Who would have known that the story of a little black girl and a little white girl holding hands in a rural Virginia store would have such an impact on generations of children? Each time I hear her story, as I did again this morning, my commitment to helping children make sense of the world is revitalized. The story, told every year at the Seed by our dear friend, Dr. Elsie Moore, seeps into the consciousness of young children and invites them to ask, “Why did MLK want everything to be perfect?” or “Why couldn’t blacks be with whites?”
Elsie has had a remarkable life, growing up in the South during the Civil Rights Movement, being one of the first African American students to integrate an all-white high school in the late 60s. Every year she starts with the story of herself, at age four, holding hands with a young white girl in the country store and being yelled at by the adults surrounding them for something she didn’t understand until years later. She talks about being pelted with food and chalk by her angry white classmates, and being denied the scholarship she earned rightfully as valedictorian of her senior class. Her stories inspire all of us to keep expanding our understanding of what is right and fair.
In addition to all I’ve learned from Elsie’s stories, I’ve been fortunate to call her my friend. Elsie and I grew up at the same time in two vastly different rural areas of the country, Virginia and Nebraska. While she was on the front line of school integration, all I was concerned about was if our team won or lost the state basketball tournament. For years I felt guilty about this, guilty for being white. Elsie was the one who kindly redirected my thinking when she asked, “What else could you have done at that particular time and place in your life?” She’s helped me see that what we do with our lives at each given moment is what matters, and how we learn to live with our growing awareness. Elsie and her stories have given the children and our staff a way to address race personally and meaningfully. We are not afraid to ask questions and engage in dialogue. Each time she comes to the Seed I am renewed with hope for this world, knowing that her life work and that of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is still alive and well. I know with each retelling of her precious stories that the children who hear them will be more likely to ask the questions of their hearts, and then courageously set forth to find the answers.