After a day of remembering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the impact he’s had on America and African-Americans, I thought about what role, if any, did I play in furthering his dream. It was also an eye-opener to learn that for some, the movies The Help and 12 Yrs a Slave are the first real understanding of what this country was like for black people.
Below the fold, please.
I tried to read The Help as soon as it came out. By page 20, I was having the same anxiety I felt more than 50 years ago, as I entered adulthood, the period the book depicts. I knew those people and despised them then and did not want to revisit them. But the mind often does what it wants.
I grew up in what became the post-war middle class. My grandparents were immigrants from Eastern Europe who escaped pogroms. Some of their families were later consigned to the Nazi’s ovens. By the end of the war I had read all that I was able to find, mostly newspapers and Life magazine, about the Holocaust. Something in my five-year-old brain told me that anyone who saw what racial prejudice can lead to - especially victims of that prejudice, would see the light.
Not in my family. Except for an aunt who was like a big sister, everyone else still referred to Negroes as “shvartzas,” a Yiddish word that essentially meant “nigger.” They also treated them with the same disdain and disrespect as any cracker from the south. Once, in a moment of boldness, I confronted my parents, “how can you be that way after what the Nazis did?” I asked.
“Just wait, you’ll learn,” was the reply.
Maybe it was my sense of rebellion or the way I was wired, but that pretty much set my outlook on civil rights for life.
I was 14, the same age as Emmet Till when he was murdered and mutilated. Waving the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin with the story and photos, I again implored my parents to care.
“It has nothing to do with us,” was the now familiar reply.
I had nightmares, because I knew that I could have been - would have been Emmet. Our birthdays were months apart, and I, too, was a wiseass. But I was still powerless to do anything.
The first chance I had to do something about it came when I was in Air Force basic training in San Antonio, Tx. in 1959. I had followed the Montgomery bus boycott and knew about Dr King and what he was trying to accomplish. I had seen the photos of the segregated south and could not understand how it was still continuing, in my still naive wishing- makes- it -better mode.
I also was fortunate in having attended a magnet school which had quite a large number of African Americans who got in the same we we all did - by passing an IQ test and having good grades and no serious discipline issues.
So it was easy, in basic training, to make friends with anyone with whom I had a common interest, no matter what their background. Some of my fellow airmen had never had indoor plumbing, or even met anyone who was not christian and not white. Being pretty much in the heart of Texas, among other rednecks, it was not easy being black or progressive.
In the 7th week of basic, they took us to a minor league baseball game. Walking with a black friend from Cleveland, the first thing we saw, entering the stadium, was a door with “Colored Men’s Room.” We looked at one another and knew that’s where we’d be doing our business and we did, with only a few odd looks - at me. Our sergeant did berate me, but he was a redneck anyhow, and only because someone had told him.
The following week, we were allowed to explore the world of San Antonio on our own. There were three white guys and my buddy from Ohio. We drank cheap beers at the Ft Sam Houston NCO club, wandered through the Alamo and were trying to get cokes while waiting for the bus back to base. We were in uniform of which I was quite proud, since GIs were still looked on with favor. My father had served as had most of the fathers of all of us.
“Sorry, I can’t serve your friend,” said the young man with a thick Mexican accent, from behind the drugstore soda fountain counter. This moment of irony was lost on me, since I reacted out of years of frustration, “what do you mean, you can’t serve my friend? He’s wearing a goddamn uniform, same as the one I am and . . .” The counter stools, while swiveling, could also be lifted straight out, which is what I did and was prepared to throw it at the kid and the mirror behind the counter, when I was stopped by my friends.
With words to the effect, “it’s not worth it,” I was dragged out and we returned to base, with no further incidents, since I refused to leave until we completed our training when it happened again.
While waiting for our flights home from the San Antonio airport, the bar was a sea of khaki shirts, blue caps and olive green duffel bags. A waitress hurried from table to table, taking orders, delivering drinks and ignoring us for some time before we realized what was happening. Two of us at the table were not white. We were all from the north and none of us had experienced such open hostility and disdain. It was another eye opener for all of us.
Three years later, I was assigned once again to Texas, this time in Wichita Falls. My girlfriend at the time, worked in the hospital, as did most of the women (WAF). Her best friend, Ellie, was a light skinned black woman from the north. Civil rights demonstrations had been taking place all over the south, as I had followed the freedom riders and their plight, wondering if I had the guts to do what they were doing. There seemed to me, at least, a sense that changes were taking place, only not quickly enough.
Just outside the gate, there was a drive in with car hops (think American Graffiti without the roller skates) where we often went. Once, we took Ellie; I parked at the end where the light wasn’t so great and when I ordered, the waitress tried to see into the back seat, making sure no undesirables were there.
“Oh is there something you want to ask my sister,” I said to her, “she’s a little hard of hearing.”
She scuttled away, delivered the order with no further investigation. We didn’t repeat this because we knew we were playing with fire and over a bottle of Chianti later that night, we realized, with horror at how violent that could have become.
A few months later, at Christmas, I was assigned to take a group of foreign airmen down to Houston. I had a United Nations with me, from India, Pakistan (they really did hate one another) Vietnam, Haiti, Iran, Taiwan and a half dozen other US allies at the time. These men were training at our base and classes were closed for the holiday.
On this trip, where there were about 50 of us, I was hanging with the four men from Papa Doc Duvalier’s air force. They were big, something I am not, friendly, which I am and spoke French, which I wanted to practice. I was still naive about foreign politics, so wrapped up as I was with domestic stuff and we never discussed politics.
Our first stop was for breakfast at the bus terminal in Dallas, where, 11 months later, JFK would be killed. The horseshoe shaped counter was filled with most of my charges, with about a third of the orders on the grill as the counterman took orders and the cook started them. A sharp faced man with a skinny black tie and white shirt put his hand on my shoulder and said, sotto voice, “I’m afraid I won’t be able to serve some of your people.” It was deja vu. Except this time, I had experience and rank and stood up and looked down on him, “aren’t you ashamed? These men are all wearing uniforms of countries that are allies. This is an American uniform. What kind of American are you?”
“I just won’t . . .” I cut him off.
“If you can’t serve one you can’t serve any. Let’s go, guys, we’re leaving. And we’re not paying for those, either,” pointing to the sizzling meals on the griddle.
There was some grumbling, but thank goodness for military discipline. I gave an order. We arrived in Houston, hungry and humid. A bar across from the bus station beckoned and my Haitian friends and I entered, to be met by a real Texas blonde with fishnet stockings who, while looking at my buddies, said to me, “I’d really love to serve you and your friends, honey, but I’m afraid I’d lose my job.” I knew she was sincere from the looks she gave Jean-Claude. And I knew what would happen if Jean-Claude would have had his way.
A black doorman guarded a hotel a block away. “Sir,” I asked, “is there a place where my friends and I could get a beer together?”
He directed us to a place I had only imagined existed in stories about the south. It was a road house, in the city, that was full of life, music, good cheer and everything a working man or woman would want on a Saturday afternoon. As the only white face, I never felt out of place or made to feel different. I know that for the rest of the weekend, none of us spent a cent of our own money, yet we were dined, wined and treated as the servicemen I had seen in WWII newspaper photos. I learned no French that weekend yet it was a highlight reel moment of life for me.
After my discharge, I completed college, still working with civil rights organizations, marching, phone calling, flyer passing and walking the walk, still wondering if I would have had the guts to do what those kids at the lunch counters endured, what the Selma marchers had to deal with and how I could have been Goodman or Schwerner or Chaney, the three Philadelphia, MS Voter Registration workers who died at the hands of hateful people, so like the ones I had encountered.
On April 4, 1968 I was working on a suburban newspaper that shut off the teletype machine after deadline, when I took a call from a subscriber who had heard something about Dr. King on the radio. I turned the machine on, bells were ringing, lights were flashing and we learned Dr. King had been murdered. That image is as clear now as is the one I have when JFK was killed.
I covered the local response - services at the synagogues and churches - and the sincere feeling of horror from everyone in the small community we served.
But that didn’t stop the riots, nor did it stop the underlying cancer that is the divide we still face - in what was supposed to be a "post racial world."
Obama's election only made things worse as we have seen an uptick of nasty, Jim Crow era snarks, all with a clear overtone of race. There is plenty coming from the north, but the south has really outdone itself in hostility, no matter how they try to disguise it, if they do at all. But one thing they never shy away from - the despicable confederate flag.
How can there be any closure on race, when they keep flying that damn flag? How many other losing regimes get to proudly display their banner on state houses and incorporate it into the state’s flag? How can a country claim it’s not racist when they allow the symbols of those awful times to be on display in such a prominent way. It reminds those who tattoo the stars and bars on their butts that “the south may rise again.”
Even atheists pray it doesn’t.
So to answer my question if I’ve done enough? I’ll be able to answer in the affirmative when I no longer see that thing in any state-sponsored display.