Monday, January 18, 2010

I Have A Dream

Of everything that TigerBlog has ever read, there are two lines that have always risen above the rest.

The first is from the Declaration of Independence, the part that goes: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." A bunch of rich white guys in Philadelphia came up with that 234 years ago, at a time when it would have been easy for them to have asserted that in the new nation, they should be a little more equal than the rest because of their wealth and standing. Instead, they said that equality is "self-evident" - TigerBlog understands why they said "men" instead of "people" – with its connotation that it's obvious and not worth debating.

The other comes from Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech, the part where he said: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

TB was a baby when King (whose birthday is celebrated today in the national holiday that bears his name) made his famous speech in Washington, and the entire civil rights movement was a big part of TB's history degree West Philadelphia. And while this country is far from perfect when it comes to modern-day race relations, tremendous progress has clearly been made in TB's lifetime. For proof, look no further than the man who currently sits behind the big desk in the Oval Office.

If you're looking for the area above all others where people are judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin, it is the world of athletics. Can you help me win? That's how athletes are judged. Black fans and white fans – strangers who just happen to be sitting near each other – routinely high-five and celebrate their team's success and blast their failures, no matter what their political and racial views.

There are exceptions, of course, such as the career that Donovan McNabb has had as Philadelphia Eagles' quarterback. Still, it does say a great deal that the starting quarterback in Philadelphia has been a black man for much of the last three decades (Randall Cunningham, McNabb).

Princeton's ties to the civil rights movement are extensive, and no Princetonian has made a greater contribution than John Doar. For that matter, maybe nobody anywhere made a bigger contribution to the cause of civil rights in the United States than Doar, a former basketball player for the Tigers who graduated in 1944. He was a Northerner who grew up in Wisconsin and followed into his family business, the law.

TigerBlog first was introduced to Doar in the mid-1990s, when he wrote a feature about him for one of the department publications. Prior to that, despite how much TB had studied the turbulent era of the 1960s, he'd never even heard of Doar. His story, one that tells of his time at Princeton and its impact on him and later the direct impact he had on some of the greatest events of the 20th century as a lawyer for the newly formed civil rights division at the Justice Department (and later during the Watergate hearings), is fascinating.

Years later, TB nominated Doar for the NCAA's Inspiration Award, an honor he won four years ago. Doar wrote TB a hand-written note, saying he was "humbled" to win and "appreciative" of what TB had done to help; Doar is one of the most fascinating people TB has ever met.

Doar's basketball career at Princeton was interrupted by World War II (which ended before he was deployed as a bomber pilot), and he came back to post-war Princeton to finish his degree. During his final season, he played with Art Wilson, who would become the second black man to earn a degree from Princeton and was the first black athlete at Princeton. Wilson would be captain of the men's basketball team.

Hayward Gibson, the first black letterwinner in football, came to campus almost at the same time as the "I Have A Dream" speech. A few years later, Brian Taylor became Princeton's first truly great black athlete, and the idea of breaking down racial barriers themselves began to fade in favor of maximizing opportunities.

And while it's true that Princeton currently has only one black head coach (men's basketball coach Sydney Johnson), the level of opportunity for black athletes (and students, for that matter) at Princeton has never been greater.

Also, Princeton athletics is represented nationally in any number of areas by successful black alums, and not just by high-profile people like John Thompson at Georgetown and Craig Robinson at Oregon State in college basketball.

The "I Have A Dream" speech ends this way:
When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

Like much of American society, Princeton athletics has made tremendous progress since those words were spoken on a summer day nearly 47 years ago. Are we there? No.

All we can do is keep trying.

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