“All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.”
I always wondered what it would take for me to blog again after my abrupt “retirement” in December 2012.
Would it be the Crimson Tide’s not one, not two, but three additional national championships since that time?
Maybe Duke’s 5th national men’s basketball title in 2015 would do the trick. A lifetime, royal blue blooded Dukie like me surely couldn’t pass on that.
Ok, well, how about the surreal 2016 U.S. presidential election and the dystopian hellscape that ensued? (Excuse me, waiter? May I have another serving of FUBAR with a side of treason, please?”) Now there’s a a target-rich environment for a writer.
I went back to grad school in 2014 and graduated with a master’s in Health Science and Clinical Leadership from Duke Medical School in 2017 at the ripe old age of 55. I’ve retooled my writing and focus more on medical journalism now (I even get paid–sometimes).
Surely I could fire up the ol’ blog like a long-forgotten, rusty ’57 Chevy pickup garaged away in a backwoods, country barn and use it as a pedestal to address the present crisis and thereby fulfill my duty and responsibility to deploy my clinical and academic experience for the betterment of public health and mankind, right?
Instead, it took a text message from a friend, an ear-to-the-ground, always-on, Churches of Christ newsmonger and storm tracker to get my attention: “Mike!”
I was just about to text back, “What?!” when I saw the rest of the message.
A story I wrote and published a few years back had stretched its long legs and started to run–again. Only this time it had connected with the stories of George Floyd and Botham Jean (a Harding University alumnus), two black men who were murdered by white police officers.
The tale of The Harding 946 had hitched a ride on the back of a whirlwind and was now hurdling down the track faster than Edwin Moses.
I researched and wrote ‘Distinctions Which God Has Not Made” over the course of 2011-12, and it was published in the Arkansas Times, a weekly alternative newspaper based in Little Rock, on June 6, 2012. It had two parts, the main body of the story, and an author’s note that was intended to be the coda, a much-needed uplifting and redemptive closing note. It is vitally important that one read Both. Parts.
It is an under-told tale from the early years of the U.S. civil rights movement and takes place in the shadow of the Little Rock Central High Crisis in the fall of 1957 in Searcy, Arkansas, located about an hour’s drive northeast from Little Rock, on the campus of Harding College (now Harding University), a Churches of Christ-affiliated school and my undergraduate alma mater (BA, Psychology, Class of 1984).
l tell the story of 946 students, faculty, administrators and staff who signed a petition signifying their willingness to integrate the campus immediately (they preferred the term “Statement of Attitude,” so hereafter I refer to the document as “SoA”). The effort was led by a young man named Bill Floyd, the Student Association president, and other members of the student government. They enlisted English professor Dr. Robert Meyers to help craft the statement and circulated and signed the SoA in November, 1957 despite warnings to “cease and desist” issued by school administrators and the staunchly conservative and segregationist president at the time, Dr. George S. Benson.
They were not successful (Harding did not integrate until 1963 as the forthcoming Civil Rights Act was set to make receiving federal funds contingent on desegregation), but the fact that 75% of the all-white campus were willing to literally put their names on the line and risk backlash from their parents, administrators, potential future employers, and most especially President Benson, was remarkable. The story is not in the same league as Freedom Riders, Rosa Parks, and “Bloody Sunday” on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, but historians and civil rights veterans at the time it was published generally agreed it was an important addition to the American civil rights movement record.
That the incident escaped the notice of the international and national press who were covering the events in Little Rock is also noteworthy and was primarily due to the reflexive deference of “good Church of Christ kids” to their elders; they wanted to make a statement, but they didn’t want to cause too big a fuss and bring attention and reporters to Searcy that might possibly harm the school and its reputation.
So not a single one of them leaked the planning, execution, or results of the SoA to an outsider.
Yeah, it was a different time, all right.
My story’s publication, to say the least, created a bit of a stir.
Over the years, every so often someone stumbles upon and reads it, and the story of “The 946” starts to once again make the rounds on social media. Someone usually alerts me, and I witness the same cycle of astonishment, joy, hope, pride, outrage, defensiveness, projection, and rejection repeat itself again.
Mostly I just watch. I rarely comment. When I do, it’s usually along the lines of “Hello, I’m the author. Be sure to read the author’s note. Thank you.”
At times it’s been wearisome, more than I can say.
I only had to make one correction to the story, and it was an error in Harding’s favor. Other than that, in eight years no one has successfully refuted one iota of it. I’m not saying that’s impossible to do, but whoever tries better have some very strong evidence to back up their argument.
When it comes to primary sources, the kind that professional historians and journalists salivate over, I hit the mother lode: Benson’s files on race and integration, which included hardcore racist and segregationist propaganda and his own handwritten and speeches on the topics, documents historians and academics who have studied Benson’s life had long since written off as lost or destroyed.
I even found the original, intact SoA–all 946 signatures written on long sheets of brittle, yellowed paper that resembled parchments from an ancient holy scroll, unsealed at last from their cardboard box tomb. Every one of them was perfectly legible. The number of beloved Harding legends and icons who signed is simply astonishing.
It is the best story I have ever written, maybe ever will. I jokingly call it my magnum opus.
The story was also one of the main reasons I stopped blogging–it was a tough act to follow. Nothing I could write on Ocular Fusion seemed to have much meaning after that.
It occurred to me that maybe the only reason my blog, which I started in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, ever existed in the first place was for me to gain confidence to write for a wide audience and to find my voice–the style, content, vocabulary, cadence, rhythm, even punctuation, that make my writing unique–and finally use it for something that really mattered.
So here we are, in 2020, a year “which will live in infamy.” It was supposed to be a good year for eye doctors like myself, but so far it’s been a complete bust.
The United States and the world are burning with literal and figurative fever. I watch my story once again make the rounds.
I think to myself, you know, I really don’t have time to engage. I’m barely attached to Harding anymore in any substantial way. It was the right place at the right time of my life, and while I’m grateful for the good education I received and lifelong friendships forged “near the foothills of the Ozarks,” I’ve long since moved on. I’m Episcopalian, for Pete’s sake. I’ve traveled far from “the reservation.”
Plus, I’m a busy guy with my hands full. I’m thankful for my health and to be able to continue growing into the kind of husband I aspire to be to my wife of 35 years, a woman with a beautiful spirit and sexy Helen Mirren hair, and the father my sons, men who practice justice, love mercy, walk humbly and are now 31, 29, and 27, still need and crave.
We have the usual lifespan issues to navigate as a family. I daily face the challenge of caring for my patients while trying to keep both myself and them from catching a potentially deadly virus. I have writing opportunities galore and an editor with a light hand who will let me write just about anything I want (Love ya, G!). I am working and consulting with an ocular telehealth (telemedicine) company that is expanding access to eye care to underserved populations and is situated perfectly to tackle some of the unique challenges posed by the pandemic.
Do I really want to revisit all this again? Isn’t blogging dead? Do I really ultimately care whether or not Harding renames Benson Auditorium? Do I want to chance descending into the bizarre, psychedelic rabbit hole that Harding and Searcy at their worst can sometimes be and risk disorientation and free fall?
I’ve asked myself all those questions and more over the past few weeks, and I’m still not sure of all the answers.
But I have determined this much: I am a writer. I am the author of “Distinctions Which God Has Not Made.” I am the story’s caretaker, chief advocate, and spokesperson. The 946 are like my own children. Just like my sons, I am proud of who they have become and the good they’ve accomplished in this world.
This story was always first and foremost about The 946 and not the complicated legacy of George Benson (others have covered that much better than me). It was a love letter honoring the very best of the religious tradition in which I was raised. It was a hall of fame spotlight revealing Harding’s shining stars and real heroes, students and faculty who dared to read and interpret the Bible for themselves, cut against the grain, and speak truth to power.
It was never a mere “newspaper article” to me.
As I wrote Bill Floyd recently, “People still don’t get it. It was never about Benson. It was about The 946. Benson was exceedingly ordinary, just like countless other white men of power who served the status quo (of segregation) and protected monied interests during that period. The 946 were extraordinary. Benson just happened to be the antagonist standing in their way. It could have been any old Tom, Dick, or Harry, but in 1957-58, it was just plain old George.”
The 946 and The Little Rock Nine share 99.9% of their DNA and 100% kinship in the family of god. Their stories are inextricably connected. Those stories, in turn, entwine with the stories of George Floyd and Botham Jean. And all those stories are threads in the larger metanarrative of the emergence of racial distinctions, tribalism, moralism, and religion and the way we have harnessed those forces over millennia and used them as cudgels and whips to write a million chapters of oppression, subjugation, violence and strife.
No one’s hands are clean. As it is written, “None is righteous, no, not one.”
While Harding president Dr. Bruce McLarty has issued a statement on the matter of renaming Benson Auditorium, I am certain that the conversation about legacy and race will continue on that campus.
There is much about the conception and birth of this story I haven’t revealed. Restarting Ocular Fusion for a season and focusing on the “story behind the story behind the stories” by posting portions of the recordings, correspondence, interviews, and documents I couldn’t reference in the first story for the sake of brevity and publication just might do some good and help facilitate some of those discussions.
I will, of course, keep the names of people at Harding who aided me with this project confidential, but I will reveal one who was of special assistance. Many readers will be surprised to read his name.
Others will be delighted–perhaps shocked!–to read and see the names of the many Harding legends and icons who signed.
Along that line, the Harding Class of 1958 is now in their mid-80s. If anyone, signers or non-signers, wishes to tell me more about what happened that academic year, please reach out to me (my email is included in the About section of the blog).
Now is the time for those of you who were on the scene to put yourself in the narrative with your own recollections.
Do you have a relative who was on campus during that time? If you want to know if yours signed the SoA, contact me and I’ll do my best to find out. If they did, I’ll send you a picture of their signature.
Unlike the original Ocular Fusion, there will be no comment section. I have come to believe that “Comments” is the Inferno’s 10th circle of hell that Dante envisioned but was too terrified to put on paper. If you want to converse with me, you can send me an email and I will reply as I have time, but I will not respond to anonymous emails and letters.
I hear a call to reengage, and my reply is, “Here I am–might as well,” When you are a writer, there’s no rest for the weary.