"We have fought hard and long for integration, as I believe we should have, and I know that we will win."
— The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Racism was as integral a part of our lives in the 1960s as baseball, Mickey Mouse, TV westerns or vacations at the lake.
I grew up in a white suburban middle-class neighborhood, just like the town where Dick and Jane lived in our elementary school readers: No African Americans.
The only African Americans I knew about were major league baseball players whom my uncles mocked at family barbecues. So I grew up thinking that Larry Doby was a terrible player. When one of my brothers dropped a ball, we called him "Larry Doby." The same Larry Doby who is in baseball's Hall of Fame.
Before I ever met an African American, I repeated N-word jokes I heard from friends who'd heard them from their elders. So that when I finally encountered Black people on a city bus or at the shopping mall, I viewed them with a mix of pity and caution.
At St. Bernadette's grammar school, no one disabused me of these notions. Not the Dominican nuns. Not the priests.
What we learned in our religion class or in our paperback catechism about loving thy neighbor and thy enemy, constituted my first lesson in critical thinking: Comparing what was written in those texts and in the Bible to the talk and behavior of everyone I knew told me that the books were fiction and did not apply to real life. The church, I inferred, promised you heaven if you donated on Sunday and paid lip service to its doctrines without having to abide by them.
The lone African American in my high school freshman class was Wendel Winslow. An above-average student, he was short and bespectacled, strong and fast, and won the rope climbing event in our P.E. "Olympics." He was an exception to the stereotypes I had learned and that was the reason, I assumed, he attended our school.
At 15, reading John Steinbeck, Emily Dickinson and Mark Twain, I learned that adults were flawed and often times fools. At 16, reading J.D. Salinger, Ernest Hemingway and Richard Wright, I learned we were supposed to call out hypocrisy where we found it.
College classes in philosophy, history, literature, sociology and political science did what they were supposed to do, opening my eyes to the injustice, cruelty and oppression of racism. Not just a relic of the deep South before the Civil War, racism was happening right in front of our faces with housing discrimination practices like redlining to isolate African American neighborhoods in the city, segregated beaches on the lake and hiring bias in the police and fire departments.
Nonetheless, many of my white peers exposed to the same truths retained the bigotry they were raised with. It's as if the lessons from school and the great books were like those I had learned in catechism: material to study but then forget about once you've passed the exam. They went to mass, took communion, lit a cigarette on the way out and still told N-word jokes, while checking who was in earshot and keeping their voices down.
Had they not paid close enough attention in school? Did they have a different learning style? Were they born without the synapse in their brain that enabled empathy?
No to all three questions.
But what was different for me was taking a job as a teacher in a city high school in which half of the other teachers were African Americans. Though it was initially culture shock for a white Irish Catholic suburbanite, you can't help unlearning stereotypes and forming friendships with people you live and work with every day.
Because my African American colleagues had endured myriad social and economic obstacles all their lives, from which I had been spared, I benefited more from them than they did from me.
Friends like Willa Carr, Rich Cook, the Rev. Malcolm Walton, Delores Greyer, Gwen and Chris Abston, Jimmy Grisset and Pam Cox, among others, shared hard-earned lessons in judging character, motivating youths, overcoming tragedy and withstanding daily slings and arrows, while still maintaining optimism with humor, faith and love. And they treasured family values all the more, because of the greater struggle required to preserve them.
Later, I would think about my friends from school when I read about the strength and forgiveness shown by the elderly African American survivors of the horrible shooting massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015, who also had had to survive that most debilitating obstacle imaginable, racial hatred, all their lives.
And that's why I subscribe to King's belief in the importance of integration.
Busing back in the 1970s may have been considered a failed experiment. But the reasons behind it — enlightenment, transformation and racial harmony — remain valid.
And that is why, as President-elect Joe Biden's administration begins to implement initiatives under its racial equity agenda, it must find new ways of bringing Black and white people together to allow the better parts of our social and human natures to interact.
David McGrath is an emeritus English professor at the College of DuPage and the author of "South Siders," a collection of columns on life in the Midwest.