The little girl hopped onto her Great Grandfather’s lap sporting a huge grin. She loved Great Grandpa Jack, also known as G-Jack to his grandkids.
He was in town for her older brother’s high school graduation. Even though he only lived a few hours away, they didn’t get to see him as often as she would like.
Jack adored little Milley. Of all the Great Grandchildren, she alone seemed to truly enjoy spending time with him. She was typically full of questions and today was no different.
“G-Jack, do you remember when you graduated from high school?” she started out.
“Sure Milley, but just remember it’s been almost seventy years ago. It was one of the most important events in my life and, to be honest, I still think about it sometimes” he responded, swallowing hard without realizing it.
“Tell me about it Grandpa!” she asked.
“Well, Milley, it was actually quite a big deal. You kids don’t know much about this, but over a hundred years ago black children couldn’t go to the same schools as white children. In fact, they couldn’t eat in the same restaurants or stay in the same hotels.”
“Stop lying Grandpa!!!” Milley giggled. “That’s crazy!”
“No, I’m serious honey. For many years, well after the Civil War of the 1800’s, our country remained mean and cruel to citizens who weren't white. But our government passed a law in 1954 making it legal for black children to attend the same schools as white children. It was a pretty big deal, as you can imagine.”
Milley sat quietly for a minute. Then, with a quizzical look on her face, she asked him “how could they tell who was black and who wasn’t?”
“Well, at that time not everyone’s skin was as similar as it is now. Black people were much darker and white people were pretty pale. Over the years, so many people of varied colors have fallen in love and married and had families that we look more alike, meaning we actually treat each other a little bit better now. It’s kind of hard to explain, but you’ve seen pictures in books haven’t you?” Jack said.
“Hmmm, yes, I guess I know what you mean” Milley pondered. “So why was your graduation such a big deal?”
“I graduated during the fifty year anniversary of that special law being passed. And do you know what? The fight for that law started right here in your city, Topeka! There used to be a museum downtown honoring it but once our President and public officials began being able to purchase their jobs the museum was shut down."
"When I graduated, though, we still had national elections and the majority of voters would choose our President and Governor and Senators…all of the people that big companies pay for today. You’ve learned about this in school, right Milley?” he asked.
“Sure, G-Jack, but I like hearing about it from someone old and who lived through it!”
It was one of the things he loved most about her; the fact that she was interested in his stories, in spite of the fact she forgot her manners at times and called him “old”.
“Okay little one, let me tell you some more then.”
“Because it was the 50th anniversary of this huge decision, and a major milestone in our country’s growth in terms of treating all human beings the same regardless of the color of their skin, our school district invited the First Lady of the United States to be the main speaker at our graduation ceremony. You learned about President Obama, right?” he asked her.
“Oh yes, Grandpa, he was the only black President ever in our country. Everyone knows who he was….just like we all know who the only lady President was and the only Latino President…my history teachers have taught us those things” she proudly reported. “And his wife was Michelle Obama, Grandpa. All of us know who she was!"
"That was the time when our country started fighting really badly, right?” she continued.
“Yes, sadly, it was. But at the time, well, understand that it was special when my classmates and I found out that Mrs. Obama had agreed to come speak at our graduation! It was so symbolic, because of that law I mentioned making it legal for black children to be able to go to any school they wanted, and also because it all started in Topeka and she was the first black First Lady of the United States. None of us had seen anyone quite that important in person. All of the adults I knew always joked about how they couldn’t remember who had spoken at their graduations or what was said. I know my friends and I were all pretty excited about it and we felt special.”
“Wow Grandpa, so you got to see Mrs. Obama in person?” Milley asked, eyes wide open.
“You know how I said it was a big deal? Well, it was a actually a nightmare because a group of parents became angry and started a petition to keep her from being able to speak to all of us” he continued.
“Why, Grandpa? That would be crazy! I mean, she was the First Lady and you said that was when our President was actually elected by the people, not purchased. I don’t understand. Why would people be mad over someone so famous and important coming to talk?”
“That’s a good question. I seem to recall they said it was because there would only be a limited number of family members that could go to the actual graduation and there wouldn’t have been enough seats, but that didn’t seem to make a difference when the First Lady before her, Laura Bush, spoke at a much smaller graduation in Alabama several years before. Nobody had a problem with that. And there were large schools around the country that always had to limit the number of tickets for their graduates regardless of who spoke. I also remember some really mean things being said about her by people, like calling her names and saying that Brown versus Board of Education, the law I mentioned, wasn’t important."
"No, honey, allot of people simply didn’t like the President and because they didn’t vote for him they didn’t like the First Lady and they got kind of nasty about it. “
“Oh,” said Milley. “So, does that mean people got mad when that other First Lady spoke too? Did they cancel her?”
“Not exactly. She spoke in a part of the country that liked her husband, so folks were just fine with her speaking. I guess that’s what you might call a double standard. Many folks during that time liked to talk about patriotism and honoring our military men and women. Well, our military was one of the reasons our country was free and able to have national elections; it’s why we were able to freely pick our President. So many people began to badly disrespect the office of the President over the years when the guy they wanted didn’t get the majority of votes, though, that it became easy for the billionaires in the country to simply start purchasing the job. It got really bad during President Obama’s Presidency because many people still secretly hated black people. The disrespect and mockery towards the democratically elected President became so violent that the Supreme Court and Congress just changed our constitution and allowed the guys with the most money pay to be President. Also, the people with the most money were all white men at the time and after a woman and a Latino were elected President the country almost had a second Civil War. That’s why we no longer have elections.”
Milley looked intently at her grandfather, a frown on her face.
“So is that when our country changed from being a democracy to an oligarchy?” she asked. “We learned about that in school too.”
G-Jack quietly looked out the window, not realizing that a tear had slid down his face.
Milley reached up, gently wiping it away.
“So what happened Grandpa?”
“The First Lady didn’t speak at the graduation. She spoke on a different night, for those who still wanted to hear her speech and witness her honoring the graduates and the history of education in our country. I was there that night, honey, and it was so amazing. I’ll never forget it. She gave a powerful speech, reminding us that we were all special and that we could achieve anything we wanted if we worked hard and always remembered to respect ourselves and each other.”
By now, there were more tears rolling down his face.
Impulsively, Milley threw her arms around his neck and whispered in his ear “that’s when that man shot the First Lady, isn’t it.”
He could only nod, remembering.
Finally, after a few moments, he held her away from him, forcing her to look him in the eyes.
“Milley, that is what hate, anger, and irrational thinking can cause. And eventually, it was the downfall of what what was once an amazing democracy. “
Milley, still a child, didn’t know what to say so she simply reached out and held her grandfather’s hand.
“Thank you for sharing Grandpa. I hope someday our country can become nice so that I get to vote for a President. I think I’d like that” she said.
“You would like it, Milley. It always made me feel special and privileged…and free” he said, squeezing her hand tightly.