It was the fall of 1964, a decade after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down separate but equal education systems in the Brown v. Board of Education decision, and Thorp Junior High School in Hampton, Va., was just getting its first class of African American students.
The Rev. Grainger Browning Jr., pastor of Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church in Fort Washington, can't forget that fall because he was one of the 13 students who integrated the school.
"I was the only black student in all of my classes," Browning said. "No one would have anything to do with me. No one talked to me. No one sat next to me in the cafeteria. I sat by myself, and one day when I spilled food on myself, everyone laughed."
He didn't respond. Just as he didn't respond the day a white student poured a container of milk over his head and said, "We are going to make you white."
"I was mad," Browning recalled last week in an interview, "but I had been taught not to respond violently."
As the nation celebrates the 50th anniversary of the landmark civil rights case that led to school integration, Browning wonders who will be the teachers of nonviolence and racial tolerance for the next generation.
A look at the news recently makes him wonder. Disturbing footage seen of a U.S. contract worker beheaded in Iraq because he was an American. Children cut down by gunfire while watching television in Northeast Washington or crossing a high school parking lot in Baltimore County. Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) engaged in a debate with the Latino community over the value of multiculturalism.
Fifty years ago, Browning's mother was a public school teacher and his father was a sociology professor at Hampton Institute. Before he and the other black students enrolled at Thorp, they received counseling about how to deal with conflicts and the concept of nonviolence that was promoted by Martin Luther King Jr.
The lessons Browning learned there molded his life. He graduated from Hampton University, became a history teacher in Boston and then the vice president of the Boston chapter of the NAACP. He later went to the Howard University School of Divinity and into full-time ministry.
Today, Browning is a national board member of Jesse L. Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and was part of a delegation this year that met with Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi on Middle East peace concerns.
"People can change because the same people who poured milk over my head . . . by the end of the year voted me as most likely to succeed," Browning said.
"When people are exposed to each other, the differences they perceived to have cease to exist through relationships," he added.
Church leaders can help effect those changes, he said, noting that not only King and the Rev. Oliver Brown, the plaintiff in the landmark desegregation case, were men of the cloth.
"Dr. King and Reverend Brown stood up against social injustices," Browning said. "The challenge for ministers like myself today is to carry on that legacy."