I had a great honor Thursday night. I was asked to be the keynote speaker at the Sam Matthews Social Justice Award Banquet in Norman. And the winners of the award this year were Dewey and Kathryn Selmon.
Matthews is the Norman realtor who in the face of much opposition in 1967 sold a home to new OU professor George Henderson and his wife, Barbara. They became the first black homeowners in Norman.
I wrote a speech for the address but didn’t really read it. I don’t like to see people reading speeches, so I didn’t make anyone watch me read mine. I tried to hit all the main topics in my speech, but I thought I would go ahead and post the speech.
Well, I’ve got a podium, which is a good thing. My brother’s mother-in-law visited from Virginia recently and told a story on herself. Her name is Agnes, and she’s got a sister named Liz.
Agnes is hard of hearing, and Liz has had cataract problems and can’t see all that well. They go to church together and sit near the front, and the other day a visiting music minister led the worship service. Unfortunately, the guy’s pants were unzipped, and it was quite apparent. Finally, the poor guy’s wife walks onto the stage and stands in front him and whispers for him to zip up his pants.
The whole congregation started laughing. And there on the third row, Aunt Liz leans over to Agnes and says, “Why is everybody laughing.” And Agnes says, “I don’t hear anybody laughing, but the guy’s pants are unzipped.”
So I think I’ll stay behind this podium, just to be safe.
Well, this is quite a night for me. To be asked to speak about such a subject before such a group, well, that’s tall cotton for a guy who grew up about a mile from here, over on East Boyd Street.
I never met Sam Matthews, but I heard the stories about the man who sold the Hendersons their home. The man who got me into sportswriting, Transcript sports editor Jim Weeks, told me decades ago of his admiration for Sam Matthews.
I never met Sam Matthews, but I’ve known his bride for 45 years. I know neither one of us even look we’re 45 years old, but in August 1968, I walked into the brand new Kennedy Elementary School as a snotty-nosed second grader, and Sally Matthews was part of that world-class faculty, along with Judi Ford and Fran Terry and Sandra Drennan. All kinds of iconic Norman educators taught at Kennedy the four years I attended, and to share this night with Mrs. Matthews is quite special.
But then also to be part of a program that honors Dewey and Kathryn Selmon? My brothers have got to be shaking their heads at this. I didn’t even tell them . They already think I fell into the cushiest life ever, and now to be sharing a night with one of our heroes from when we were kids, well, I don’t have the heart to tell them they’re right.
Dewey Selmon strikes no one as a mountain of a man these days. You think of Dewey Selmon in the last 30 years and you think of that ready smile and the gentle spirit and the extraordinary family. But let me assure you, there was a time when everyone in the state of Oklahoma thought of Dewey Selmon as a giant, part of the Selmon brothers legend. Dewey was one of my heroes, not because he was a humanitarian. That’s why he’s one of my heroes today. But back in the ‘70s, I didn’t care all that much about reputation and character. I cared what kind of ballplayer somebody was. I mean, I didn’t want Joe Washington or Billy Sims to rob gas stations. But my criteria was all about scoring touchdowns and sacking quarterbacks. And the Brothers Selmon certainly could do the latter. Oh, everyone had good things to say about the brothers, and particularly their parents, but little did I know that the esteem with which people held the Selmons was absolutely warranted.
Now I’ve come to know Dewey not through his football exploits, but through his family’s achievements, the greatest of which was Dewey finding Kathryn. Dewey’s like a lot of us. Marrying up is always a good move. I’ve gotten to know the Selmons by writing about many of their adventures, from the girls playing high school basketball together to visiting Liberia and being moved to talk their parents into adopting some kids who stole their heart and even making a movie about the Rainbow Town orphanage.
But often people ask me what’s my favorite thing I ever wrote, and it’s the Selmon family lineage in the other direction. I have a ready answer. My 1995 Mother’s Day column on Mrs. Jessie Selmon and how she raised her children. Elmer, Charles, Joyce, Chester, Margaret, Shirlen, Lucious, Dewey and Lee Roy. I’m still trying to write something that well, and failing every day.
Now’s as good a time as any to tell you I’m out of my league. I’m pretty comfortable talking about the NBA salary cap or the best wishbone optioneers. Not so much carburetors or pop music.
And social justice isn’t my level of expertise, either. I speak at a variety of events, and I’ve never written a speech one time. I just wing it. Not tonight. I wrote this one up. Alas, I’m not big on listening to people read their speeches, so I’m not going to ask you to do it, either. Maybe I’ll put it on my blog tomorrow. You can check it out and see what you missed.
So I’m no expert on social justice. But Norman? I know my hometown. I know it well. I know it proudly.
I’m a little like Dewey. I won the birth lottery myself. Great family, great place to grow up. We weren’t too much like the Hendersons, who I’m told still live in the same house that Sam Matthews sold them almost half a century ago.
We lived on Park, and Huron, and Dakota, and Utah, and East Boyd, and Beaumont, and Lakecrest and finally in 1970 settled back on East Boyd, when I was nine.
I love Norman. Always have. I brag about Norman every chance I get. I offer my condolences to everyone I meet from Edmond, which includes most of my bosses.
Many of us think of Norman as an idyllic place. For good reason. Good people, good schools, good weather, if you can survive July and August. A vibrant university to keep us all invigorated with new ideas and people from all kinds of places. There’s no place I’d rather live. To us, it’s our Mayberry. Our Bedford Falls.
Of course, we’re here tonight because social justice wasn’t always abundant in Mayberry. There was a need for a Sam Matthews. A need for people like Kathy Heiple to establish Health For Friends, and Kathryn Selmon and Harriette Kemp to establish Food For Friends.
I mentioned to a friend of mine, who grew up in Norman, where I was going tonight and told him the story of Sam Matthews and the Hendersons. He couldn’t believe the date. 1967? Maybe 1914, but 1967?
The truth is, most Mayberrys have their warts. I went to Irving Middle School in 1973, and I think we had three black kids in the whole school. Evelyn Mayes, Louis Williams and some guy I didn’t know.
But fortunately, I was immersed in a culture that educated me and took me beyond my horizons. I saw the world through the prism of sports. Fortysomething years later, I’m still looking through that prism.
Now, sports has its problems, too. There are scandals and misplaced priorities and questionable characters.
But sports also make us face questions and find answers, especially those of us not blessed with deep minds. So by the age of 10, I fully understood social injustice. Not until 1947 did Jackie Robinson become the first black ballplayer in baseball? Not until 1957 did Prentice Gautt become OU’s first black football player? Maybe I couldn’t understand busing, and maybe I couldn’t understand why everyone either loved or hated Martin Luther King Jr., but I could clearly figure out what it meant that Josh Gibson couldn’t play baseball for the Yankees or that Marques Haynes couldn’t play basketball for OU or OSU. It was wrong, and not only that, it was silly.
And so sports, much like the U.S. military, became a virtual staging area for social justice. Places where injustice could still be found, but it was harder to get away with. So what I might not have learned at Irving Middle School, I saw on the courts and fields.
But I’m not 10 anymore. And Mrs. Matthews doesn’t teach at Kennedy anymore. And the fan bases of most teams get angered when a team gets too many white guys, not too many blacks. And a new OU professor can come to town and buy most any house he can afford, even without a courageous realtor.
So does that mean we’ve eradicated social injustice, at least in our hometown. No. It just means it’s not so apparent. It just means that if we claim to care about such things, we need to look for it. We need to keep our eyes and ears open.
I don’t claim to know how much of the racial problems we’ve solved in Norman. But I do know it’s not 1967 anymore. Blacks and whites work together, worship together, go to school together, play together. Norman isn’t the same place it once was. But social justice goes beyond racism. In Norman, segregation exists largely on economic grounds, much of it with our most vulnerable citizens, children and the elderly. Do we even see the disenfranchised? Do we respect and support the organizations that offer a helping hand.
The greatest thing in this country’s development is public education. The concept that offers to all the chance to enhance their lives. I’m a pretty mild-mannered guy. Apolitical, to be honest. But my blood gets boiling when I see an attack upon public education.
Do we respect Meals on Wheels and legal aid and LoveWorks and all the programs that offer a helping hand? Not just respect them, but cherish them.
When did charity become a dirty word? I don’t get it. It’s in the Bible as a good thing. As something to embrace. To aspire to.
And if you like scriptures old testament, you can always go to the book of Amos. I know everybody else here has Amos memorized, but I have to read it: Amos 5: “You who turn justice into bitterness and cast righteousness to the ground … though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them. Though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine.”
Of course, some of you are like me. Our brains aren’t big enough to dream. We can’t look and see a Food for Friends, a Health for Friends. But that doesn’t mean we’re off the hook. Having no vision doesn’t mean you’ve lost your vision, doesn’t mean you’ve lost the ability to see someone hungry, or someone sick, or maybe the biggest travail of all, someone lonely.
We have a crisis of spirit in America. Our biggest problem is not drug-related, is not security-related, is not debt-related. Our biggest problem is selfishness. The desire to put our needs first. The desire for our own comfort. And that’s a malaise that afflicts the poor just as much as it afflicts the rich.
Alas, I’m preaching to the choir. The people in this room, Kathryn and Dewey Selmon chief among them, are selfless. The people in this room are the lights that shine on our city, so that injustice can be seen and injustice can be changed.
What an incredible honor this has been for me, to share this night with people that I once admired from afar and now admire from closer by.
If you invite me back, for my next trick, I’ll tackle the subject of carburetors, and just like tonight, I’ll pray that my pants are zipped up.