Jewish World Review April 10, 2002 / 29 Nissan, 5762

Leonard Pitts, Jr.

Leonard Pitts, Jr.
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Connecting with history with hope for future | BIRMINGHAM, Ala. Sometimes, history is just a trick of the light.

Sometimes, it's as if you have to incline your head to a certain angle, squint your eyes a certain way, before you can see the shadowy outlines of what used to be beneath the imposing actuality of what now is.

Which is as good an explanation as any for what I'm doing with my teen-age sons on a bright, chilly day in historic Kelly Ingram Park.

We've been on the road for six days out of this vague but persistent sense I had that they and I might benefit from some guy time, some undistracted hours in one another's company. Tonight we'll drive home, but I couldn't pass up the opportunity to bring them to one of my favorite places - arguably the most famous battlefield of the civil rights movement.

This city, which once - proudly - described itself as the most segregated in the South, has done an effective job of memorializing its role in the revolution that brought segregation down.

Too effective, perhaps. While 16th St. Baptist Church, famous for the 1963 explosion that killed four little girls in Sunday school, still sits cater-corner across the street, the rest of the area has changed dramatically.

If my memory and sense of direction are correct, the rooming house where Martin Luther King made his headquarters is a parking lot now. The storefronts against which people huddled for shelter from the water of high pressure hoses have been replaced by a civil rights museum. Meanwhile, the park itself, ground zero for the demonstrations, is filled with statues and inscriptions honoring the struggle that took place here.

So it takes a little doing to get a sense of what it must have been like to be in this place then. To see the water cannon, hear the snarling dogs, feel the hammering of your own besieged heart. To put your life on the line as an agent of change.

I am explaining these things to my sons and they are listening raptly. Which is gratifying, because when I was a teen-ager, I was pretty certain the past had nothing to do with me. I had little patience for my mother's Jim Crow tales, less interest in my father's war stories. Then they died, taking with them all the things they knew and had seen, and it was a long time before I even realized all that I had lost.

I thought history, while intermittently interesting, was a closed book, a finished story, a period, end of paragraph, with no bearing on the urgencies of right now. By which I meant the 1970s and '80s.

Funny how fast "now" becomes "then."

So it is that I find myself struggling to help my sons understand what I did sooner than I did. That yesterday imposes upon today and shapes tomorrow. And that this means they have responsibilities here. Particularly because they are young African-Americans, on whose behalf so much blood was shed, so many bones broken, so many lives lost.

We have come, in the words of "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," to the "place for which our fathers sighed." Not the Promised Land, by any means. But still, a place where a young black person enjoys, at the very least, possibility.

Possibility elder generations could have scarcely dreamed. Possibility created for them at a bus stop in Montgomery, on a bridge in Selma, in a park in Birmingham.

Possibility they are obliged to seize with both hands.

And in doing so, recognize that history is not a closed book but an open one, not a finished story, but an unfolding one. Meaning that it's incumbent upon them to broaden what they have received and pass it to the generation that follows theirs.

My boys - you will forgive a father's pride - are bright, creative, talented young men. But they are young black men at a time when that description still closes doors, narrows eyes and hardens hearts. From where I sit, though, that's less an excuse for failure than a demand for excellence, courage and vision.

Sometimes, yes, history is a trick of the light. But sometimes, the future is, too.

Comment on JWR contributor Leonard Pitts, Jr.'s column by clicking here.

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