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WALKING IN THEIR FOOTSTEPS

Last weekend, I made a kid cry.

I'm glad I did it. I hope you'll have a chance to do it, too.

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The child was my 10-year-old son, and the place was the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture in downtown Baltimore. Six of us representing three generations - my wife and I, our three children and my father-in-law - were exploring a local cultural institution we'd never visited before, and we were quickly drawn to the exhibit titled "381 Days: The Montgomery Bus Boycott Story."

Like most educated people, I thought I knew that story pretty well. Rosa Parks, after all, became one of the most famous people in America after refusing to surrender her seat to a white man on a public bus in Montgomery, Ala., on Dec. 1, 1955, an act that eventually led to a Supreme Court case outlawing such segregation.

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But after just a few minutes in the Lewis museum last Saturday, I realized how much I didn't know - for instance, about the many small boycotts that laid the groundwork for Montgomery's, often decades earlier; or about the lengths the white establishment went to try to undermine the Montgomery protesters, even going so far as to refuse to insure vehicles owned by blacks who were trying to organize car pools.

Everyone in our group seemed to have at least one moment that provoked spontaneous, intense emotions. For me, it was watching a speech about the bus boycott by a segregationist Southern politician and realizing that the speaker was Sen. James O. Eastland of Mississippi, who, in the same year as the bus boycott, had tried to force my father to testify before a congressional committee about his political associations (he refused, costing him his job as an editor at The New York Times).

For my 10-year-old, the moment that stirred him was viewing a photo of police in Montgomery using a fire hose to control a crowd of black protesters. He was horrified to realize that if his African-American classmates had been alive back then, "it could have been my friends that were being treated that way."

A woman noticed my son's distress and came over to talk with us. She didn't give us her name, but she offered her story of growing up in Little Rock, Ark., in the 1950s. She witnessed the integration of Little Rock Central High School, and she experienced the kind of indignities on public buses that Rosa Parks did. "Yes, it was the same thing for me," she told my kids.

As we were leaving the exhibit, my wife and I looked around at the other visitors. When our eyes met, I knew we had the same thought: "We're the only white people here."

What a shame. It reminded me, a little bit, of my experience as a newspaper editor in a small town in northeast Louisiana in the early 1990s. Everything in that place, it seemed, was divided along racial lines: the churches, the funeral parlors, even the high school prom.

But here - in 2009, in Baltimore? Could such a progressive, modern city still labor under the illusion that "black history" is just for black people?

"381 Days" is open until Jan. 3. If you're shopping or visiting the waterfront at the Inner Harbor, the museum is just a few blocks away - a much shorter distance that most of Montgomery's black population had to walk every day for more than a year, enduring rain, cold, hostility and sometimes violence.

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Like them, you'll find the journey worth it.


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