Having grown up in Topeka, Kansas, I have a profound and ironic connection to the nascent civil rights movement. Before 1954, which happened to be the year I started Kindergarten, racial segregation was common in American schools, as it was in Topeka.
Public school administrators forced African-American children to attend schools encumbered by substandard facilities and many miles from their homes, although white-only schools existed in nearby neighborhoods.
This inequity of course led to Oliver L. Brown et. al. v. The Board of Education of Topeka.
I had no awareness of this Supreme Court decision during my first few years in elementary school, and Southwest Elementary School (now Whitson Elementary) remained mostly white.
There is not a single individual of color in any of my class photos from that time. However, as we started the 6th grade, my class anticipated a special teacher, someone who had developed a celebrity status in our school—Mr. Holland.
A kind and erudite African-American teacher, Mr. Holland stopped by our class three times weekly to teach science. Up to that point, I had been an average student, demonstrating little enthusiasm for learning, but Mr. Holland stimulated a dormant zeal for science; he set fire to my passion for learning about chemistry and biology.
I remember rehearsing arcane and difficult biology terms, with atypical effort and repetition, to impress this extraordinary educator and to win his encouragement. He commanded attention in the classroom, and his wit and clarity opened minds.
Growing up in a significant crucible of racial divisiveness, I nevertheless owe my lifelong passion for learning to a man who probably lived daily with veiled and obvious Jim Crow realities everywhere in Topeka but inside his magical classroom. I know from subsequent adult conversations with my classmates that Mr. Holland was an influential early mentor to most of us in our long-term educational quest.
This story has been permanently encapsulated as oral history in the Library of Congress, my firsthand witness to the American Civil Rights Movement.
Many Baby Boomers who received thundering, gentle lessons in life from Mr. Holland owe his memory a debt of gratitude.
Many others growing up elsewhere also had positive formative experiences directly or indirectly because of African-American mentors: coaches, ministers, college educators, physicians, civic leaders, professional athletes, Hollywood actors, and, of course, Martin Luther King.
Baby Boomers sat on the front row of racial integration in America, and now it is our time to demonstrate our thankfulness for the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. and all the brave souls who led this nation's civil rights movement.
I encourage those who grew up during the 1950's, 60's and 70's to reflect upon their own discoveries and awakenings that were nurtured by African-American heroes.