Written by Dick Pryor on Wednesday February 23, 2011
George Henderson wasn't born in Oklahoma; he didn't grow up here; he didn't attend college here. He did, however, find himself here. And, along the way he fundamentally changed race relations in the state and established himself as one of the nation's leading human rights scholars and activists.
Henderson grew up in Hurtsboro, Alabama and East Chicago, Indiana, where he was "trapped in his ethnicity." Living conditions were poor, poverty prevailed and Henderson encountered racism in both locales. The North provided little refuge for black families. Henderson called "The Calumet" area of East Chicago an "urban plantation." Henderson and many other young African Americans suffered the bigotry of low expectations, except from his own family. His mother steered him toward college, where Henderson excelled. He attended what is now Michigan State and Wayne State, where he received three degrees.
While in Detroit, Henderson was a social case worker, community organizer and activist. He met Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Cesar Chavez and his boss at the Urban League was Whitney Young, Jr. Malcolm X recruited Henderson to join his group, but Henderson decided against it. Said Henderson:
"When Malcolm would try to recruit me, it was before he went to Mecca. And before he went to Mecca, Malcolm was anti-white. He encouraged a very different, a more violent approach to solving things. Although he never told individuals to go out and hurt somebody without cause, and he always said "without cause." He said parroting and mimicking, perhaps, Martin Luther King, Jr., he says, "I'm a non-violent man too, but if somebody touches me, I'm going to send him to the cemetery."
Well, that approach didn't sit well with me or Melvin (Tolson, Jr.). We knew that our students, and I believe-- and boy, I was committed to non-violence and so was Melvin-- when you're less than 200 and slightly more than 100 on a campus of thousands, non-violence is probably, as Gandhi found out in India, a very practical way to do this thing. It's a good strategy. It's not a cowardly strategy we taught each other and our students believed in. It requires courageous people to turn the other cheek, and finally when you run out of cheeks to still accept the violence. It is redemptive. We learn that suffering can be redemptive. We learned that suffering can be redemptive. These are the things that we helped to wrestle with and to deal with and to come to terms with.
So I told Malcolm X, "No, I'm not committed to your strategy, but I respect you and appreciate you as a brother--as a black man." And we had a deal. I said, "I will not do anything publicly to discredit you or to hurt you." And he said, "Fair enough, Brother Henderson." And then I said, "But I also want to believe that you will not do anything publicly to discredit or to hurt me." He laughed and said, "That's our deal." And so that's how that relationship lasted."
Despite advice not to go to Oklahoma, Henderson moved his family to Norman shortly after the Detroit Riots in 1967. It took some time, but he became a civil rights activist in Oklahoma, too, and encouraged his students to push back against discriminatory practices and regain their dignity.
Henderson said one of his earliest experiences in Oklahoma established his role in his new state. It occurred at a conference with three distinguished white speakers talking about black children in education. Henderson told me:
"I sat and I listened, and I heard them say several things that I didn't like. And when given an opportunity, I tried to correct their misperceptions of black children. Well, nobody apparently had ever done this before-- not to these distinguished experts on black people. And a white gentleman sitting directly in front of me turned around and said, "Who are you?" And I introduced myself, and he said, "Well, why are you here?" I said, "I've accepted a teaching position." He said, "No, why are you really here?" I thought for awhile, then I looked at him and I said in my most reverent manner, "Before I left Detroit, there was a meeting of black people from around the United States. We divided up the United States, and I got Oklahoma. I've come to take care of my people." The audience erupted. He was sure that I was telling the truth, and so there it was. So I had a reputation, and that solidified my role as a voice, if not a spokesperson, certainly a voice of some of the blacks."
When Henderson arrived on campus, OU had a few high-profile black athletes, but most black students were ignored and invisible. Even black athletes felt exploited. There were few organizations that welcomed them and the Norman community was not especially friendly toward them. They did not have the same privileges as white students. Black students had no place to get haircuts, were served cold food in restaurants, suffered discrimination in housing, and were encouraged to walk in groups for their own safety. Henderson said they also received lower grades than many white students by professors who were biased against them.
Henderson formed a relationship with another African American professor at OU, Melvin B. Tolson, Jr. (Henderson called him the brother he never had) and together they worked with black students at OU to encourage them to speak up against segregation and discrimination and challenge the authority that forced them into the shadows.
As the dialogue opened up, the barriers began to fall. Henderson and Tolson encouraged black students to stay non-violent, to turn the other cheek, and push for incremental progress. Their actions were sometimes considered radical, but the goal was equality.
In 1970, OU had its first black president of the student body. For another 36 years, Henderson led the fight against institutionalized racism and institutional racists, and with the help of many supportive white friends and colleagues, the racial environment at OU and in Norman changed.
In 2002, the university dedicated the Henderson-Tolson Cultural Center in honor of professors Henderson and Tolson. Henderson was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame and Oklahoma Higher Education Hall of Fame in 2003. He retired from the university in 2006 after 39 years at OU.
I first met George and Barbara Henderson in 1967, not long after they moved their family from Detroit to Norman. Their daughter, Faith, was one of my classmates at University School. Their son, George, was an outstanding basketball player who all the guys looked up to and their daughter, Michelle, was a mover and shaker, constantly in motion, and a fearless activist. The younger girls seemed to blend in rather seamlessly at school, if not in the broader community as well.
University School was a welcoming place, and the Henderson children fit in quickly and easily. I never heard anyone talk about their race being an issue. Unbeknownst to most of us, that was not the case with many people in Norman. The University City was certainly not the place the Hendersons hoped it would be. George Henderson soon did his research, and learned that Oklahoma and the university had a history of segregation and hostility toward African Americans. He found that Norman was a "Sundown Town" that didn't welcome blacks after dark, and certainly did not look kindly at anyone who would sell a home to a black family. Taunts, obscene phone calls, and ugly pranks were common.
We didn't know about the extent of the bigotry they faced, first, in finding a home in the city limits, and then in facing down the insults and taunts the unenlightened and predisposed heaved their way. Through it all, the Hendersons have moved gracefully, and at times forcefully, through the Norman community. The Hendersons entertained many leading black Americans who were seeking friendly quarters in Norman. And, the black-white divide within Norman began to fade.
It's fair to say that in a town that once did not accept them, the Hendersons have become one of the most respected families, and George and Barbara Henderson, through their tireless leadership, have grown in stature with every year.
Dr. Henderson wrote about his life and early days in Oklahoma in his thirtieth book, "Race and the University," published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 2010. A Conversation With...George Henderson owes heavily to that memoir.
Dr. Henderson's story is truly inspirational, and provides a roadmap for improving human relations. With its rich themes and strong messages, this is a program that delivers a punch, but with words, not clenched fists.
Until next time,