WASHINGTON – Many years ago, when I was a high school senior visiting college campuses, I met with an Indiana University official whose job included recruiting new students to campus. The conversation somehow turned to IU basketball and the undefeated season the team had just completed. The adviser, an older white woman with a visible sense of privilege, volunteered that she hadn’t been a fan for years.
In her mind, IU basketball (and therefore the university itself) was ruined the day a Shelbyville teenager named Bill Garrett was recruited for the team. He was both a star student and a star player – earning the “Mr. Basketball” title given annually to state’s top high school player. But he was also black. In joining the IU team in 1947, Garrett broke a color barrier established by what’s been described as a “gentlemen’s agreement” among Big Ten coaches that barred black players from the conference.
In her mind, Garrett was a threat to her seemingly secure world.
I was thinking about that conversation during a visit to the nation’s capital last week where events are underway to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the landmark “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King Jr.
While here, I saw the new movie, “The Butler,” which tells the story of the 20th century civil rights movement through the eyes of a black butler in the White House who served seven presidents. I saw the movie, which is based on a real story, in a theater in D.C.’s Chinatown neighborhood, surrounded by a racially diverse audience.
For me, one of the striking lines in the film came toward the end, when the main character, played by Forest Whitaker, observes how little we acknowledge our troubled history as a nation founded on the self-evident principle of equality.