Racism - Not on my watch, not in my country

  • Published
  • By Johnny Jones
  • 341st Missile Wing Equal Opportunity officer
Regardless of your race, color or national origin, just like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., equality and civil rights are something we have all hoped and dreamed for. Most are familiar with the honorable words and actions of Dr. King, César Estrada Chávez, John F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln and Chiune Sugihara to name a few. But let us not forget the words and efforts of those strong enough to cross those sensitive boundaries and never make the headlines. They could have been a parent, family member, friend or teacher, but the fact they stood up for what was right because it was the right thing to do, makes them memorable. 

Throughout my life, I have encountered several individuals trying to build on Dr. King's dream and unfortunately, I have come across just as many trying to tear it down. While stationed at Yokota Air Base, Japan, and attending a one-on-one Equal Opportunity Key Personnel Briefing, Col. Brent S. McClenny, dental squadron commander, shared with me one of the most powerful and courageous stories I have ever heard from a military member. Not only did he share with me but he also shared his life experiences with the base populace when he accepted the invitation to be the guest speaker at one of our ethnic observances. Below is his story. 

Racism has no place in our society. The quiet hero and role model in living this truth, regardless of the personal cost, was my father. He passed on this legacy of courage and leadership in the face of racism to my daughter, Leslie, when she interviewed him for her high school writing assignment. Below is a significantly abbreviated version of her profile of someone whose example impacts me to this day: 

In 1965, East Central Alabama received its first court order for school desegregation. My grandfather, Lloyd McClenny, was the Coosa County Superintendent of Education in this rural region. Judge Frank Johnson called the school superintendents to federal district court in Montgomery, the Federal District Judge, who issued orders leading to racial desegregation. At this time, Gov. George Wallace called the superintendents into a room and told them to defy all the court orders. Governor Wallace threatened "...to come to each county, publicly embarrass and politically defeat anybody who obeyed the courts." My grandfather left the room. Someone asked him how he was going to respond. "I'm going to do what the judge said. I will obey the law and do the right thing no matter what [Governor] Wallace says." 

My grandfather developed the plan, and fortunately, for Coosa County, he understood the importance of establishing friendships with all races long before this event. Because of the smaller sized facility, my grandfather had to close an all black school and send the kids to an all white school with sufficient space for all the students. He was asked by the Justice Department how many FBI agents and state patrol officers he wanted to help enforce the plan. "I told them none. I had everything under control." My grandfather knew that tensions in the African American community were already high with regard to racism and law enforcement excesses in some areas of the state. My grandfather chose to go it alone and trust in the relationships he had established with African American local leaders. He explained the school closure plan to approximately 700 black students, parents and concerned citizens in the school's gymnasium. As you might imagine, everyone there was very upset. However, a black minister stood up by my grandfather and told the people, "Mr. McClenny will do what is right and won't do anything to harm us." Immediately the crowd calmed down. At this point in my interview, my grandfather emphasized that, "Not just talking to people, but listening to what they have to say is a big deal. A major component of equality is respect." 

Although the overall process went quite smoothly altogether, there were still those who were upset enough to take action, primarily a handful of racist white citizens. "Most personal attacks didn't bother me. I knew that I was doing the right thing. The hard thing is asking your family to endure the difficulties." The most serious threat occurred when a man tried to burn my grandparents' home down, but a neighbor called the police just in time. Throughout the interview, I was struck by my grandfather's humble and matter-of-fact personality. I asked him if he was especially proud of anything, he did. He said he just "always tried to do what was right and never compromise. All I know is, I had a hand on my shoulder guiding me through all this. Jesus was leading me." 

As for Governor Wallace's threat, it never materialized. My grandfather was re-elected six times, for a total of 28 years of service (1960-88) as superintendent, the longest held elected office in Alabama. Governor Wallace has an infamous legacy of racism. Very few people know the quiet Alabama legacy of Lloyd McClenny. 

So, my daughter capsulized her grandfather's story well. He has long since retired from public service. Race relations have come a long way since 1965, but we still live in a world that is less than "color blind." So Lloyd McClenny's sons and grandchildren have been handed the baton. May I live a life worthy of the standard he set: With regard to racism and any other injustice...Not on my watch, not in my Air Force.

When I contacted Colonel McClenny and asked for permission to run this article in our base paper, he was honored. Just as this story has been passed through the McClenny clan and now several military communities, I hope you will share your experiences with your friends and family members. Colonel McClennys' sharing of such a personal event has brought reflection to the eyes of many. A story does not have to make the associated press or debut on lifetime movies to have an ever-lasting impact. Sometimes all it takes is doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do. 

Let us never forget the dreams, efforts and sacrifices of the honorable Dr. King, Lloyd McClenny, César Estrada Chávez, John F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln and Chiune Sugihara. They made them so we can live in harmony. 

As the theme for Dr King's birthday states "Remember, Act, Celebrate - Make it a Day On... Not a Day Off," take the time to reflect or share a personal story with a loved one or a friend on how civil rights and equality has enriched your lifestyle and heritage.
Events to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday
The following events will take place to honor and remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Jan. 19
10 a.m. - Bell ringing at the University of Great Falls Chapel. Pastor Phil Caldwell, Dr. Eugene McAllister and Chaplain (Capt.) Corwin Smith will speak during the chapel celebration. A simple soup and bread lunch will be served after and people are encouraged to bring a new or gently used book for children that will be distributed to the schools, Great Falls clinic and churches. 

1 p.m. - Chaplain (Capt.) Corwin Smith will speak to senior citizens at the Eagle Manor retirement home. 

2 p.m. - Pastor Mercedes Tudy-Hamilton from Union Bethel AME Church will speak to senior citizens at Golden Eagle Plaza. 

6:30 p.m. The annual Martin Luther King, Jr. musical celebration will be held at Mount Olive Christian Fellowship Church. Participants include Mount Olive choir and youth group singers, Alexander Temple COGIC choir, the Methodist Church youth group from Cascade, Mont., and the 8th grade class choir of C.R. Anderson Middle School from Helena, Mont. Those attending are asked to bring a non-perishable food donation that will go to the Great Falls food bank and rescue mission. 

Jan. 21
3:30 p.m. -- Poetry Slam and Open Mike at the Grizzly Bend Club. Showcase your literary talents and help honor the efforts of Dr. King. Anyone with a poem or reading that embodies the spirit of Dr. King's efforts is asked to participate in this celebration. For more information, call Joann Gogo at 731-4712 or Master Sgt. Denise Jones at 731-6637.