More Than Toilet Paper

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In 1951, before Brown v. Board of Education and before Martin Luther King gave voice to his dream, my grandfather, Philip Davidson, integrated the University of Louisville. As president, he merged a small black college into the university and gave tenure to a first black professor, the first at an all-white university south of the Mason Dixon line. Until his death at 98, my grandfather called that his proudest achievement.

Like Dr. King, my grandfather was a preacher's son. He taught high school in Mississippi, where he got fired for teaching evolution the same year John Scopes went on trial in Tennessee. He told me there was a black school down the road that was so poor they had to send up to the white school for toilet paper.

I can't help wondering how my grandfather would feel today about his old university's ties to one of its notable alums, Senator Mitch McConnell, in whose honor the university houses the McConnell Center for Political Leadership. The leadership the senator has shown most recently is to call for reconsideration of the 14th Amendment's grant of citizenship to anyone born in this country.

A half-century after the Civil Rights Act, we are plunging afresh into a national struggle over race. The skins are not as dark this time, but the prejudice is as black and hateful. Instead of George Wallace demanding "Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever," we face more subtle and insidious calls from the United States Senate for "reconsideration" of the citizenship of Hispanic children.

I miss my grandfather, but never more than at times like this. He was a preacher's son who lived the moral lessons of his faith, a man who extended his hand to the poor and dispossessed with an offer of more than toilet paper.


With a Perspective, I'm Mac Clayton.