When Barrack Obama won the election for president in November 2008 and stood along side his wife Michelle waving to supporters in Chicago’s Grant Park, many people voiced a common sentiment that we Americans were now transitioning into a post-racial society. I dearly wanted to believe that, but I knew that it wasn’t true. Although it was a great moment in America’s history, I knew deep down it couldn’t possibly be true.
Today, it’s become all too obvious, thanks to a President who has accomplished one good thing. As a black neighbor of mine said to me, “At least Trump has gotten all the racists to take their white hoods off.”
My story is neither a sad tale of woe, nor of surmounting adversity. It’s a story of cultural shock that reshaped my values and my conception of Americans both black and white. Looking back over years I realize the experience of growing up in in the Deep South dramatically influenced who I would become as a useful member of society.
A Maryland Yankee in Jim Crow’s Court
For a big part of my youth, my adolescence basically, I lived in the Deep South. This was in the pre-civil rights era: a time when Jim Crow was still the law of the land. The world I experienced consisted of two societies, where two types of people based on their skin color lived in separate bubbles that were interdependent, but remained distinct, never to meld. Think of the ocean and the sky that touch and interact on each other; the creatures of the sea cannot function in the atmosphere and the creatures of the atmosphere cannot survive under the sea. For anyone who was not a witness to this, it may be impossible to understand the coexistence of two societies that barely touched.
For those who don’t know, Jim Crow was a set a state laws, Supreme Court rulings and federal programs that intentionally discriminated against black people across the nation, particularly in the South. Some of these laws and policies still exist.
In 1955 I was a 12-year old living in a respectable, quiet, middle class section of Baltimore called Homeland. I attended a public school I could walk to and had lots of friends. One day I was rollerskating with my friends when my parents arrived in our family car. I took off my skates, waved good-bye to my friends and climbed into the back seat. All I knew was that we were heading to a place called Atlanta, Georgia. I didn’t know if I’d ever see my best friends again or that my life would be changed forever. I had no idea of where Atlanta was. I did know that it didn’t snow there, which was an unhappy thought.
Within a few days I was enrolled in an elementary school. The kids teased me about my northern accent and calling me a “Yankee,” a term I was unfamiliar with. They’d ask me to pronounce certain words, and my accent would be met with gales of laughter. I kind of liked being the center of attention. The following year I entered high school as an eight-grader. Again, new territory. Kids were obsessed with Friday night football, pep rallies and cute cheerleaders. You could quickly tell who the “in clique” was. Football games were attended by the thousands at municipal stadiums built just for high school football.
The red and white Confederate battle flag was frequently waved at pubic events and hung on flag poles in front of public buildings. The Star Spangled Banner was rarely played at public events. Instead, “Dixie”, the Confederacy’s national anthem, was sung with boisterous enthusiasm. It began:
“Oh, I wish I were in the land of cotton. Old times there are not forgotten. Look away, look away, look away, Dixie Land.”
Another verse: “I wish I was in Dixie, Hooray! Hooray! In Dixie Land I’ll take my stand to live and die in Dixie. Look away, look away, look away Dixie Land.”
A humorous saying was: “Don’t throw away your Confederate money boys, the South shall rise again.” A joke, of course, but the dream behind it was not.
During these years carving proceeded on the Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial portraying three confederate leaders. The remarkable thing is not its size (covering 3 acres and larger than Mt. Rushmore), but that it stirred only positive thoughts about the glory of the lost Civil War.
To my young mind, all this felt a little odd but seemed fun. In American history class, teachers taught us about the “War Between The States”, the South’s version of the Civil War. The class studied Charles Beard’s book, “An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution” which barely mentioned slavery as a cause of the War (and was later discredited).
At that age my consciousness of the wider world was growing.
Maids and Yardmen
In the mid-fifties the dawn of the civil rights era was barely a glimmer. As a rule a white person was unlikely to be acquainted with a black person, much less to become friends. There was no practical way to do so and, in truth, no need to do so. Black people lived in different neighborhoods, attended different schools and churches, and shopped in different stores and used black hospitals. Black professionals had black clients. The only black people I came into contact with were the maid and yard worker my parents hired. They were of a kind of servant caste that performed the meanest of tasks.
From the time Reconstruction collapsed in 1877 to the 1960s, the southern white establishment had honed and perfected Jim Crow into a finely tuned machine, which generated little friction, heat or noise. So thoroughly was Jim Crow instituted that the dividing lines of segregation became invisible and immutable. For most while people, Jim Crow was not part of their consciousness or woke-ness.
In Atlanta, I often heard people assert they weren’t prejudiced at all against Negroes by pointing out that their maid or the children’s nanny was a wonderful person who they trusted, and they also knew others who were polite and respectable.
In 1954 the Brown vs Board of Education decision prompted the City of Baltimore to begin integration of its schools. But not in Georgia, or anywhere else in the South where it was ignored. It was not until late 1961 after my graduation that Northside High School would admit its first black student, and only then on a token basis.
The terms of “racist,” “racism,” “diversity” and “racial equity” — common enough today — did not exist. They had no application for one simple reason: because everyone considered segregation of blacks and whites to be normal.
The salient term was “integration”, which meant the mixing of races. Unspoken, but always understood, was that integration was tantamount to miscegenation, a big word for (.. gulp) interracial marriage. Integration implied upsetting a three hundred and fifty year old apple cart. The foundational ethos of the time was that “Negroes know their place” and as long as that did not change, everything would be fine. Atlanta was (and maybe still is) the most cosmopolitan and prosperous city of the Deep South. It was growing fast and civic leaders boasted Atlanta was “too busy to hate.”
My parents hailed from small towns i Minnesota and Wisconsin and probably had little exposure to people of color. My father had an especially kind heart toward blacks and poor people. My mother was not so trusting a person. In any case, they taught me never to use the N-word, but always to say Negro and speak to Negro people with respect.
But that didn’t work in high school where, if you wanted to fit it (i.e., be accepted) and not draw attention to yourself, you avoided saying Negro. Otherwise you risked accusation of being called a nigger-lover. You had to use the N-word and even worse pejoratives. This was just one of the social pressures to conform.
It’s important to understand that in those days black people were completely vulnerable to verbal abuse and physical intimidation. There was little practical recourse socially or politically. Black Power had not yet emerged, nor the Black Panther Party.
It’s not like everyone or even necessarily most people were insensitive to the plight of blacks. Ralph McGill, editor of the Atlanta Constitution, wrote incisively on the fallacies of segregation. Atlanta mayors, William Hartsfield and Ivan Allen Jr., were liberal by the standards of the day. But they and business leaders could tolerate segregation and the racial hierarchy as long as the economy boomed. Leaders took satisfaction in social and economic harmony.
Lester Maddox, an archetype segregationist,owned the Pickrick, a small, popular downtown restaurant near Georgia Tech. Maddox refused to allow blacks to enter his restaurant. When some black college students attempted to enter, Maddox famously passed out axe handles to his customers and threatened to use them against demonstrators. Maddox’s notoriety and his malevolent segregationist stand led him to become lieutenant governor and then governor of Georgia in 1967.
Lester Maddox brandishing a gun Credit Associated Press
Thus harmony meant sustaining the status quo of Jim Crow laws and the stereotypical ideology that black people were, in some undefined way, inferior. This was not limited to the South.
As I Reflect Back
I ask myself how did such beliefs become so ingrained and remain unquestioned, even among the highly educated, economically well-off, and people sensitive to justice and social ills. Partly it may be that hardly anyone of either race protested or criticized the Jim Crow system. Neither could they possibly imagine where to start to change things.
Thus, public restrooms and water fountains remained separate and duplicative with ubiquitous signs designated “Whites Only.” And they surely were not equal in quantity and quality. Restaurant and lodgings were the same. If a regular restaurant chose to serve blacks, those customers would have to use the separate, rear kitchen entrance where there might be kitchen tables. In theaters, blacks sat in the balcony. On buses, blacks had to sit at the rear of a bus or the most rearward available seat, and had to stand up and make way for whites if the bus filled up.
Sometimes a Spark Lights a Fire
This all began to change when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person on a bus in Alabama in 1955, an act of sheer defiance. Martin Luther King Jr. a young PhD baptist minister started to become known for his efforts to test the enforcement of Jim Crow laws. At first, we saw King as a curiosity, then a troublemaker and then, too pushy. I think many people felt like King’s objectives made sense and were worthwhile, but that was the limit of their concern. A buddy of mine opined that King was never satisfied, too impatient and ought to be satisfied with what he had already accomplished.
Georgia law forbade integration of public schools and colleges in the state. Governor Marvin Griffin, a rabid segregationist, said that admittance of blacks would cause him to force the closure of all educational facilities. Despite the forced integration of Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957, we knew Griffin would shut down the schools. My parents shipped me off to a small boarding school of 160 boys in Bell Buckle, Tennessee. It was in the middle of a rural nowhere, far from home, assuring my continuing education. And of course, all white.
When I entered Duke University in 1961, it was a private southern college of no great renown. The campus was completely white except for custodians and cafeteria workers. By the time of my graduation only a handful of blacks had been admitted as undergraduates.
Yet things were changing in Durham, NC, an industrial town and home to Duke and Chesterfield cigarettes. For blacks in the South, Durham was an economic success story with its many successful black-founded companies. Its public schools integrated in 1959 and its city council well before that. I witnessed change. Change brought Dr. King to speak at North Carolina Central College (now a university). NCC and Duke students conducted sit-ins at movie theaters and lunch counters. I watched the Ku Klux Klan militia wearing military uniforms and chrome combat helmets walk through downtown Durham to applause and then proceed to an enormous cross burning at a rally of hooded members led by the Grand Dragon.
Interviewing black store owners, I wrote a feature article for the campus newspaper, “The Negro In Durham: 1865 to 1960.” Yet, it was not until 1968 and 1969 did Duke students finally begin seriously protesting discrimination and low minority enrollment by forcibly occupying the administration building.
My own liberation did not really occur until I entered grad school at Cornell. The Deep South’s segregated societal bubbles did not exist here. There was student diversity. The campus was rife with protests and movements over the worsening Vietnam War, civil rights, women’s rights, the Black Power movement, the drug culture, the sexual revolution and, most of all, the specter of the draft, which dominated male students’ lives.
Coming from a sheltered southern lifestyle, all this hit me like a ton of bricks. This was my first opportunity to associate with a black classmate, a fellow from Nigeria. It was like coming into the light. Cornell students’ contentiousness prepared me for what was coming.
Upon graduation in 1967 and marriage, I found my first job with the state planning agency in Trenton, New Jersey. Across the nation, inner city unrest had been brewing the two prior summers. The “Long Hot Summer of ’67” brought the most violent ever protests in more than 150 citie, big and small, places like Detroit, Newark, Plainfield, NJ and Cambridge, MD as black people took to the streets to protest against institutionalized unemployment, slum housing, abusive policing and other pent-up resentments. Blood was spilled. Many died. Fires consumed black communities as authorities called out the National Guard. My new bride, pregnant, and I both found ourselves in the vortex working for agencies trying to cope with the crisis.
For me, the wonder was that it had not occurred many years before. There was no more pretending about harmony between the races.
Hostility and Trust
Two years later found me working for Baltimore City as an organizer and community planner in the city’s most desperate neighborhoods. Dr. King’s murder in 1968 had set off chaos and devastation in certain black communities, instilling fear and uncertainty for all the city’s residents. Meeting with black inner city residents week after week, I was often the only white person in a packed room and facing hostility and skepticism. Things were unpredictable, but I was absolutely where I wanted to be, helping folks in my hometown figure out solutions. Boiled down, my work was foremost about building trust and mutual respect. Some of the most rewarding moments of my life up to that time came from those difficult public meetings. It was transformative for me as I began to see the world through the eyes and souls of ordinary black people who only wanted the same privileges, opportunities and security as whites.
In 2015 the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody brought more unrest to Baltimore. But I knew the people of that working class neighborhood because it’s where I worked 50 years ago. Gray’s death was the cause célèbre, but in the intervening half century the city had done almost nothing to ameliorate the crime and drug problems, the lack of improved housing and business amenities in that part of town.
A Long Way to Go
America is not a post-racial society. We are not close to shrugging off the legacy of centuries of forced servitude and then Jim Crow. Racism is more subtle than it was 50 years ago, which makes it all the more difficult to overcome. It sometimes takes the form of NIMBY-ism when we hear people speak about the threat to their property values (claims that research has since proven to be false), fears of increased densities, affordable (subsidized) housing and realignment of school zones. For some of us it manifests either in gnawing fears or simple discomfort of people who don’t look like us, like immigrants. I am not immune to this, and maybe no one is. Maybe it goes back to our primal instincts of accepting change.
President Trump has fanned those instincts and built a fire from latent embers of distrust and hatred. When Trump supporters say that Trump “speaks to me about how I feel”, that is why they love him. He appeals to their worst half.
For me and my wife, we live in Takoma Park, a town that couldn’t have more diverse skin colors (and languages) than if you exploded a bomb in a paint factory. For us, this is “normal,” in fact so much so that when we visit places that are absent people of color, it feels uncomfortable and weird. Ours is a mixed racial family with two black sons-in-law (and their extended families) and our “mixed” grandchildren who we could not be more proud of.
Let me end with a bit of irony. I only recently learned that all the houses in the quiet, respectable, middle-class Baltimore neighborhood of my childhood, called Homeland, were attached with covenants stipulating that the properties could never be sold to Jews and Negroes.
This is how racism, prejudices and distrust persist and it is why we have such a long way to go. We must come to grips with why so many Americans of goodwill struggle to deal openly and honestly with racial relations and racial biases. People can change. I did.