They came from all over the country: Colorado Springs; Granada Hills, Calif.; Groton, Conn; Chicago; Philadelphia; and Westhampton, N.Y. They were Dunbar High School alumni responding to a call to gather at Bolling Air Force Base last Saturday to celebrate the birthday of Paul Laurence Dunbar and to honor alumni who have supported the storied D.C. high school and the Dunbar Alumni Federation.
More than 200 alumni were there. Among them were D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray, class of 1959, and yours truly, class of 1957.
The gathering also included James Pittman, class of 1951, Lillian Cottom Ames, class of 1941, Therrell Smith, class of 1934, and the eldest attendee, John R. Pinkard, class of 1929.
Every high school in America should have an alumni federation like Dunbar’s — graduates dedicated to providing scholarships and other support to students and future graduates. Dunbar alumni, with little fanfare, have provided financial resources, served as mentors and, when necessary, become surrogate mothers and fathers.
The goal they share is simple: Create better futures for Dunbar students and graduates.
These alumni are African Americans with a modicum of success who devote their time, talents and treasure to enhancing the lives of those coming behind.
The media often attributes black progress to the efforts of a benevolent federal government and compassionate white folk.
There’s a reason, however, that you don’t know more about the contribution of the black middle class — a reason that is historical and unpleasant.
It stems from an Old South attitude, described by sociologist Gunnar Myrdal in his landmark study “An American Dilemma,” in which whites favored the trusted and lowly “darky” and suspected and disliked the educated, socially rising “Negro” over whom they were losing control. Today, beneath the media’s veneer of respect and admiration, African Americans who symbolize achievement are generally ignored — that is, unless they screw up. Then they become front-page fodder. But there is no shortage of stories that conjure up and reinforce images of conniving, craven, untrustworthy and thoroughly amusing figures who, once upon a time, could be dismissed as darkies.
Humiliation and denigration are, of course, the intent. But people like Dunbar’s alumni persevere in enhancing the next generation’s chances.
Another unreported fact: That sense of duty can be found in more than the old Dunbar crowd. They have plenty of company.
There is hardly a black person in America today, age 65 and older, who has not personally felt the sting of racism and discrimination. We number in the millions.
We are the African Americans who mostly grew up before the enactment of the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1964 and 1968 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
We weren’t taught in the classroom or Sunday School about the assassinations of Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr. and the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. We lived them in real time.
We didn’t just watch historic footage of nonviolent civil rights demonstrations. Many of us took part in them.
Ours is a generation that recalls a time when the Justice Department was no friend and the Supreme Court no ally.
And we know — oh, how well we know — that when it comes to race in America, there are no permanent victories.
This week, following the Supreme Court decision against the Obama administration in a contraception case and its ruling against unions in in-home care, Rush Limbaugh, the grand ayatollah of American conservatism, was asked about possible resignations from the court.
“Gee,” he said, “I hope none of ours.” Limbaugh expressed fear of President Obama’s naming a replacement “if one of our side resigns.”
Independence Day 2014. America, divisible.
Dunbar alumni, forged in battle, know how easily progress can slip away.
So, too, do the Links, a 68-year-old volunteer service organization of African American women that also came to town this week.
The Links, keenly aware of the assault on hard-won gains, are launching a national campaign to protect voting rights. Once we thought that was well in hand, but not so.
The ugly face of voter suppression, aided and abetted by Grand Ayatollah Limbaugh’s “side” of the Supreme Court, is showing up across America.
“We Will Not Forget,” is the Links’ thematic undertaking to remember Chaney, Goodman, Schwerner and the others who gave their lives in the civil rights struggle. The Links’ aim is to mobilize citizens to defend the right to vote in 2014, 2016 and beyond.
This kind of black grass-roots support, ignored by the mainstream media, has endured, with success, for decades.
The Links, along with the Dunbar Alumni Federation and other organizations across America led by the black middle class, are simply acting out the words of Dunbar’s alma mater:
“Thy precept in action — self poise, self-control;
Nerve answering to will, steady onward to goal;
Truth, brotherhood, temperance, thy standards unfurled,
Come pledge loyal service — Dunbar for the world.”
Dismiss them, if you dare.
Read more from Colbert King’s archive.