Look, these schools are as bad as they say. These children must be given a better chance.” We would set the record straight, for few whites really believed that the black schools were as inferior as black citizens had been telling us they were. No one had ever cared enough to look. It was, after all, too easy to blame the whole affair on the Communists. But we, solid citizens of the community, native Texans, mothers and fathers one and all, could not be accused of being Communists. \(A fairly naive assumption, we That simple decision by a few white parents to visit a couple of black schools in 1964 turned the town on its ears. The school board had to meet in special session to debate the issue; we had to meet with the superintendent in order for him to determine our “motives”; black principals didn’t return our calls; neighbors turned cold or openly hostile; incredibly ugly, anonymous letters appeared in our mail. We finally were able to visit the two schools by simply sticking to our argument that taxpayers could not be denied the right to visit a “public” school. And that is when I had the great good fortune to meet Magnolia Price for the first time. She was one of the black teachers determined as we were that we must see inside the schools. \(Her principal gave me her name on the condition that neither of us would tell him or anyone else when I would be there or where I When I walked into her classroom that hot, spring day, the room was filled with the odors of small, sweating children, chalk dust, decaying wood, old varnish, and the mingling odors of the poorest neighborhood in town drifting in through the open windows. She introduced me to her class of first grade repeaters. A class of silent, staring, hollow-eyed children who had failed to make it their very first year in school. \(Since nothing had changed for any of them in a year’s time, it would take a minor miracle to make any difference the I thought I was prepared for what I would find. I had read the right books and articles and talked to a few of the right blacks. I knew that the black schools had the old, discarded books from the white schools, the discarded furniture, broken playground equipment, when they had playground equipment at all, few if any books in their libraries and a generally inferior quality of education. A Time of Hope The poor existed in the Government reports; they were percentages and numbers in long, close columns, but they were not part of my experience. I could prove that the other America existed, but I had never been there. Michael Harrington, The Other America, 1962
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