Is there a superior race?

Mrs. Combs was an African-American woman under whose direction I worked one summer as a volunteer in a community center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The center was in an impoverished neighborhood consisting mostly of black families, and Mrs. Combs was the director of children's activities. I was a teenager, and I had always lived in a suburban neighborhood that consisted entirely of white people, so this was a significant learning experience for me.

After the children had gone home one day, and I was helping Mrs. Combs tidy things up, we discussed the special needs of the dear children who came each day to participate in the center's programs. At one point I referred to them as "underprivileged." The comment stopped Mrs. Combs in her tracks. With great tenderness, love, and firmness, she looked me right in the eyes and told me that each one of these children had the very same privileges as every other child of God. She obviously was referring to privileges that transcended human rights, though at the time I wasn't exactly sure what these were. One day she gave me the opportunity to see a shining example of what she meant.

She took me along for a visit to the home of one of the children. This little girl was definitely poor by any economic standard; each day she wore the same dress. But each day her dress was sparkling clean and starched, her hair was neatly braided, her shoes were polished, and her face and countenance were radiant. Dignity and joy shone all over her. She was being raised by her grandmother in a Quonset hut; there were rows and rows of these corrugated metal dwellings, which resembled halved tin cans resting lengthwise. What I saw when I entered that home was totally unexpected: though there was no material wealth, the home was exceptionally rich in beauty, warmth, and comfort. Here was a woman raising a child in an atmosphere expressive of man's spiritual heritage of dignity and uprightness right in the midst of poverty and discrimination. And she was doing it with joy. I still have a lot to learn from her example.

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Better service—what's at the heart of it?
February 26, 1996

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