Perhaps lost on most people, even on some lovers of country music, is the fact that “the Father of Country Music,” was a Meridianite. Jimmie Rodgers, the tubercular brakeman, crooner and yodeler, was born in Meridian in 1897. One of country music’s first commercial successes, Rodgers moved country music from a poor man’s entertainment to an outright industry. However, even though Rodgers was one of the nation’s first recording stars and appeared in shows with humorist Will Rogers, he was of little interest to Meridian citizens for the five years that I lived and taught there.
Meridian was much prouder of her school superintendent, Dr. L.O. Todd. Todd, a native of nearby Newton County, received his Ph.D. from Columbia University, had served as a college president, and was providing visionary leadership for the Meridian public school system.
Toward the end of my first year of teaching, in the spring of 1967, Dr. Todd asked for volunteers to teach the next year in a school of a different race. His goal was to get a jump on an inevitable federal court order that would require schools to desegregate. He also preferred to begin desegregation slowly and peacefully.
Todd’s appeal garnered two volunteers out of Meridian’s 600 or so classroom teachers. The following fall I was welcomed by the faculty of all-black George Washington Carver Jr. High School, and Melba Clark, a veteran Carver teacher, assumed my schedule at all-white Northwest Jr. High.
The response I received for trying to do something so small to help race relations was simply embarrassing. At church and around town I was hailed as a pioneer. Incredibly, even at Carver, the stellar, highly educated faculty viewed me as a courageous agent of change.
My year at “Mighty Carver” is a precious memory. When Martin Luther King was assassinated in the spring, I grieved with and for my 12 and 13- year-old students as well as my new faculty friends. On the day of King’s funeral we cancelled class and somberly watched King’s funeral on television from a big, faraway place called Atlanta. I was 24. The Vietnam War was raging, the civil rights movement was ablaze, and I knew that I was standing in the middle of some history.
Fast forward 41 years to 2008. I could never have voted for Barack Obama because our world views were so starkly different, but I have to say that like many other Americans, I felt a measure of pride when he received his party’s nomination for president. While Obama was emerging as the nominee, he never rattled the old bones of America’s racial past. Unlike Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and other so-called black leaders, he steered clear of overt, racist rhetoric. I began to believe he was a centrist, a real, post-racial Democrat. His writings and speeches, which I followed and studied assiduously, indicated that if elected, he would be a healer. Perhaps, then, my keen memory of the hurtful “Whites Only” signs which I grew up seeing (and which partly drove me to Carver) would be assuaged.
But Obama was not a healer. During his first year his rhetoric became incendiary. Class and race became his province. His every proposal served to divide the country on the basis of economic status. Drill down into the man’s psyche and you will find class consciousness which, I believe, is the cause for his entire first-term assault against achievers, whether bankers, small business owners, or “millionaires” who make $250,000.
But that’s not all. Obama’s attitude itself has been totally lacking in magnanimity. He showed that he could chastise and ridicule Republicans one day and call for civility in political discourse the next. His enjoyment of the perks of his office has been shamefully obvious. Such ego-centrism does nothing to build bridges of any kind, least of all bridges between races or between citizens of different economic strata.
Talk about a lost opportunity in leadership. Proof of this loss lies in the fact that the recent election did not increase Obama’s support. He is the only president to win a second term with a smaller percentage of the vote than that of his first term.
The whole business, though, has reminded me of something of value: one must continue in small ways to help and heal in his own small world. It doesn’t matter if a president is not helping.
Roger Hines of Kennesaw is a retired high school teacher and former state legislator.