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Can You See The Water You Swim In?

Updated: Jan 17

I don't know who discovered water, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't a fish.

Marshall McLuhan, writer




My parents were concerned about treating ALL people fairly...it's a wonder really. My father grew up in a place called Bean Station, Tennessee. Appalachia. One of the earliest permanently settled communities in the state. He claims he never saw anyone with brown eyes until he was in late childhood. He thought they were probably blind.


My mother was born in either Newport (a very rough place, home of June Carter Cash) or Dandridge, Tennessee.  Supposedly Tennessee's 2nd oldest place town. The place was named for Martha Dandridge Custis Washington, the wife of the first president. At the height of the Civil War a skirmish between Confederate General James Longstreet and Union General Ambrose Burnside occurred at Dandridge.


People still consider these things. (When I applied for admittance to Daughters of the American Revolution, my grandmother on my father's side and I were discussing history and family history. She whispered that I should not remind others unnecessarily that our family had fought for the Union side). My mother's mother was married, had a child, and was widowed at 15. She hadn't ever seen much of the world either.


I grew up in that part of East Tennessee as a child of the 50’s and 60’s. My town had separate drinking fountains for colored and for whites.  Swimming pools and bathrooms for colored and for white. Schools for colored and for white until my junior or senior year in high school.


I lived with the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr, and Robert Kennedy. I remember thinking why would this James Meredith fellow want to attend the University of Mississippi? I pretty much didn’t get it. But I was beginning to see a bigger world.


It so happens that my father was a minister. He was able to get himself to seminary at Emory University. He loved the learning and experiencing a wider world. He was pretty dedicated to his Christian beliefs particularly around loving your neighbor. My mom backed him up (often wrote his sermons) and became more vocal after she received her graduate degrees (she had, in her early life, wanted to be a minister. That was a no-go for a woman in the South then. Still true in some places and denominations).


One day when I was older Mom took me to a place called Highlander Folk School.  It had been started by a man named Myles Horton.  Some people said he as a communist.  My mother said Horton believed that the way to change society, the larger world was through education. Not the ballot box because laws could be made preventing people from voting like if they were poor or if they were colored.  The powers could make laws saying you couldn’t vote if you couldn’t read or write. Education was empowerment according to Horton. Not just learning about reading and writing, but education about how to get folks together to collectively discuss problems and solutions...to make change. He called it practicing deep democracy. (Horton also had an interesting learning and teaching approach which he had learned from psychologist and educational reformer John Dewey. It involved not only hands-on relevant learning, but teaching through asking questions. . He said you could teach anything just through asking the right questions. Valuing what students already knew and spring boarding off that was part of his approach as well.)


When Mom and I walked into what seemed to be Highlander's main meeting building, it was empty, but it felt like people had just left.  Scads of white rockers were strewn around. Each one had a microphone.  There was an old upright piano.  A hymnal was sitting open.


I started playing and we both started singing, “We Shall Overcome.”  We couldn’t finish because we were both crying. I can't even say exactly why. The place was just emotionally overwhelming for us. Later I learned that Rosa Parks had come to Highlander.  She had seen something there she had never seen before.  A colored woman teaching right alongside a white guy. John Lewis said he also saw something he had never seen before.  Whites and blacks eating together.




Highlander was closed down by the state of Tennessee and the land auctioned off. Some trumped up charges.  But they opened again under the name of Highlander Research and Education Center in a place not far from where I grew up. I read 4 or 5 years ago that the administration building was burned down by white supremists. The archives were destroyed, but no one physically hurt.


The whole thing saddened me, but Horton had said (when the state of Tennessee first closed down Highlander) - "You can padlock a building, but you cannot padlock an idea." You can burn a building down, but you cannot burn down an idea.


What was the idea? Well all around education and... love if you ask me. The love part came at least partly from his exposure to Reinhold Niebuhr (at Union Theological Seminary. Niebuhr is mostly remembered these days for his penning of the Serenity Prayer.) Horton believed that if people truly practiced Christian principles, we would have heaven on earth. 


Some say it was actually Horton who started the Civil Rights Movement.  Certainly Martin Luther King Jr was influenced by him.  The Negro Spiritual, “We Shall Overcome,” popularized at Highlander became the song of the Civil Rights Movement.


This weekend I have been thinking about that trip Mom and I made to Highlander. And another memory. My mother had a half-brother. He spent much of his life in Indiana, but in his sixties he moved back to Tennessee where he died. My mother was tasked with cleaning out his personal effects. It was then that she found his KKK paraphernalia. The hooded robe, a sash, a pin. We were both thrown by that, but then we remembered his personal history.


The brother was largely influenced by an uncle who lived in "the Flatwoods." He was the same uncle who had told my brother and me that coloreds had a tail hidden under their clothes. Then, as a young adult, he moved to Indiana.


I'm now learning through a recent book written by Timothy Egan, A Fever In The Heartland: The Ku Klux's Plot to Take Over America, and The Woman Who Stopped Them, that Indiana (not the old Southern Confederacy) was where the Grand Dragons were spewing hatred in a big way toward Blacks, Jews, Catholics, and immigrants and finding an eager audience even among Protestant churches and ministers!


These glimpses into my family history, my cultural history, my society's history, my personal history help me think about being that fish in the water...the one who is blind to his world because he is immersed in it. I wonder about the forces that can open our eyes. Help us see...offer opportunities like Rosa Parks and Lewis experienced at Highlander.


Both of my parents were able to see a different reality to some degree perhaps through education and, I believe in their case, they were propelled by their Christian principles. Maybe Horton was right about education especially if it puts us together with people who are different, not only in different looks, but different cultures and perspectives (like the blacks and whites eating and teaching together at Highlander) and I am with him around the idea that it would be heaven on earth if we really could practice Christian principles of loving each other without exception.


On that note, John and I were in church yesterday with our youngest son and his children. We were having an "intergenerational" time of sharing and discussing. Questions were being asked and discussed about the life of Martin Luther King Jr.


One woman said something like, "I just wonder how Martin Luther King Jr could have had all those hateful and evil acts directed toward him and never responded back with hate." There were other murmurs of affirmation...how did he do that?


Then there was another question. "I wonder where we see goodness and perhaps even God in the life and story of Martin Luther King, Jr.?" A hand of color shot up from the front pew. It was our son's Chinese-American, seven year old boy. "Martin Luther King Jr just wanted things to be equal." My mouth curved up, my eyes glistened. Happy that he was participating...sad to realize that he might find himself struggling with people who might not see his beauty and worth.





I haven't told them much about my story. Truthfully, I'm still trying to figure it out. And don't get me wrong, there's much to love in the Volunteer state, home also to Myles Horton. But I want to better see the whole picture...where I came from, what influenced me then and influences me now. Discover the water I swam in and the reality I experience now. Certain books help. Discussions. Diverse experiences. Rubbing up against stories of people like Myles Horton and Martin Luther King Jr. Continuing education. Christian moral principles (ethical principles largely espoused by all religions). We are trying to offer opportunities for our grandkids to do the same.


How might we educate ourselves about our life influences and take opportunities for continuing our education so that we might better see the water we swim in...and maybe even open ourselves to loving each other without exception...and journey together to the good life?



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