Two Great Minds, Two Dreams That Changed Lives

Every year at this time (MLK’s Birthday), I’m reminded of an event that occurred early in my teaching career that provoked what can be called a “C” change in schools in Los Angeles, California. I like to think of it as a metaphor for the meeting of two great minds: that of Martin Luther King and of a little known heroine of mine, Norma Lancaster–wife of the great late actor, Burt Lancaster. By now, everyone knows how Dr. King dreamed of equality of  opportunity for all races. In 1961, Norma Lancaster set about operationalizing her dream of integrating her children’s school in Bel Air. The story of how she went about achieving her goal, and how it ultimately expanded beyond her wildest dream, is told in “From Dunbar to Destiny” on pages 95-97.  The cover of the book is a photograph of me teaching my classroom of all-white students. It was taken by a national magazine photographer just after the 1961 Montgomery, Ala. Sit-ins. Here is an excerpt from the book:

-Norma Lancaster-

Norma Lancaster was an icon for liberal consciousness.  She was a leader in community and civic affairs and the president of the League of Women Voters, among other involvements of this type.  When she came to my classroom before school started the next day, I was calmed down and felt safe enough to answer her gently-phrased questions and to share with her what had taken place the day before. 

Norma calmly listened to my side of the story; she had heard others elsewhere.  At the conclusion of our time together, she assured me that the problem was not mine — that it was a problem that had long been brewing.

“In my opinion”, she stated, “these children at Bellagio are just as underprivileged as the children who live in south L.A..  They are not aware that there are many other types of people in the world because they have no opportunities to interface with them except in subservient roles (maids, butlers, chauffeurs, etc.). I think it’s wonderful that they have a black teacher, but that’s not enough.  They need opportunities to play and work with peers, other kids, who are different from themselves.  Otherwise, how will they ever be prepared for the world away from here when they grow up?  I think this situation needs to be changed.  And, I hope to live long enough to see that it does!”

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