On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and in anticipation of Black History Month, I made the drive to Gustavus Adolphus College to take in a 90-minute conversation between Black English and African Studies Professor Phil Bryant and our first Black Minnesota Supreme Court Justice, Alan Page. Christ Chapel on the campus was packed with students, faculty and staff, and campus visitors like me, numbering more than a thousand. Trust my estimate, please – I was Interim College Chaplain in that room at Gustavus from 2011-13.
Of course, Page needed no introduction for most attendees. Still, hearing that he was inducted into both the college and pro football halls of fame, played in nine football Pro Bowls, and that he was elected four times to the Minnesota Supreme Court – once with the highest vote ever received in a Minnesota election – raised everyone’s attention level.
Growing up in a predominately white rural Kansas community, his parents instilled in him the notion that every person is of value, reinforcing the importance of the Golden Rule and treating all people as you want to be treated. His family was Baptist until his sisters converted to Catholicism, which he also did later, so that each could attend a parochial school. Ultimately, that’s how he ended up at Notre Dame on the football team.
The inclination to sports for many is a way of bonding. Discovering his aptitudes for playing the game came much later and awareness of the color of his skin was just a part of life, but it didn’t control his life. Live life as best you can, remembering that racism raises its ugly head everywhere and that things could be worse. For example, in his town there were no signs saying, “You can’t drink from this fountain or use that bathroom.”
He realized early that his involvement, or reaching his potential, was not about being “better than” to make the team, but rather it was about learning how to be his “personal best.” Disparity is a part of the human condition that gets in the way of understanding my value is no less or no more than your value, resulting in tension between people for no apparent reason.
Page quoted Nelson Mandela, who said, “Sports has the power to change the world.” He said this is because of the potential impact of the number of relationships that are raised through sports.
When Professor Bryant asked about the genesis of Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Page’s interest in law, he chuckled and confessed it was because he watched so many Perry Mason TV shows as an adolescent and observed that lawyers made lots of money and drove “big cars.”
Page shifted to talk of the Brown v Board of Education of Topeka decision desegregating schools in his own state. The power of law to solve problems appealed to him because practical problem-solving created hope. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “People who have hope build-up society around them, but, with no hope, the tendency is to tear down.”
Justice Page drew applause when he said, with strong conviction, “There must be no subjectification of the other. As a people we need to learn how to stop segregating ourselves from the other in schools, etc. We must figure that out!” Quoting St. Augustine, he added, “An unjust law is no law at all.”
“Martin Luther King Jr. stood for non-violent disobedience to bring about change. There is a wonder and power about that, and everybody has that power,” said Page. “We have the ability to bring about change. We have made a lot of progress since 1967, but we are at a time where we are in regression. More feel free to express their prejudice with pride in their bigotry. This concerns me a great deal.”
Quoting Sen. Paul Wellstone, Page said, “We all do better when we all do better!” He continued, “Are we willing to accept the fact that we are a part of each other? My being here makes me a part of each of you, and you are a part of me. Accept that we’re all in this together and that when I rise, you rise, and when you rise, I rise! Until we all have justice, none of us will have justice!”
Editor’s note: EPLN contributor Pastor Rod Anderson serves on the EPLN Board of Directors. Anderson is the former senior pastor of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie. If you would like to contribute a faith-based column to EPLN, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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