Monday, June 29, 2015

How a White, Southern Boy Learned About Racism

I learned about racism in a cafeteria line.  I was at school, in the 10th grade, 14 or 15 years old, depending on whether it was before or after my mid-November birthday.  The year was 1956.

It seems strange that I would learn such a lesson at such a late age, given that I was raised in highly segregated Memphis, Tennessee, but I had not been around people whom I knew were racist and I was not familiar with the concept.  It was not something people talked about.

Memphis Central was the oldest high school in town and was recognized as the college prep school.  When someone “lettered” from Central, the letter they were given was an “H” for High School.  Nearby Memphis Tech was the technical school.  Both were all White.  It didn’t occur to me that things could have been organized differently until the next year, in 1957, when our sister school, Little Rock Central in Little Rock, Arkansas, was desegregated by nine courageous students with a court order and a bevy of U.S Marshals.

The high schools in Memphis were three year schools (Grades 10-12) at the time.  In 1956 I entered Central as a Sophomore.  I was added to the ROTC and joined it’s drill team.  As I remember it, the Reserve Officers Training Corps was mandatory for Sophomore boys, and was voluntary for Juniors and Seniors.  The Drill Team was voluntary for all grades.  Girls were not under consideration for ROTC.  I am not sure what they did instead.

There was this one guy in ROTC who had it all together.  Thankfully, I don’t remember his name, but he was really cool.  Everyone looked up to him, including me.  He was the person we all wanted to grow up to be like. We weren't friends, but somehow on the day in question I ended up behind him in the cafeteria line.  As I remember it, we had to have a nickel at the end of the line. Something to do with milk, I think.  I was juggling my tray, a couple of school books and my nickel, so without thinking I put the nickel between my teeth.  I didn’t think anything about it.

So, this hero guy turned around, saw my nickel in my mouth and got the most horrible look on his face.  I don't believe I would remember the look, though, if we're not for what he said – “Eww!  Take that out of your mouth!  Some N***** may have had that is his mouth!”  My view of the world came apart.  I lost a hero.  He had instantly become a jerk instead.  And I began to understand that some White people did not see all people as equal, in spite of what Lincoln had said in the Gettysburg address.  In a sense, I lost my innocence that day.  I am sure it was to my betterment in the long run to recognize what was really going on around me, but it was really painful.

Friday, June 26, 2015

South Carolina's Confederate Flag

Flags mean different things to different people at different times.

When I was a kid I used my bicycle to get around Memphis. My favorite destinations were my Dad’s barber shop, about two miles away and my grandmother’s apartment in government housing about five miles away.  Though I didn’t know the term, I guess you could have labelled my grandmother a “liberal.”  Besides the multiple pictures of her grandchildren she had around, there were two large pictures on her wall – one of John F. Kennedy, the other of Franklin Roosevelt. She also had a three inch brass medallion of Roosevelt that I still keep.  I learned about her heart, though, not from any discussion of politics, but from watching how she treated the people around her.

When I was older, I rode the city bus to school.  That was the 1950’s.  The Black people rode in the back, the White people in the front.  As a kid, I didn’t know to question the arrangement.  That is just how it was.  But I do know that I frequently sat beside a Black woman on the bus about half way back.  I didn’t learn about racism until the 10th grade, but that is another story.

For the four years of college (1960-1963)  I worked in a (White) Boy Scout camp in North Mississippi.  The first summer at the end of camp the staff were all asked if any of us wanted to work another week or two at the Black camp, not far away.  I was the only volunteer and was the only White person at the camp.  I was the most junior staff member.  I served as a cabin counselor and a scout craft teacher, teaching things like knot tying and map reading.  I fondly remember one little boy who asked to sleep under my bunk because he would feel safer there.

My school was Ole Miss, the University of Mississippi, which in my last year there earned notoriety with the federal imposition of the admission of James Meredith, it's first Black student.  My friends and I cheered his arrival, and the arrival of the U.S. 101st Airborne to ensure his safety.

Yet, I remember taking pride in the confederate flag.  I did not see it as a sign of racism.  The Ole Miss marching band had a copy that was as wide as the football field and once each year they would bring it out. It would completely cover the band on the field while they played Dixie.   To me it represented warm summer evenings, thunder storms, playing in the rain, fried chicken, sweet tea, mashed potatoes.

But as I grew older, I learned that it represented much more to others.  To some it represented “Whites Only” signs, segregated schools, the back of the bus, KKK rally's, and even lynchings. What was beautiful to me was ugly to others.  As my eyes were opened to its broader meanings, it became less beautiful.  To fly it from a state Capitol says to the world, “We don’t care about its ugly side, about its hateful past.  We don't care about the people who are hurt by seeing it there.”

So the purpose of this little note is to add my voice to those who are calling for South Carolina to take it down.  Not because you have to, not because of any law or federal requirement.  South Carolina, take it down because it is the right thing to do.