Rude Behavior at Rutgers

Like most people, I still think of myself as someone from my birth state, even though I have not lived there for almost 50 years.  I was born in New Jersey, in the same hospital where my father was born so many years before me.  It is where I grew up, surrounded by grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends and neighbors. I guess it is that emotional connection that is the source of my unease over Rutgers treatment of Condoleezza Rice.

Set aside, if you can, the discussion about free expression on campus or about the Iraq war. Doesn’t inviting an accomplished black woman to speak at the place where you have been living for the past four years and then seeing her feel it necessary to withdraw…bother you? And shouldn’t you “do something” about it?                                             

I did not go to Rutgers.  A work/study scholarship sent me to Virginia in the early 1960’s, a cultural shock for this naive white New Jersey boy who had grown up knowing nothing about discrimination and race. My first encounter with discrimination was seeing drinking fountains labeled white and colored. I did not have instant moral outrage. It just struck me as odd. Why?

The civil rights movement was in full swing while I was in college. As those events slowly penetrated our otherwise occupied minds, it dawned on a small group of us that we had to do something. We had no idea what. A religion professor and a couple of local ministers active on campus organized a trip for a student group to attend a civil rights conference at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. What that really meant was they used their cars to drive us to the weekend event. After sitting through a number of speeches, we gathered in one of the dorm rooms where we stayed for the conference. Someone, I think it was the religion professor, said, “I’ve never met a Communist, but I think I just heard one.” I do not recall what was said at the conference. By today’s standards I’ll bet it was pretty tame stuff. But we decided it was too radical for us and if we were going “to do something” we would do it on our own.

So back on campus, with the help of Mr. Murchison, who worked at the Post Office, and the help of several other local residents, the Lexington, Virginia Voter Registration Society was born. We studied the law, prepared for resistance, and on the appointed day marched on the court house to defend the civil rights of the group of residents who marched with us to register to vote.

The tension of the moment evaporated in an instant as the gray haired lady behind the counter reacted to our invasion. “Oh my, I’ve never seen so many voters here all at once. Well, form a line and I’ll register each in turn.”

That’s it. No earthshaking aftermath. No dogs and bully sheriffs. We didn’t go on to even more civil rights work. We had felt uneasy about what we saw happening and wanted “to do something.” Mr. Murchison and I passed regularly on the street. Me going back to Miss Jennie’s where I lived in town and he coming and going from the Post Office. “Hi Bob.” “Hi Mr. Murchison.”

I do not know Condoleezza Rice. I suspect she would not mention race as an issue in this incident. But, we still live in an age of symbols, when the treatment of a prominent minority carries additional meaning. That is a burden none of us can escape. I offer no deeper analysis. If you are not bothered by how this was handled at Rutgers, then toss your cap in the air and grab a beer. If you are, then I do hope you consider “doing something,” even if it is little more than a gesture, as this New Jersey boy tried many years ago. 

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