“LOOK AT THEM SON – they sure know how to enjoy life more than most of us. We could learn a lot from them.” My mother smiled and looked back at me as though I should cherish that piece of wisdom. As for me, I just watched through the back windshield of our Dodge Dart as we passed block after block of shot gun houses and wondered what “those” people were really like.
The odd thing was that we weren’t really that different from them. After all we weren’t exactly rich folks ourselves. Our little white clapboard church parsonage was nice but would never make the pages of Southern Living. In the summer we were just as hot as “those children”. Sure, we had an attic fan but it only served to cook us evenly on all sides. Any excuse to stay outside was a good excuse. We also ate pretty much like those we had whizzed by. Beef was a rare treat and meat of any kind was only an occasional addition to our home grown meals.
And my Daddy; that’s what we call our fathers in the south. He was no mean spirited bigot. Considering he was born in the Mississippi Delta in 1923 and we lived in Louisiana in the 60’s, that was no small accomplishment. The “N” word was never uttered in our house and my daddy was one of only a few local white pastors who associated with “those” people. He was a good man who never saw color when it came to a person’s needs or faith.
Trips to stay with my grandparents’ presented a stark contrast to my father’s home. In 1963, when I was eight, a bigoted white supremacists by the name of De La Beckwith murdered Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King marched in his funeral within sight of my grandfather’s barber shop. Five years later King gave a speech in Jackson and two weeks after that he lay dead in Memphis, TN. Anger turned to sullen resignation in many a home like that of my grandparents. Martin Luther King may have walked my way, but it might as well have happened on another planet.
Eudora Welty, poet laureate of Mississippi wrote a short story on Medgar Evers’ death: ‘From the Unknown.” Friends advised her to be careful, to which she replied: “People who burn crosses in yards don’t read ‘The New Yorker.'”
Segregation was a given in my world even though I dare say many of my generation secretly wondered at the rightness of it all. How could such a quiet and measured man like my grandfather be so enraged by “those” other people? Try as I might I didn’t see anything to be feared. For all I knew, I was “those” people to the ones that marched down Captol Street that steamy summer day in 1963.
A year after King’s death I entered seventh grade to find our worlds thrown together by desegregation. Those if us who dared to look quickly learned, much to most adults’ dismay, that we all were just – people.
Like my grandfather’s anger, my grandmother’s attitude was just as mystifying. She taught me the Scriptures and no doubt believed. Still, she could say the word “Yankee” as though it was the worse curse word known to man. Carpet Baggers were demons sent by the Yankee devils to destroy our fine and advanced culture. And Scallywags – wash your mouth out with Octagon soap.
As a young man I was prone to agree and disagree without being at all conflicted. After all, I knew black folks and they didn’t seem all that different than me. They ate collards and fat back just like we did. They ran around barefoot in the summer just like we did. And when Vietnam came along they went off and died just like we did. But Yankees? I didn’t know any and assumed that the whole misunderstanding in the War Between the States must be their fault. Years later when Ole Miss whipped soon to be National Champion Notre Dame, I cheered. Never mind that I was a LSU fan and a mortal enemy to Ole Miss because on that day our southern brothers had fought off the Yankee hordes.
Why do I tell you all of this? Because, as a man and a father I have come to understand the quiet power that resided in a man of purpose like my daddy. He never marched or stirred up an insurrection but his quiet insistence that I treat all people with equal respect as creations of God stuck with me long after he died of a heart attack when I was a month short of twelve years old. It stuck with me and slowly changed me over the years.
Today I eat, worship, play, and shop with “those” people not so far from where I grew up. My neighborhood is filled with African Americans, Filipinos, Vietnamese, and yes even Yankees. Over time many of us simply changed for the better. My father’s example had much to do with that. Did we make a lot of mistakes back then? You bet. I’m sure there will be many more on all sides. But, we can still make it our purpose in life to make whatever little difference we can with our own words and lives. Just like my father!
So how about you? Anyone out there care to admit they knew or understand the world I just described?