James Comer's Learning Story


As a high school student council leader I was determined to eradicate all injustice; yesterday. For me, as an African-American student early in my senior year, 1951-52, in a predominantly white high school, the injustice I was most concerned about was racial prejudice. We had made progress in that I was the first head of the more than two-thirds white student council; we eliminated school dances when we could not integrate them; and we voted to eliminate segregated swim classes, but over the summer school officials turned the pool into a gymnasium. None-the-less, they were paying attention to us.I recall standing in the hallway talking to Mr. Charles Palmer, the faculty supervisor of the council, expressing my frustration about another perceived injustice in our school, and extrapolating to the issue of poverty and the denial of voting rights to Blacks in the South. In an empathetic but not condescending way, he said, ‘The wheels of democracy grind slowly, but they grind.’ That comment began an understanding and a struggle to understand human and systems functioning that continues to this day.The power of the impact was in part in the appearance, behavior, and demeanor of Mr. Palmer. He had one arm but I never heard an explanation, complaint or observed a significant limitation. There was never a moment when he didn’t take his student government and classroom teaching of government work seriously; on reflection it was almost as if he was coaching us for the big game. And perhaps most importantly, he was fair. I became the head of student government when he disqualified a white opponent, who might well have won, because he violated a key pre-election rule’at a time in history ‘when officials turned the pool into a gymnasium’ rather than reduce racial prejudice and promote fair play.From that day to this day I have constantly put the concept of democracy and its impact on human civility to the test. Is it the best way? As I have observed and experienced the impact of democracy and its suppression in other parts of the world, the wisdom in his grinding wheel metaphor has grown more apparent; and the ability of a trusted teacher to incite deep and continuing thought has become more apparent.The point was made sharply a few years ago when a friend of mine challenged President Clinton on television in a gathering that was designed to show public support for a particular initiative. On the way home his driver, then a naturalized citizen, said, ‘You know, if you had done that in my country you would have just disappeared.’ I concede, while too slow and too messy, at least the wheels grind and the struggle for a better democracy is possible.