My Younger Dream

by Gregory Battle

I was only thirteen years old playing beneath the pecan trees of our Nashville, NC farmhouse that warm April evening when my oldest brother dashed across the tobacco field. He was yelling something frantic. As he got closer, his audible words were, "Mama, Mama they shot the King!" I stopped playing and ran inside the house with him. My Mother turned on the TV and sure enough all the news channels were broadcasting that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been fatally shot in Memphis, Tennessee. I remember my Mother saying that he had been shot down the same way President Kennedy had been assassinated. I was literally stunned and felt my Mother's pain and anguish.

Of course, I was trying to make sense as to why anyone would want to kill such a great orator and distinguished black man. I knew the KKK were ever threatening the freedom marching and the freedom ridersà.. I had heard about the bombing of the three little black girls in the Alabama church. And I asked ever my parents to explain to me why were black people hated so much. I wondered often if there would be a day, or even a place where we as a culture could congregate and not be threatened by the inimical and brutally violent reactions of white folks. I felt so frustrated and angered that some white people could be so mean to despise a people simply because they were born with a darker pigmentation. Already the desegregation of the middle and high schools in Nash County , North Carolina had been implemented. And carrying out the federally ordered desegregation was met with pockets of resistance that included name-calling using the N-word and diminutive references as my people being no more civilized that animals or uncultured people from the jungles. I remained as fierce as my parents to defy these ignorant stereotypes and fight for a better livelihood like my humble parents through hard work and excellence.

Just so happen during my Junior year, I pulled from our Ebony book collection at home Coretta Scott King's book entitled, My Life With Martin Luther King, Jr. The book was impersonal and engaging. I figured from its contents that the Rev. Martin L. King Jr. had attended an undergraduate school called Morehouse. It was located in Atlanta. So I took out my pen and wrote a letter addressed to the Office of Admissions, Morehouse College, Atlanta, GA with no zip code. Three weeks later, I received a brochure that was green, black, and white. It featured Julian Bond, Maynard Jackson, Martin L. King Jr. and the State Senator. I was impressed by the bio on these strong black political leaders. I decided then that a school that made the King was good enough to educate me to be like Martin.

My parents were not supportive at first fearing that I would wind up in Georgia lynched by an ignorant mob of KKK haters. I took a courageous stand and told them that if King and followers could endure them, then surely I could too. Before heading to Morehouse, I won my high-school, Northern Nash Senior High, senior mathematics award. The award dedication mentioned that not only had I scored the highest cumulative average in my math classes, but also I had attained the highest average in the history of the school. That year was 1973 and I am willing to bet that no one has ever broken that average. As soon as my high-school class mate Earl Cooper and I walked into the first restaurant downtown Atlanta, we were greeted with the scornful words from this blonde waitress, "We don't serve Niggers in here!" I was shocked, but my high-school friend, Earl Cooper blurted back, "That's O.K. we don't eat them." We backed out the restaurant laughing in disbelief that we were dismissed with such intense hatred.

Years later, we both graduated as proud Morehouse men. I accepted a Danforth Fellowship to attend Washington University in Saint Louis. I chose this school because it had won that year and prior The William Lowell Putnam Undergraduate Competition in Mathematics beating out rival schools such as MIT, Harvard, Princeton, Purdue, Yale, CalTech. I figured if their math program was that good, then it would be the best place for me to build my math skills.

Again my desire to educate myself into a better life status was met with some blatant racial resistance. As soon as I told the white graduate professors in mathematics that I wanted to get a Ph.D. in theoretical algebra, they looked each other then back at me with obvious incredulity for my assertion, then burst out laughing. They just could not believe that I had the muster to say I wanted to get a degree in theoretical mathematics. One of them had the nerve to ask me. "Are you sure?" The question was just to mock me and make me appear to be too stupid to know what I was asking for. But I persisted despite their limited thinking that a black person had no hope in doing theoretical mathematics.

Years later to the astonishment of those same men, I invented a class of algebraic systems known as Moore-Penrose rings. My thesis defense was done using only a piece of chalk and an extraordinary abundance of original imagination. I recall that my mentor, the only African-American audience member at my thesis defense, told me that he had only one regret: he stated that my thesis defense was so outstanding that he wished he had brought his video cam to record it. He told me that he could not understand a damn thing that I had written on the blackboards in front of those white men on my Dissertation Defense panel, but it looked so good. My mentor was so impressed with me that he told me that I was his new hero. I felt good. I had achieved what no other African American had achieved at that school. I was the first to produce a world-class doctoral thesis in theoretical algebra. I had achieved my dream.

Starting from the sharecropper farm fields of eastern North Carolina, I had no idea that someday I would be stepping through low expectations and achieving a feat in mathematics that cultural critics had deemed as an impossible attainment. Yet, I had broken through and authored the structure theorems for an abstract algebraic system. My personal regret was that my Mother has transpired three years earlier as she was my constant cheerleader and hope-giver. Yet I could feel her smile all around me like a warm honey-suckled summer breeze. I knew she was up above smiling down on her little Greggie and what he had accomplished with grit and steadfast resolve. My only wish in finding my Dream on this MLKJr. holiday is that by my example I inspire the next generation to ignore the haters and naysayer then give your dreams they need all the physical mental juice they require from you to reap that harvest of hope that continue to make our ebony legacy sparkle like a diamond!

My Younger Dream by Gregory Battle

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