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August 26, 2013

Anniversary of March cause for introspection

INDIANAPOLIS — Many years ago, when I was a high school senior visiting college campuses, I met with an adviser at Indiana University 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 elderly 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 the 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 under way 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.

“Americans always turn a blind eye to our own,” says Whitaker’s character, during a visit to some former slave quarters. “We look out to the world and judge. We hear about the concentration camps, but these camps went on for 200 years in America.”

During the war that brought an end to slavery, Indiana mustered a massive number of volunteers — about 210,000 men — to serve in the Union forces. That’s easier to acknowledge and celebrate than the fact that racial segregation remained a critical part of our identity for decades after.

During the 1920s, the most powerful Ku Klux Klan organization in the nation was in Indiana. The Grand Dragon moved the white supremacist organization’s national headquarters to Indianapolis in 1922, the same year that Klansmen in the Indiana General Assembly passed a bill that created “Klan Day” at the Indiana State Fair, complete with a nighttime cross burning. By 1924, a Klan-backed slate of candidates had taken control of the Indiana General Assembly and the governor’s office and had set its sights on the state’s congressional delegation.

The Klan, based on the premise that native-born whites were superior in character to all other races, started to lose its popularity only after its Grand Dragon was convicted of raping and murdering a young white woman. The national organization officially disbanded in 1944 — just three years before the teenage Bill Garrett broke through IU basketball’s color barrier.

The real ignorance of that university official I met those many years ago was her failure to understand that the world spins forward only.

Consider this: Within a decade, the majority of people under 18 in the U.S. will be minorities. Like the rest of the nation, Indiana is on trend toward greater diversity as the numbers of blacks, Hispanics, Asians and other minorities are rising at a faster pace than whites. New census data released earlier this year showed the trend may accelerate in the years to come as the most racially and ethnically diverse age-group — Hoosiers younger than 5 — grow up.

It’s up to us to decide: Will we see diversity as a threat to our seemingly secure world? Or embrace it as a strength?

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for CNHI, the Tribune-Star’s parent company. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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