9th Reflection, Going Back to Hammond
As we prepare students for the Cross Examination Debate Association National Championship later this week, and program coordinator Tiffany Dillard and I prepare to compete in the Pro Debate Tour on Wednesday, we all will be making arguments as a collective about the historical connections between the interracial debates, the Civil Rights Movement and the Louisville Project. In preparation for that event, I’d like to take a trip down my Hammond memory lane, aka my history.
While I don’t know the entire story of the Civil Rights Struggle in Hammond, I can go back aways.
For me, the story begins with my Mother, Rita Jean Simmons Warner. She was the 2nd black public education teacher in the city back in the late 50′s, early 60′s, I’m not exactly sure when. She taught at Harding Elementary after a short stint at Maywood I believe. I apologize if my facts are not 100% accurate, but my parents shared little of this with me.
They came to Hammond to start a life in a part of the city that was just opening itself up to the idea of integration, like much of the North and Midwest at that time. On the heels of Brown vs. Board of Education and just prior to the massive protests and demonstrations starting in the South, parts of Hammond came to realize that its time had come to move forward. Whether that decision was fear of legal liability or genuine concern to be a progressive part of America’s decision to turn the page, I don’t know.
What I do know is the majority of whites in Hammond at the time were not as ready to see change occur. I would later learn that my Mother struggled with racism in her dealings with parents and administrators on the job, and the integration of East Hammond did not come without substantial and continous backlash, requiring vigilance to prevent the new gains and promises to not become lost as quickly as they came.
My Mom was one of many in East Hammond who joined and stood with the NAACP in efforts to preserve the gains. Pearline Jenkins, Carlotta King, and my Mom are just a few of the names of black women that I know fought on the front lines. But there were many, many other families as names like Parrish, Mayberry, Cattledge, McClendon and Dent are just a few that immediately come to mind. The point is to honor the legacy and work of them all and that is part of what this essay tries to do.
The consequences of ongoing racial struggle are fairly substantial. My Mom’s nervous breakdown was a response to over twenty years of fighting for her family, her friends, as well as her own humanity. Most of those who took up the gauntlet did not do so willingly, they were forced into a fight for their own survival and that of their families. And while many don’t think about it, the consequences of those struggles, even decades later, they still haunt us all.
The biggest irony for me is that I never knew about much of this, because my parents made a commitment to shield their children from as much as they possible could. I left for college relatively naive about race, Hammond, and social protest, especially my parent’s involvement. And I’m sure my brother Paul and I were far from the only “protected” children in the black community.
After graduating from Hammond High in 1981, and returning to Gary as a Funeral Director for Smith, Bizzell, and Warner in Gary in 1986, I had to finally confront the legacy of racism in Hammond and the entire area called Northwest Indiana. Gary, at the time, was the per capita murder capital of the world, and as one of the two largest firms, we buried many. The problem was the disproportionate number of young black boys and girls, men and women that ended up on that morgue slab.
I couldn’t handle it. I felt like I was at the wrong end of the equation. I felt like there had to be more than sitting with a 20 year olds family making their last arrangements. Now don’t get me wrong, I love my Father for his commitment to his occupation and making a better life for his children, which he did wonderfully. However, the emotional and physical consequences of daily interaction with death is hard, and to be confronted with dying before one’s time is devastating. I was extremely unhappy, I resorted to self-destructive behavior, and even one night considered ramming my car into an embarkment to get away.
I thought when I came home from college that I would return to run our funeral home and live a good life helping to be a part of the solution. I just didn’t know the problem ran so, so deep.
So I left to find a solution. I thought I knew what the solution was, I just didn’t know what it would take. Fred Monberg, a Hammond High counselor was committed to reviving the school’s debate team, so much so that he called a meeting at the Hammond Public Library for 8th graders he thought could make a successful team a reality. I’m so thankful I was on that list. Thank you Mr. Monberg! There was no such activity at Edison Middle School, and I’m not sure how he knew, but much like Malcolm X, after one round at my first tournament, “I was gone on debatin’ !”
After my debate career, I knew that debate benefited me educationally, even if I wasn’t fully sure how. I thought that if I could bring debate to black students, it could change their life’s chances, and I was committed to figuring out a way to make it happen. College debate was a predominately white, male, and privileged game, but I thought that was just a public relations problem and some type of affirmative action could “get u r done” as they say here in Kentucky.
But I soon found serious problems with my plan. I found that most black students were not like me. They didn’t take an interest in a game that forced them to adopt an entire new set of technical skills that they saw no applicable utility in their lives. Speaking at an auctioneer’s clip and furiously taking notes turning an oral activity into a game of information processing was not interesting or motivational for the majority of black students I met. While some black students decided to try the new game, for every one that did, hundreds walked away.
In the end, I had a choice: give up or change the game. What began as a relatively simple idea, took on all the complexity of a civil rights movement. I was slowly drawn to a different approach to debate, one grounded in the persuasive speaking seen in the Great Debaters. Along the way, I learned that my choices had an impact not only for black students, but for the value of debate as a decision making tool in a multicultural democracy. True persuasive debate creates compassion for others, that’s how the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s) won so often against the larger, more privileged white institutions during the interracial debaters which started the Civil Rights Movement in the 1930s and 40s. Debate creates an opportunity for a cultural minority to make a persuasive case, and forces the majority to responsible engage their problems if the goal is effective stewardship by that majority. Debate as an oral activity achieves this, not debate as a written transcribing game of strategy.
Leading a civil rights movement is extremely hard and requires many sacrifices. My debate team wasn’t popular in the larger debate community, nor well supported by many at my school. And that doesn’t consider that I was taking a new population of students to the slaughter tournament after tournament, which created internal division as well.
I lost my wife, my family, and suffered great financial losses by not choosing more traditional routes in the academy. One of the biggest, has been my inability to come home to see my friends, family, and 85 year old father on a regular basis. Ede Warner, Sr. deserves a better son than I have been, especially of late. He has truly been understanding of my plight, but I still regret not doing more for him after all he has done for me.
But that’s the cost of social change, it’s all or nothing. For myself, my wife, my children, the Northwest Region, my Dad, and all of humanity, I chose all, and would have to do it all over again if given the chance.
But even though I wasn’t in Northwest Indiana much physically, I was always in spirit and I never lost sight of why I left. Tomorrow, I will take five debate teams to the Bay Area for three debate tournaments and we protest the rules, all of them.
We will challenged whether the evaluation procedures are constitution given the governing documents of the host organization. And while our teams over the years have lost more debates than we won, I see a light at the end of the tunnel. I now see an endgame using concepts of persuasion that will produce a debate system more relevant to all our everyday lives, like the Great Debaters movie illustrated debate was back in the 1930s.
Bigger than that, the program we created had an additional dimension. The unique combination necessary to survive for the last decade: a student services program, an academic component, with all the benefits of a co-ed team sports competitive is a unique animal in higher education. What we created was something scholar bell hooks calls a “homeplace,” a site of resistance for a minority group that provides a safehaven while dealing with larger majority interests based on some cultural difference. In spite of the lack of consistent competitive success (although we had some), we created academic success, politically motivated students, and a collective spirit akin to the greatest of the Civil Rights Movement. We created an important educational reform.
My contemporaries will remember the classic LL Cool J old school rap song, “Going back to Cali.” But I’m a lot more fond of a place with steel mills, working class folks, great high school basketball, and an easy commute to downtown Chicago. And although I can’t come back just yet, when I finally arrive, I will follow through on my promise to the children of Gary, Hammond, and all of da region. Sorry it took so long for me to get home.”
I hope you can find the compassion to forgive me.
Director of the Malcolm X Debate Society/Associate Professor of Pan African Studies, both at the University of Louisville