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Changed for the better

In 1968, I transferred from Compton Junior College to Pepperdine College to complete my undergraduate work. At Pepperdine, I met four white people who would change my life for the better. One of them, Dr. Oliver Jennings Davis, died on Nov. 30. He had been my friend and mentor for 58 years. His wife and family will continue to be a very special part of my extended family, but for now I want to reflect upon the ways that Jennings changed my life.

A few months after I began classes at Pepperdine, our campus security guard shot and killed a 16-year-old unarmed African-American male on the campus. Some of the college administration thought that the only response to be made was to say how sorry they were and continue with business as usual. Many of us were outraged that Larry had been killed and even more outraged at the college's response.

Davis stood with us as students. At the time, I had no clue about the precarious position that he found himself in as the dean of students who was not agreeing with the rest of the upper level administration. Our Black Students Association took the lead in making sure that Larry's family was not disregarded by the administration. The effort to get that assurance almost got out of control.

He taught me that it was possible to love white people. I had no opportunity to learn such a lesson while growing up in Arkansas where all of my interactions with white folks stayed at a superficial level.

We, as students, engaged in several protest actions and endless meetings before the administration finally agreed to pay for Larry's funeral and to establish a scholarship in his name, which would go to his family members, and others if the family choose not to receive it.

It was during this turbulent time that the relationship which I had begun earlier with Jennings became more focused. It was the first time in my life that I had encountered a white man who was willing to stand up for African-Americans and who did not back down when it was uncomfortable for him or when his white peers disagreed. It would be years before the full impact of his actions really registered at the deepest level of my mind and heart.

I graduated in 1970 and finally left Los Angeles to come to Georgia, but I stayed in contact with Jennings and his wife, Vera. Over the past 58 years he never failed to finish every phone call by telling me that he loved me, appreciated the work that I was doing and prayed daily for me.

He taught me that it was possible to love white people. I had no opportunity to learn such a lesson while growing up in Arkansas where all of my interactions with white folks stayed at a superficial level. This continued to be true during my first years at Compton College because I was very busy trying to figure out how to survive the big city and college at the same time.

Those years at Pepperdine were very important to my spiritual and psychological formation. I had no idea that would be the case when I transferred there. I wanted to be in an environment where I could grow spiritually. I did not know that desire would lead me into a relationship with this amazing man who would essentially become my spiritual father.

Jennings' quiet manner and disarming sense of humor could cause one to miss the depth of his courage and the strength of his commitment to both his faith and his desire to achieve justice in the world. He did not say much about either. He simply lived them out in the most profound way each day. Every encounter that I had with him bore witness to this fact and that way of being in the world continued until his death a few weeks ago. Though my heart is heavy with grief, I am thankful for him, his witness and gift to me.

This column by Catherine Meeks, Ph.D., appears twice monthly. Meeks is also a contributing writer for the Huffington Post. Email her at kayma53@att.net.

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