Thursday, September 9, 2010

A Local Hero

“The time is always right to do what is right.”
– Martin Luther King Jr.

I grew up under an apartheid system of government in Tallapoosa County, Alabama. Many things began to change in 1970 when, after years of resistance, the public schools were finally completely integrated. I was sixteen years old at the time. Governor George Wallace's segregationist anti-federal sentiments still held sway among most of the people that I knew. Both of my parents were public school teachers, so we all witnessed the anxious transition that most of us felt had been imposed upon us. It was not until 25 years later that I learned about my own father's significant contribution to that transition.

My father, Clyde Kinnaird, was Old South. He did not grow up during the Depression; he grew up just before the Depression, graduating from high school in 1928. He went on to college and seminary to become a Baptist minister. When he was 56 years old, he became bi-vocational, working full time with the Tallapoosa County School System while continuing part-time as a pastor. He was not a segregationist. He bragged about never having voted for George Wallace in his life. Neither was he a civil rights advocate. As I mentioned, he was Old South. He would probably have preferred to maintain the status quo. He agreed in sentiment with civil rights, but like many of us in the Old South, he thought things were moving too fast. He believed in "helping 'those people' to improve their circumstances," and while he was not a racist, I considered him to be paternalistic in his view toward African Americans.

In 1967, as part of the system's delay in implementing de-segregation, the county school system began placing a few white teachers into the black schools and a few black teachers into the white schools. My father was made principal of Council High School, which was the all-black school in town. I was vaguely aware at the time that my father moved the school from out of the red financially and that he worked on instilling pride in the teachers. I was also vaguely aware that he had some conflicts with the school superintendent. After his successful tenure at Council High, he was given no more jobs as principal but continued to teach in the classroom until he retired at age 66.

My father died at the age of 86. A year or so before his death, I was visiting with him when he was in a reminiscent mood. It was on that day that I learned that my father had been more of an activist than I had ever realized. He told me about driving out to the old neighborhood where Council High School had once been. He was pleased to see that a recreation center with tennis courts had been built. "I tried to get the city to do something like that 25 years ago," he told me. "I told them we need to do something to help the neighborhood and to give the kids something to do." In those days, the black neighborhood was filled with shacks occupied by people who did hard labor to try to earn a living. City Hall was unmoved. All my father had been able to do was to get a road crew to level off a field with a bulldozer so that he himself could put up a couple of basketball goals outside.

My father continued to recollect about his days at Council High School. "When I went there, the school was operating in the red, and I saw right away that a lot of the budget was going into the lunchroom because so many of the kids could not afford to pay for their lunch. I found out about the federal lunch program that would subsidize school lunches for low-income people. I went to the superintendent and explained to him that if we could get on the federal lunch program, then our school could put more money into the needs of the classroom. We could give the kids a better chance to learn."

In my father's words, the superintendent was a racist who "didn't want to do anything that would help the blacks." The superintendent told him to forget it, that the county would have nothing to do with any federal lunch program. "So I just decided to write to Washington, D.C." my father recounted. "I explained my situation to them and asked if there was any way our school could get the federal program. The next thing I knew I got a letter back from Washington stating that all of Tallapoosa County was now on the school lunch program. They sent a copy of my letter and theirs to the county superintendent. The superintendent didn't have a kind word to say to me after that, but we got the school operating within budget, and we got classroom materials that teachers had too long been without. We managed to give them something to be proud of."

Suddenly, it became clear to me why the superintendent had gone from favoring my father to giving less lucrative assignments. I also saw my father less in terms of Old South. He exemplified to me quiet ways in which change could be brought about. He had made choices that had cost him in his career, but choices that brought him no regrets. He had been able to bring some sense of dignity to professional colleagues who had seen apartheid from a different vantagepoint. I saw an old man who could look with pleasure upon the changes that had come about since 1967, and could recall with pride the unrecognized role that he had in bringing about those changes.

In Memoriam: Richard Clyde Kinnaird, Sr.
September 8,1910- December 18,1996


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