|Commentary: Sharing 'my civil rights story'|
A UMNS Commentary
By W. Astor Kirk*
Feb. 21, 2008
W. Astor Kirk
Why did I write my memoirs?
Family, friends and an editor of my recent book approached me, sometimes with pressure, arguing that hidden in my 85 years are stories that could benefit or inspire others. I finally agreed to write them down. I especially wanted to share my experiences with young professional blacks who feel overwhelmed by seemingly insurmountable challenges.
After committing to write One Life: Three Professional Careers––My Civil Rights Story, I had to attempt to relive the many character-shaping challenges of my life. As I did, my mind became fixed on three life-changing experiences:
- The mysterious voice that spoke to me at the age of 15, while I was walking behind a mule and a plow in my dad’s cornfield in East Texas. The voice said loud and clear, "If you accept the existing circumstances of your life, then that means denying your God-given ability to visualize something radically different and much better."
- During my freshman year at United Methodist-related Wiley College, three professors challenged me to think some new thoughts, critically examine old ideas and develop new premises of my own. One of those professors was Melvin Tolson, whom Denzel Washington portrayed in the movie "The Great Debaters."
- There are six lessons I learned or values I internalized when I began my professional career after graduating from Howard University’s graduate school in 1947. Those six lessons provided a broad conceptual framework for approaching my professional careers.
Those lessons are:
- What determines who we are and what we believe, as human beings, is the character of our minds and our souls––not race, ethnicity, skin pigmentation, gender or sexual orientation.
- In our interactions with other human beings, it is not the reality of differences that matters most but rather the socially constructed meanings we associate with that reality. If the "meanings" are positive, we will respond one way; if negative, we will behave another way.
- Knowledge is power. In and of itself, power is neutral. Our values determine how we use power and the ends toward which power is directed.
- From time to time, the human condition may generate issues that cannot be resolved for all times, for all peoples and in all places. However, we can gain new insights regarding their dynamics, achieve new understandings of the contexts in which they are nested, and develop new levels of consensus in dealing with such issues.
- As human beings, each of us is in a state of perpetual becoming. None of us exists in a state of perfection.
- One cannot achieve and sustain wholeness of mind, body and soul without forgiving those who inflict pain, cause misery and sow seeds of discord––even when one is unable to forget what these others do.
Since 1947, I have had three professional careers: 14 years as a political science professor at Huston-Tillotson University, a historically black institution supported by The United Methodist Church; five years as a senior program manager at United Methodist Board of Church and Society; and 16 years as a regional director of the historic "War on Poverty" program of the U.S. government.
"In each of my careers, I always fought against the disparaging stereotype of being perceived as a 'black' or 'African-American' professional. I wanted to be viewed, liked or disliked, and praised or criticized on my merits as a professional who incidentally happened to be black or African American.
As a professional who happens to be black, I was confronted in each of my careers with a number of complex, difficult and delicate challenges with critical "civil rights" implications.
In writing One Life: Three Professional Careers―My Civil Rights Story, I decided to reflect on how my six lessons for life or internalized values generally influenced the choices I made and the manner in which I attempted to carry out those choices.
In each of my careers, I always fought against the disparaging stereotype of being perceived as a "black" or "African-American" professional. I wanted to be viewed, liked or disliked, and praised or criticized on my merits as a professional who incidentally happened to be black or African American.
With respect to my family’s interest in my conveying a positive message to today's young black or African-American professionals, my desire is to share some of the benefits of my personal experiences. I want them to know that when I intentionally and responsibly took charge of my own destiny, my actions radically affected how others perceived and behaved toward me.
I especially want to share the fact that in my professional careers, and particularly in my desegregation of the University of Texas’ graduate school, a basic strategic objective was to avoid giving others the tools with which to negatively define me.
No matter how good or exemplary one intentionally tries to live, he or she inevitably will experience some "bad" things. However, as I say in the book, it is possible for good people to survive most bad things that may happen to them.
In many respects, I wrote the book as a grateful acknowledgement of the blessings of a wonderful wife who has, for 61 years, been for me a Rock of Gibraltar and a shelter in times of storm.
*Kirk is a member of Foundry United Methodist Church, Washington, D.C. This reflection first appeared in the UMConnection newspaper of the Baltimore-Washington Annual (regional) Conference.
News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com.
Chronology of the Central Jurisdiction
Author reflects on careers in civil rights movement
Foundry United Methodist Church
Books By W. Astor Kirk
Desegregation of the Methodist Church