Whoever came up with the liberal platitude that “Children have to be taught to hate” was either a liar or a fool, or both. He certainly never had children of his own, and, if it weren’t impossible, I’d say he must never have been a child himself.
There was plenty of ethnic strife in my elementary school. There were no blacks or Hispanics in my hometown (and if there were Asians, I don’t remember them), but their absence kept us from falling into the racialist fantasy that all white people are the same. As in most of the Midwest, Germans made up a solid plurality of the population of Spring Lake, but we had more than our share of Yankees, and enough Dutch that, when I went away to Michigan State, I already knew most of the Scottish and Jewish jokes. There were Irish, of course, and a small minority of Poles, of which my sisters and I were by no means the most obvious, our mother’s genes hidden, as it were, behind my father’s name.
It is true that children, when thrown together by circumstance—such as the requirement of universal education—will mingle freely with one another, but to mistake such activity as color-blindness or unawareness of ethnicity is naiveté, at best. Properly reared children know to be respectful to one another in front of teachers and other adults, but on the playground, the law of the jungle prevails. Like gravitates to like, even when the physical differences aren’t as obvious as skin color. How many adults can tell at a glance the difference between third-generation German-Americans, Dutch-Americans, and Polish-Americans? (The Irish, of course, are another story.) But just as young children are sometimes said to be able to see their guardian angels before the world convinces them they can’t, the children I grew up with were able to distinguish, at least in a crude way, between the various European ethnic groups in West Michigan, before we went off to college and learned that we were all simply white.
Ours was the 20th class to graduate from Spring Lake High School. Between 1967 and 1986, black students who attended SLHS had a 100-percent graduation rate. Or, to put it another way, the one black student who had attended SLHS had graduated. He was, if I recall correctly, valedictorian (perhaps salutatorian) of his class, and he went on to become a newspaper reporter and eventually an editor for the Detroit News. For my sister’s graduation, he returned to deliver a far better commencement address than the one that had earned my class’s commencement speaker, state senator William Van Regenmorter, the nickname “Rigor Mortis.”
Of course, not all of West Michigan was as lily-white as Spring Lake in the 1970’s and 80’s (or even the 2010’s). Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo had sizable and growing black populations, and Benton Harbor was as black as its “twin” city, on the other side of the St. Joseph River, was white. Closer to home, Muskegon, a dozen or so miles north, was seeing significant white flight after the collapse of manufacturing in the late 70’s and early 80’s, magnifying the percentage of the black population.
And then there was the Heights.
Muskegon Heights was founded in the 1890’s, at the end of the lumber boom that took Michigan’s virgin white-pine forests to the ground. (Muskegon was home to the most prominent lumber barons in the state.) In the 1930’s and 40’s, as manufacturing exploded along the Lake Michigan shore, blacks who came north looking for work settled in the Heights, where they joined an already existing black population. Never a large town (its population today is a little over 12,000), Muskegon Heights still represented the largest concentration of blacks in our little corner of the lakeshore.
The only reason anyone from Spring Lake went to the Heights was for high-school sporting events, and even then it was mostly the athletes. In our conference, teams from the Heights tended to dominate in basketball. The Tigers played to win, and the number of fouls in an average game testified to a somewhat different concept of sportsmanship. They were less dominant, though no less rough, on the football field.
In the fall of my freshman year, Tom Grabinski, the best coach I’ve ever known, asked me to manage our varsity football team. A finer collection of high-school athletes than the 1982 Lakers would be hard to imagine. When our nine-game season ended, the cumulative score was 266-6: eight shutouts, and we beat the one team that had scored on us by 25 points.
Graduation took some of our better players, but the 1983 Lakers were still a force to be reckoned with. We hadn’t played the Tigers in 1982, but in 1983, with a 3-1 record under our belts on the first Friday in October, we met them on their home field. They were 1-3, but their first win had been the week before. Everyone expected a tough game, and the fact that our marching band (of which I was a member as well) made up almost the entirety of the crowd in our stands wasn’t going to make it any easier.
The Lakers, however, quickly took the lead, and we never looked back. Sometime in the third quarter, officials from Muskegon Heights High School came over and consulted with Coach Grabinski and the director of our band program. The word was passed to players and managers and band members: Be ready to leave as soon as the game ends. No one said why.
With minutes left in the fourth quarter, the gate behind our end zone opened, and our two buses—one for the team, the other for the band—pulled onto the cinder track that ran around the field. As the final horn sounded on our 27-6 win, the buses backed onto the field itself, and the emergency exits in the rear were thrown open. As the players from the Heights and their coaches turned to their stands, arms raised and motioning to their fans to keep them from rushing the field, we ran for the buses. The other manager and I, with my trombone in my right hand and a water cooler between us, brought up the rear.
Almost 30 years later, the events of that night remain among my most vivid memories, and coming to grips with the reality of what had transpired played an important role in shaping my understanding of race relations in America. I’ve often wondered, though, what a reporter from NPR, viewing the events at a distance through a lens in which all is black and white, and not knowing who had said what to whom on the sidelines, would have made of what he saw. I’m afraid I know how the story would most likely have been reported.
Yet it wasn’t Coach Grabinski who opened the gates, or ordered our buses onto the field.