Ahead of his time

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WHEN A friend called me last Wednesday morning to report that Dr. Samuel L. Banks had died of an apparent heart attack, I did not want to believe it. It was too mundane a death for a man I viewed as a freedom fighter in the mold of W.E.B. DuBois, the consummate scholar-polemicist. Some cataclysm should have accompanied the departure of such a titan from Earth.

I first learned of Dr. Banks through the letters-to-the-editor and "Other Voices" pages of The Evening Sun. For years, he wrote to the paper, using his expansive vocabulary to insist that no injustice should go unexposed or unopposed. I never failed to have my vocabulary stretched by reading his works. Though Dr. Banks would often send his readers and his listeners to their dictionaries, he never seemed pretentious when he used words that sounded foreign to many people.

It is the sacred duty of an educator to force his students to grow, but Dr. Banks challenged his readers to do more than expand their vocabularies. He dared them to stand up for what was just and good in humanity. In a way, Dr. Banks' writing reminded me of the essays of Frederick Douglass, full of passion for freedom and full of scorn for those who would passively accept oppression.

When I became an editor at the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper, I had the daunting task of editing his columns for publication. Each column was carefully edited before submission, except for length, which sometimes became a problem because Dr. Banks' powerful intellect was attuned to discourses on great issues of the day, not such pedestrian concerns as making an opinion page neat and symmetrical.

For almost two decades, I witnessed Dr. Banks speak out on issues concerning civil rights and education when his silence or the submission of bland columns that offended no one might have helped him achieve his unfulfilled dream of becoming superintendent of schools for Baltimore City. He was highly qualified as a scholar. He had a blueprint for creating and maintaining excellence in the school system, which he published in 1985, "The Education of Black Children and Youths: A Framework for Excellence."

His outspokenness was a great benefit to this community, but it cost him personally because the powers that be did not and still do not want the city schools run by an independent thinker. He would not sacrifice his integrity for the sake of high office.

As I got to know him over the years, I would ask him if he ever feared being fired because of his outspokenness. He would reply succinctly and eloquently, "Let them try. I will not passively allow anyone to traduce my constitutional right to free speech."

When I became embroiled in controversy as a weekly fellow columnist at the Afro, and some group was yelling for my head on a platter, he would call me up with a word of encouragement. "Never let them silence you," he would say. Or, he would declare: "Hold fast because truth crushed to Earth will always rise."

In the early 1990s, it was the height of irony that when Baltimore's public schools were attempting to infuse more Afro-centric and other multicultural material into its curriculum, Dr. Banks was left out of the process. In the early 1970s, he was called upon to infuse Baltimore's lily-white curriculum with African-American history; that work helped earn him a national reputation as an outstanding educator. In all probability, his outspokenness and independence cost him a further role in that process in recent years.

In this era of equivocation and quivering in the face of the right-wing attacks on affirmative action and African-American representation in Congress; in this era of betrayal of the black community by that injustice on the U.S. Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas; in this era, when Baltimore's public school system seems fragmented and trapped in inert mediocrity, the silencing of the voice of Dr. Samuel L. Banks leaves us diminished and quite a bit less capable of defending ourselves from oppression.

R. B. Jones writes from Baltimore.

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