Disciplined Consequences of Brown
The desegregation that began in Clarendon, S.C., came to my hometown of Sumter back in 1965, some 11 years after the celebrated Brown decision. My sense of surprise, anxiety and anticipation when informed that I would be among the handful of students chosen to undertake this noble experiment was understandably significant.
I didn’t much consider the wider contextual significance of the matter; all I knew was that my parents said I’d be going to Sumter High instead of Lincoln High. I also knew that, for better or worse, I’d be representing my family as well as an entire community of disenfranchised people in Sumter. I was prepared to hear the “n” word, accepted the fact that life-threatening situations were real possibilities and understood that failure was not an option. And believe me, I suffered many indignities and slights, including finding out late in the football season that, except for me, all of my teammates and coaches enjoyed a steak dinner together prior to each home game.
These types of episodes notwithstanding, the memories that still resonate within me were life-altering lessons about loyalty, friendship, personal integrity and, most importantly, the role of discipline in our lives.
One pivotal incident converged to bring all of these lessons clearly into focus.
The short version of the incident is that one Sunday evening late into that first year of desegregation, my brother Al, his best friend Harry Lee, and I had an opportunity to vindicate some of the indignities I’d suffered. We foolishly threw bricks at one of the young men who was one of my daily tormentors at school. One of those bricks barely missed the back of his skull. The potentially lethal missile thankfully only nicked my tormenter on the earlobe.
The next day, in the office of our school principal, W.S. Jackson, I was confronted by the local chief of police, the county criminal prosecutor, my tormenter’s parents, and, most painfully of all, by my father, Wheeler Matthews. After much agonizing debate and negotiation, Jackson and my father persuaded the authorities to consider the incident a school matter instead of a criminal one.
Believe me, Jackson, a retired Marine Corps officer who coveted getting through that first year of desegregation without incident, administered his special form of discipline to me with a paddling — the most consequential paddling I’ve ever received.
I’ve been thinking lately about the multifaceted nature and value of discipline. While reviewing the unparalleled amount and caliber of research that characterizes Dr. John Hope Franklin’s stellar career, for instance, I was reminded of the degree of discipline that was of necessity involved.
We will all have the chance to thank Franklin for his life and work on June 19 as Black Issues inaugurates an award that will bear his name. Many of you, either through your presence at our anniversary conference or through other expressive means, will take the time to thank him for his consequential record of disciplined research, scholarship and service.
Several years after my life-altering incident, Jackson died on the eve of defending his doctoral dissertation at the University of Southern Carolina. What I regret most is that I never got around to thanking Mr. Jackson. His sense of discipline and determination to make desegregation work in Sumter saved me, Al and Harry Lee from life in the prison systems of South Carolina.
Today most of the woes that so many in our community suffer are due to a lack of personal and collective discipline. Now may be a good time, then, to tell those special ones you know how much you appreciate their examples or their direct application of discipline in your lives.
Do it now because you may never get another chance.
Frank L. Matthews
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