Apartheid, Sweat, and Coach Grant

Coach Oliver 'Skip' Grant, who seriously did bend some arcs
Coach Oliver ‘Skip’ Grant, who seriously did bend some arcs of the universe

Had a chance to catch a few minutes of the news yesterday evening. Immediately thought of a black man of terrifying moral authority, whom I grew up admiring.

Not President Mandela, may he rest in peace. My high-school cross-country coach, Oliver Grant.

To get us into what he regarded as good shape, Coach Grant dispatched us on courses he had devised, covering huge swaths of the city. If you know northwest Washington, his names for our assigned runs—‘Ward-Tenley,’ ‘Westmoreland-Western,’ and the dreaded 11-mile roundtrip ‘Naval Medical’—these names might mean something to you. Something terrifying. We ran all those miles on a daily basis.

On especially hot days, Coach Grant, who knew no mercy, often prescribed ‘Scott Circle, with Normanstone.’ This run took us past the impressive building that was then the Embassy of South Africa. Which meant that we saw the sidewalk marches of the anti-Apartheid demonstrators and heard their chants, “Free South Africa!” Then, after practice, we would go home and listen to Bono and U2 sing rock songs against Apartheid.

anti-apartheid demonstrators south africa embassy

That was all a very long time ago. My generation and I have grown old. Coach Grant retired 15 years ago. The last time I saw him, he had mellowed enormously, and the relentlessly demanding tyrant who made a man out of me, with buckets full of sweat in the Washington summer heat—he has become an indulgent grandpa.

But the demands of justice have not mellowed. If we think that the world is a more just place now than it was in 1985, we are fooling ourselves shamefully.

1. The innocent and defenseless unborn child.

2. The undocumented immigrant whose home country has been rendered unlivable by drug violence.

Back in the 80’s, if you didn’t stand up for the blacks of South Africa, cool people regarded you as a loser. Frankly, I was much more concerned with coming out alive after one of Coach Grant’s workouts. Nelson Mandela was in prison on the other side of the world.

But in the 2010’s, if we do not stand up for the innocent and defenseless unborn child and for the undocumented immigrant who has to live a shadow-life right here in our own country—if we don’t stand up for these people, I’ll tell you what: We are losers. Whatever reward Nelson Mandela now enjoys, we will not receive it—unless we stand up in 2014 for the unborn and for immigrants.