A Long Walk to Awareness
"No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin,
or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if
they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite." - Nelson Mandela
For my children, step-children, and grandchildren.
I was born in 1961 into a segregated nation. This is my story.
John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 when I was 2 years old.
Five years later, Martin Luther King Jr, and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated within 3 months of each other.
I remember talking about Richard Nixon's candidacy with classmates on our elementary school playground. It is my first recollection of politics and national issues. I was 8.
In 1969 my father moved our family from Ohio to Chattanooga,Tennessee to prepare for the ministry.
In the summer of 1970 we were witness to racial fighting that broke out in a local high school. The catalyst of the fighting, we were told, was the school's fight song (Dixie) and mascot (the Rebels).
That was followed the next year by what was then called "race riots", ignited when an advertised performer didn't show up for a concert, and management would not refund attendees tickets. I didn't understand the reason for the rioting, I only knew that we were under a curfew, not allowed outside after a certain hour even in our own yards to play.
One evening during that time while attending Highland Park Baptist Church, uniformed police officers walked up the center aisle during the service to speak to the pastor, Dr. Lee Roberson.
The pastor came to the microphone and told us that church was cancelled and we needed to leave immediately due to a riot that had broken out 2 blocks from the church. I recall hearing later that a few church members had been injured in the riot as they tried to make their way home.
In parallel to all the racial unrest during the 60's and 70's was the war in Vietnam. I remember vividly watching the news at night and hearing the body counts of both enemy and US soldiers killed in each day's fighting. There were peace protests and some rioting that occurred as a result of opposition to the war, especially by young people. Young men were subject to being drafted to fight in a war many felt was unjust. Some went anyway and some fled the country to avoid being sent to war.
As a young boy I remember feeling like the country was coming apart at the seams.
After my father finished ministerial school, he moved us to Montgomery, Alabama's state capitol to serve in a church there. Montgomery is the city where Rosa Parks sparked the civil rights movement by refusing to give her seat up on a city bus to a white person. It was also where MLK Jr. was a pastor...I remember driving by his church. We were an hour east of Selma -where the famous march to Montgomery (called Bloody Sunday) took place. We were in one of the hotbeds of the civil rights movement.
I knew two black people while I lived in Montgomery. One was our church janitor Bill, who was a convicted murderer on a work release program. The other was the woman hired by our church to run the nursery. Back then, Jim Crow laws prevented blacks from owning property except in certain designated areas of town. There were no integrated neighborhoods. Friendships or even opportunities to meet people of other races was rare.
I recall one Sunday a black family visited our church. . After the service some of the deacons met them and told them "we are glad you visited, but there is a church down the road where you will be more comfortable". The deacons were not glad they visited, and the underlying message they gave to that family was "don't come back here, you are not wanted".
Montgomery is also where I met one of the most ardent and vocal segregationists of his time, Governor George Wallace. I was in the capitol building selling candy bars to raise money for our football uniforms. Wallace was in a wheelchair by then - a would be assassin shot him during one of his 4 attempts to run for president. He stopped me, asked me what I was doing. I knew who he was and was scared that I was in trouble. Instead, he bought a whole box of candy from me - a strange brush with one of the major figures in the battle for civil rights.
Wallace was infamously known for physically blocking the entrance to the University of Alabama to ensure black students would not be able to enter. Later in his life he admitted that his opposition to the civil rights movement was wrong.
My father was called to pastor a church in the hills of Appalachia near a town called Presetonsburg, Kentucky, and we left Montgomery my freshman year of high school. This is coal mining country and I knew of no neighbors who were not white.
Later we moved to Iowa where my father served in another church. The high school I attended had nearly 1500 students, of which only 2 or 2 were black. My point is I grew up in a very white world.
After I graduated from high school I joined the US Air Force. It was there for the first time, I was able to encounter people from different races, and see them as individuals, not members of a racial group with the associated stereotypes. In fact the Air Force demanded it - in my opinion they worked hard to break down any barriers to a cohesive unit. I liked some fellow Airmen, others I didn't. But to paraphrase MLK Jr.,it was due to the content of their character, not the color of their skin.
I didn't grow up in a racist home, but I did pick up personal bias along the way from friends and the culture I was surrounded by. Everyone has bias, but I didn't begin becoming aware of mine until I began engaging with people as individuals and talked frankly with them about it. That is a process I need to continue to invest in.
I am glad that the world you have grown up in has placed you in more racially diverse schools and working conditions than what I experienced. You are light years ahead of where I was at your age, with many more opportunities to know and befriend others who look different from you. Your attitudes toward diversity confirms to me we are progressing, though recent events at the national level underscore we have a long way to go.
We never will arrive at the place this side of heaven where we no longer need to become aware of and address our bias (which I believe to be fear based), so long as there are differences in people. I still am learning about mine after all these years.
But you give me hope.