When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech 50 years ago, I was living inside a protective bubble, comfortably insulated from the racial tensions simmering in America’s cities and throughout the South.
At the time, I was a naïve 9-year-old kid in Marblehead, a solidly middle-class white bedroom suburb north of Boston. My quaint seaside hometown, which proudly calls itself “the birthplace of the American Navy,” is known for its picturesque harbor dotted with sailboats and lobster buoys — not for its racial diversity.
Back home in the 1960s, racial equality wasn’t front and center on everyone’s mind. But that’s not to say we never talked about racial justice. I recall going to my synagogue as a kid to hear a charismatic young civil rights activist, Julian Bond, speak about Black-Jewish relations.
As a budding news junkie, I followed the protests and emerging legislation. (The 1963 March on Washington is credited with leading to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.) I was too young to do anything about the issue at the time, but I became acutely aware that Marblehead and the surrounding towns were by no measure integrated.
By 1967, however, something fundamental had shifted. Not only was the parlance changing — “black” and “Afro-American” were finally replacing “Negro” — but black kids were suddenly attending our schools. Marblehead was one of the first communities in the country to participate in the METCO (Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity) program.
METCO was created as a temporary remedy for the poor conditions of Boston’s then-segregated inner-city schools. What started as a program to send 220 black students to seven suburban communities has grown to be the country’s longest-running voluntary school-desegregation effort. Today, it buses some 3,300 African-American, Hispanic and Asian-American students from Boston and Springfield to schools in more than 30 suburbs, including Marblehead.
METCO may have begun as a small gesture toward school integration. But it has brought huge rewards — and not just for students lucky enough to escape broken schools. The other beneficiary of that program is us white suburbanites, who could easily have sailed through middle and high school without ever meeting a person of color.
“In a perfect world, this wouldn’t be necessary,” says Francois Fils-Aime, the METCO director in Marblehead. “But our world is not perfect.”
Part of Fils-Aime’s job is to keep the bused students motivated for their hourlong daily commute. His and others’ efforts have paid off. Statistics show that the METCO students have higher graduation and college-placement rates than their peers who stay in Boston schools. Consequently, there’s a waiting list of more than 10,000 students to get into the program.
In the face of constant threats to cut his budget, Fils-Aime is quick to mention individual success stories. He points to numerous METCO students who were originally considered poor candidates for academic success yet went on to receive full scholarships to the prestigious Berklee College of Music.
Additionally, he says, plenty of METCO students come from troubled home environments. Some have parents who are in jail or drug treatment programs and are being raised by a relative, foster parent or other guardian. Against all odds, many of these kids have excelled and gone on to college. And because METCO is now in its second generation, some of the early participants are making sure their kids get into the program.
Fils-Aime is not alone in believing that educational opportunity is one of the best avenues to society achieving anything resembling racial equality. “METCO is not just a Band-Aid,” he says. “It fulfills some of Dr. King’s dream, allowing students from different backgrounds to have the same academic advantages.”
And being in a competitive academic environment like Marblehead, where expectations are high, inspires students to challenge themselves and do their best.
When I was in school, the place where racial diversity made the biggest difference wasn’t the classroom but the locker room. Several METCO students were my teammates on the high school track team. Their athletic talent made us all better sprinters and offered the chance to break down barriers in ways the classroom couldn’t. Being part of a four-man relay and having to pass the baton to a teammate forges a special kind of trust. And it builds bonds deeper than anything that can be legislated.
Last fall, as I was preparing to go to our 40th high school reunion, I wondered how many METCO kids would show up. When I got there, I was delighted to see most of them had flown in from all over the country. Those who couldn’t come had made a point of posting their regrets on Facebook.
Among those in attendance was one of my track teammates, Preston Bellizeare, who like many in the class, I had not seen in 40 years. Now an insurance agent in Baton Rouge, La., he shared a sobering assessment of his high school experience. “If I hadn’t gone to Marblehead High School,” he told some classmates that night, “I might be dead now.”
I hadn’t heard about that conversation stopper until days later. I wanted to discuss it with him, but didn’t get the chance until recently. When we spoke, he told me he was referring to some of his old friends who wound up casualties of the violence that had plagued his Boston neighborhood.
“If I had to do it again, I’d go to Marblehead,” Bellizeare told me. Despite the long bus rides during which he would often fall asleep, he said, “the experience opened my eyes to another way of life, how other people lived.”
Me, too, I told him.
So, on Wednesday, Aug. 28, I was at the Lincoln Memorial with my fellow Americans, listening to our first black president speak in the same place that MLK stood 50 years ago.
I’m hoping that in a city where rancorous partisanship often gets in the way of progress, this moment of coming together can strengthen our efforts to create a more just state for all. It would be nice to think that in another 50 years, our kids and grandkids won’t still be dealing with this unfinished business.
Richard Harris, a Marblehead native, has worked for ABC News, “Nightline,” NPR and PBS. He was a reporter/intern at The Salem News in the summers of 1973 and ’74. This article originally appeared on www.nextavenue.org, the PBS website for baby boomers, and is reprinted with permission.