After more than 50 years, David Rutledge still remembers the humiliation.
A ninth-grader in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Rutledge was at a drugstore buying a ham sandwich for his boss at the nearby barbershop where he shined shoes on the weekends.
"The manager approached me and said that I couldn't sit at the counter," he said. "Before I could finish explaining that I had placed an order and was waiting like other people, he pushed me off the stool, and I fell to the floor."
It was the early 1960s, and the rules banned black customers from the counter.
"At that moment, I said to myself that one day I want to be where the rules are made, because if this is a rule, it's wrong," Rutledge said. "The events of that day gave birth to my dream of becoming an elected public official."
Rutledge recently completed his final term representing Michigan's 54th District. This fall, he begins serving as Central Michigan University's sixth Griffin Endowed Chair in American Government.
The endowed position honors CMU alumni Sen. Robert P. Griffin, who graduated in 1947, and Marjorie Griffin, who graduated in 1944. The Griffin chair leads the university's efforts to elevate political awareness and activity among students, faculty and citizens.
Whether it's 140-character Twitter rants or 140-voice town hall chants, it's easy to see the lack of civility that controls the political climate throughout the United States. Rutledge said that's why it's important for people to pay attention and get involved to make a difference.
"Our government was created to have checks and balances and to force compromise between competing ideas," said Rutledge, who represented residents from Ypsilanti and parts of Washtenaw County. "Unless we elect ethical and principled public servants who understand the art of diplomacy and compromise, the public is likely to remain disenchanted with our political process."
Throughout his years in public service, Rutledge served in positions including United States Air Force captain, Superior Township supervisor, Washtenaw County Road Commission chair and Washtenaw Community College trustee. As a representative, Rutledge served as minority vice chair on the military and veterans affairs committee as well as a member of the local government committee and transportation and infrastructure committee.
Today, appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder, he serves as a member of the Michigan Veterans Facility Authority, which is charged with building and operating high-quality living facilities for disabled and elderly veterans.
Rutledge took the time to answer some questions about what it will take to improve civility in United States government and what his Lansing colleagues say about CMU's role in shaping the political landscape.
What are common misunderstandings people have about how government works?
People within government at all levels are elected to create public policy for the purpose of carrying out the principles that contribute to a free, secure and prosperous America. Because there are strongly held differing views of how to achieve these principles, the general public may misinterpret the results of the debate between competing ideas within government as gridlock.
How does the Griffin chair encourage people to care more about American politics?
Whether we care about the American political process relates directly to how well we understand and interact with it. This CMU experience will be an incubator for exploring current and past policy initiatives and political campaigns at the local, state and federal government levels.
What inspired you to pursue CMU's Griffin Endowed Chair?
During my tenure in the Legislature, I was invited on several occasions by past Griffin Chair Gary Randell to teach his government class at CMU. As I prepared, I learned that the class was created to stimulate students' political involvement and to prepare ethical political leaders to serve in Michigan. I was excited to develop discussion ideas around topics with these objectives.
Why is such a position so important today?
The Griffin chair was endowed in 2000 to honor Sen. Robert and Marjorie Griffin. The idea was to create at the university two courses that could serve to increase political awareness and activity among students, faculty and the general population. Given the lack of civility and the polarization, extremism and demagoguery in today's political climate, the program may now be viewed by some as a visionary idea. I believe it's more important now than ever to encourage young people to be vigilant and pay attention to the ebb and flow of the political climate, the character of our political leaders, and the quality of public policy being created locally and nationally.
What do Michigan's political leaders say about the value of the Griffin chair?
The Griffin chair is held in very high esteem by members of the Michigan Legislature. I believe one of the reasons is the integrity and admiration of the five previous Griffin chairs. Legislators consider it a badge of honor to be invited by the Griffin chair to teach a class.