My only regret is that Jimm did not live long enough to see this.
Dr. James Isiah Deshields was, during the 1970's, the Special Assistant to the Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts. As a rare African-American with a PhD., he was charged by the Chancellor with the important task in 1974 of writing an Affirmative Action Plan for the campus. Forty seven million dollars in federal funds hung in the balance. No plan; no money.
About this time, a skinny red-haired hippie politico showed up in his office looking for a summer job. He was having little luck finding one among the other UMass administrators. Since he had made a lifestyle of kicking administrator butt over the previous three years, and now he found that they were not all that loose with the pursestrings when he needed some money.
But Jimm Deshields decided to take a chance. Asked later in the summer why on earth he hired me, his reply was, "No one else would hire you. You scare the hell out of us. I figured that you must have been doing something right." I spent the rest of the summer trying to live up to this evaluation. One of the proudest moments of my life was when he told me that he had been cornered by Black students at an event who questioned why he had a white kid working on an important document which affected them. His reply was,"You work as hard as Spriggs and I'll give you the job."
And so we worked on a very large document over the course of the summer and I spent the three months in the most intense seminar on race in my life. Jimm and I couldn't have been more different. I was a white kid from a small industrial city that had no minorities. He was a poor Black kid from Maryland who had worked his way up the hard way all the way to a doctorate through the Korean War, being an Atomic Soldier, the Civil Rights Movement, and government service. I had a lot to learn, especially about race, and Dr. Deshields was more than willing to teach.
So after a lot of drafts and a lot of Scotch the document was finished by the end of August. The University had a plan on how women and minorities would be integrated into its hiring pattern and I had a lot more knowledge on how people other than the ones that I grew up with functioned in the world.
The fall came and I went back to my main job of being a "student leader," but Jimm and I stayed in touch. I'd walk through the administrator's offices once a day to show the flag and I'd always see if he was around. I sought his counsel whenever I had a problem or needed a fresh perspective and this was often. Despite our differences, or maybe because of our differences, he was the best mentor a young social activist could have.
A year later, I went off to New York to teach (the result of contacts that Jimm had in the NYC school system) and we lost our everyday contact, but I sent him the occasional letter. I now know that I didn't stay in close enough touch. Within ten years he was gone - a victim of cancer.
But he stays with me in the ways that a great teacher always stays with his or her students. A great deal of what I understand about minority people has its foundation in what I learned that summer from him. The fact that I survived teaching minority kids in New York is directly attributable to him and anything that these kids learned was attributable to him as well.
Any good that I have done in the area of race relations over these past thirty-five years is the result of the training that I received from a fairly conservative Black man who took a chance on someone who no one else would touch. As such, all of this work, I always must dedicate to him.
And God, he would have loved to have seen Barak Obama stand on that stage in Grant Park and acknowledge being elected President of the United States. Jimm worked all of his life for something like this. I can only hope that he's looking down from somewhere and able to see what all his work has come to.