The event began with all the usual solemnity we expect from a commemoration. It was an impressive beginning with a group of African-American fourth and fifth graders in unison reciting a poem about freedom. Aptly enough, they were students of the W.E.B. DuBois Academy. Their poem reminded us of the different definitions of freedom. Freedom as an idea. Freedom as consciousness. Freedom as a form of respect for human sensibilities. Freedom as the ability to make choices without constraints and freedom as a limit that safeguards individuals and a society.
The historical backdrop of the event, as well as the racial composition of most of the audience reminded me that the student’s performance was an ethnic representation of American values. Their perception of freedom and my interpretation of their poem necessarily led me to reflect upon the experiences of a particular subgroup of society. How do we define freedom? What impact does our personal (individual) history have on our definition of freedom? It became obvious that for men like Fred Gray, the definition of freedom was not abstract. It was very tangible. It meant being able to sit at the front of the bus. It meant being able to choose their own profession. It meant being able to walk with their heads held upright into any establishment.
If at the individual level freedom is defined by our life world, how does the history of our ethnic group (“White,” Irish in the 1840s, African-American, Latino, Asian) or our social class influence our notion of freedom?
The event continued by recognizing the presence of President James Votruba. This form of recognition is very much a necessary part of social relations. Recognition acts to preserve and strengthen the quality of the social ties that bind different organizations and that facilitate cooperation between them.
Votruba was introduced and he courteously spoke of the legacy of King, reminding me of the institutional freedoms/constraints that were being placed on the commemoration. Would King’s legacy be remembered different if the event were being held in another institution, say the hall of the NAACP or the headquarters of the Democrats or Republicans?
Votruba’s speech was followed by an adaptation of a Christian Litany. As a student leader spoke, we recited pre-written phrases in response. It was like standing in church on Sundays. Since I arrived in Cincinnati, I have marveled at the Christian influence over local civil rights and human rights organizations. In the Midwest, everything begins and ends with a prayer. Ann Coulter got it wrong, it is not that liberals are atheists and conservatives are religious. The Midwest is religious whether on the right or on the left!
Of course as I reflected on this Christian element, I remembered the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was a young Baptist preacher. I recalled that in the pre-civil rights era the only positions of power African-Americans could aspire to were the classroom or the pulpit.
The event proceeded and several awards were handed out to faculty members and student groups involved in community service. Local leaders of NAACP units and other social organizations were presented to the audience. It reminded me of the institutionalization of the civil rights movement. Societies institutionalize the moments that reflect values considered fundamental to their community (thanksgiving for example). Societies create/maintain organizations of importance and engage in rituals that jolt our collective memory. The institutionalization of the NAACP and the award ceremony not only attests to the importance of this political era and its leaders but to the ideals that characterized the period. The emphasis on leadership, service to one’s community, and self-sacrifice were among the mentioned characteristics attributed to the recipients of the award.
Fred Gray took the podium. His first act was to salute and recognize the performance of the fourth and fifth graders in the audience.
He asked them to repeat after him, “I may be young, I may be Black