- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 12, 2011


Why is a memorial on the Mall being dedicated Sunday in the name of Martin Luther King? Are you even aware of the event? Read the following words, written by Maudine R. Cooper, president and CEO of the Greater Washington Urban League, as she reflects on America and its future.

Ms. Cooper titled her essay, written exclusively for The Washington Times, “Growing up in the ‘40s and ‘50”:

“Benoit, Miss., in the ‘40s was a sleepy little town; some might say it was a suburb of another small town, Greenville, Miss. It was a very small community with rolling stores (vans that sold commodities), cotton fields and midwives.

“I was 4 years old before the state of Mississippi knew I existed. Part of that was because the midwives would save all of the birth announcements until she got enough to take to the county seat to record them all at once. As a matter of fact, if someone named their child something that she didn’t like, she might change the name on the birth certificate, and that person would go through most of their life not knowing that their name was something other than what their parents wanted it to be.

“Mississippi in the ‘40s and ‘50s was not only small and interesting in its own way, but it was very dangerous for people of color.

“The school I attended in Greenville didn’t have a name; it had a number, ‘Old #4.’ Water came sliding out of the fountain that was so low and so slow that we had to either bring our cups, which we wore on a string around our neck, or we made little paper cups out of a sheet of paper that you learned to fold and use as your cup.

“That was the school I attended until I left Mississippi to join my mother and father in St. Paul, Minn.

“In Mississippi, you knew to step off the sidewalk when ‘white folk’ were walking toward you and not hold clothes too close to your body at department stores, but hold them up and look at them and decide if you wanted that item in the size, because if you bought it you couldn’t bring it back.

“But in Minnesota, things were quite different. You could indeed try on clothing, and the schools were integrated. I found, however, that the lessons I learned in the dilapidated schools with the bad-flowing fountains prepared me more. In Minnesota, I had better fountains, and I was also better educated than most of the students in the Northern schools; in fact, I knew more than they did and did better than they did in classes — an interesting phenomenon.

“The schoolteachers in Mississippi were rough. If you didn’t have your homework, you were taken summarily into the closet. You had to hold out your hand while they smacked it with a ruler or belt or anything else that was handy. If you’d been real bad, they’d get your legs with the same delivery, but more ‘licks.’

“In Minnesota, they still had corporal punishment, but it was not given as often as in the South, and it was a little ‘kinder and gentler.’

“Mississippi was ‘Down South’; I use to call Minnesota ‘Up South.’

“There was still some level of racism. It wasn’t clearly as integrated as people wanted to think, but it was different from Mississippi. My mother actually had to teach me that we no longer had to say ‘Yes, um’ and ‘No, mum’ to white people. We could simply say ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ which was absolutely forbidden in the South. I learned a whole new culture, which was truly a different way of walking, talking, interacting and reacting with whites in the North.

“Dr. King would be so distressed if he could see where we are now and what we are doing. I think that the statue on the Mall is wonderful. It’s wonderful for all of us to have an opportunity to admire and to applaud an African-American, the only one on the Mall at this time, and to say he had a dream, and it’s our responsibility to do something about fulfilling that dream. If we don’t do that, if we don’t do our part toward fulfilling the dream, then we ought to just forget he’s on the Mall, go back home and take a nap.

“I challenge everyone to wake up each morning and promise to do something to help someone that day. I further challenge you that before you go to bed each night, remind yourself of what you did to help someone that day. If you did nothing, then you need to do twice as much the next day.”

• Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.

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