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Mares: MLK Day

01/16/12 7:55AM By Bill Mares
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(Host) On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, commentator Bill Mares is thinking about the anti-racism crusade of a former fellow legislator and teaching mentor.

(Mares) Bob Walsh had a racial epiphany in the cauldron of the Vietnam War. He became the executive officer of a Marine unit that was ill-disciplined and rife with racial strife. The major he replaced gave him a list of five black Marines, and said, "These five guys are going to kill you!"

Undaunted, Walsh began talking to the black soldiers.

"The more I talked to them, the more I saw their legitimate gripes. They were really a lot like me. They had the same problems at home, the same chance of getting killed. Yet many of their leaders were racists who gave them every crappy detail in the battalion." The unfairness of the situation made an indelible impression on Walsh.
 
Fast forward to 1980. As a U.S. history teacher at South Burlington high school, Walsh volunteered to teach a new course on black history. This was unknown territory. There was no textbook. All he had were a few handouts and films and Lerone Bennett's book BEFORE THE MAYFLOWER. Gradually, Walsh assembled a curriculum. Over the next 15 years, it became one of the school's most popular courses, with three sections each semester.
 
Walsh and Dr. Leon Burrell at UVM wrote and published their own text book called "The Other America: The African-American Experience.." The book received good reviews and was re-printed.

His next book grew out of legislative hearings on racism in Vermont schools. Walsh was incensed to hear legislators and educators telling persons of color, "You are exaggerating. There's no racism or bigotry here! We're diversified!" Walsh' sharp reply was, "Diversity is just a white man's way of not having to talk about racism."
 
Walsh said to himself, "If they won't believe what people of color tell them, maybe they will believe what a middle-aged white guy will say."
 
He called the book "Through White Eyes: Color and Racism in Vermont." And kept it to 110 pages, so people would READ it!
 
Walsh then established the non-profit Vermont African American History Project to help pay for the publications and to encourage teachers to take a 3-credit college course in African-American history. He persuaded Howard University to design an on-line course for teachers using "The Other America" as the text book.

Walsh's third book will be a biography of Francis Brooks, only the third African-American elected to the Vermont House of Representatives. Brooks, who served in the House for twenty-five years, was a Norwich University graduate, a high school chemistry teacher and coach, and is now the Sergeant At Arms of the State House.
 
Walsh's biggest disappointment has been his inability to persuade the Administration or Legislature to require black history for getting a license to teach social-studies.
 
But he's not giving up. He says, "I could forget about all this and just meld into society. But a black guy can't just disappear like that. He can't change the color of his skin. He has to deal with these frustrations every day. So why should I quit? I don't have the right to quit!"
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