John sat in the back of his grandson’s college American History class. The professor had assigned the students to talk to family members and ask if any of them had memories of “the struggle for racial equality.” And, if they did, would they please volunteer to speak to the class next week, the 50th anniversary of the 1963 civil rights “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” and Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. John waited patiently while the professor took attendance and handed back grades. Students kept glancing back at him — the paunchy old man wedged into an extra writing desk.
So, here he was now — a white guy about to pontificate on an old black issue. “No.” John thought, “Things may have gotten better overall, but for some, the problem is still an open wound. Even where it has scabbed-over, the injury is unhealed and easily reopened. And, it’s not just ‘an old black issue;’ but a corruption that still eats at the minds and hearts of too many people still walking around while wearing a cloak of false respectability.” John scribbled another thought in the margin of his notes just as he was invited to the front of the class. He began:
“I didn’t grow up in the South and I was too young to march for civil rights. Still, I feel like I should have been more aware of the struggle for civil liberties in America during the 1950s and 1960s. It happened all around me and I was affected, day to day, by the interracial tension right here in the Midwest.
“The problem was that I was young and everything I experienced was personal and immediate. As an ignorant white boy, I had no historical context to make sense of bigotry and systematic discrimination. Later, I concluded that, having personally experienced black-on-white racial prejudice as a minority, I had been a victim-in-fact and was qualified to be empathetic. It has taken some time for me to develop a more-nuanced opinion.
“At the time, my family was working poor. My father had only finished 8th grade and, during World War II, had been a conscientious objector and sentenced to the farm at the Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. Still, after being released, he was able to find and hold-down a blue-collar job in a trailer factory.
Dad was a stand-up guy; he courted and married his parole officer’s daughter. Once my brother and I were old enough, our Mother got a job as a secretary for a few years. It only occurs to me now that it took their combined incomes to keep things up while they undertook “the project.”
“Mom and Dad eventually saved enough money to buy a double-lot and build a foundation in mid-town Kansas City, Missouri. Dad arranged to dismantle two older homes and keep the lumber, which he used to build his “new” one. I don’t remember the apartments we lived in. My earliest memories are of Dad working to finish the interior or our house. I shared a bedroom on the front side and used to be fascinated by the lights sliding into the room and across the wall as cars cruised down the street at night.
“As it happened, this was the mid-to-late 1950s and Dad probably bought his lots at a discount because the neighborhood was already in the process of transforming from all-white to mostly-black. I can imagine that this was not so much an issue for him and Mom as for the bigots already abandoning their homes for whiter ground. Our congregation was already integrated and prided itself on being free of worldly prejudices. Our adult friends worshiped together and my neighborhood playmates played together. I was innocent, ignorant, and naive.
“Mrs. Smith, our next-door neighbor, was an older black woman. She lived alone and took care of a garden in her back yard. Her grandchildren came to visit sometimes. She loved lilacs and she was fond of our family. I found it natural to spend time with her in her yard and house. She sometimes helped me with my reading. We talked about anything and everything; she was closer to me than any of my aunts.
“The Greens, on the other side, were a younger family and had a girl my age. We played together regularly. They had a swing set in their back yard and we had a climbing tree in ours with an endless supply of dirt under it. One day, she proudly announced that she had joined the Girl Scouts and was now a Brownie. Being a clever lad, I quipped that I thought she had always been one. I was shocked and appalled by the offense she and her family took. This was the awaking of my awareness that skin color mattered — a lot. I felt heart-sick and ashamed; no apology seemed good enough.
“I was about to discover the nature of strained race relations anyway. It was inevitable and inescapable. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was recent history, lunch counter sit-ins were being organized, and tensions were about to erupt into race riots around the country in the not-too-distant future. It was becoming impossible to live in this neighborhood without experiencing the growing ambient anger and hostility.
“I vividly remember a new football that my parents bought for me and my brother. We were playing with it on the front sidewalk when two older black kids, walking up the street, called us names and just took it away from us. We were, naturally, heartbroken to lose the ball, but were shocked by the trauma of our first experience of what seemed to be true evil at the hands of someone we didn’t know — and that in the name of our hated whiteness.
“I had been walking seven blocks to Milton Moore Elementary School since Kindergarten. Now, in the fourth grade, I started having trouble on the way home from classes. The older kids, walking in the opposite direction from Central High, began regularly taunting and cursing me, chasing me, and throwing rocks. I still didn’t quite understand, but it was hateful and frightening and terribly unfair. I learned to avoid the confrontations by running several blocks perpendicular to their path and then taking a circuitous route to the safety of home.
“I only remembered that my parents were anxious about our safety and talked about what to do. I don’t remember any detailed conversations in front of us kids. But, my Dad managed to get hired-on at the Ford Assembly Plant in Claycomo and, that summer, we moved to somewhere safer — to a suburban housing addition near his new job. We left our congregation and our friends. We left the home we loved — the home Dad had built with his own hands and sweat and blood. It was terrible and tragic.
“In the following years, I decided that my experience with the boys from Central High had felt like a lynching. We had become an unwanted minority in our own neighborhood. We had been driven out of our home by prejudice and hatred. I decided that, having been a persecuted minority, I knew what it was like to suffer racial and social injustice — that I knew what it felt like to be black in America. I comforted myself with layers of self-pity and self-justification.
“However, as a middle-aged adult, I was telling this story to a friend when it suddenly occurred to me that I was full of shit. My family had, indeed, moved to the suburbs. But, we were white and we could go there. The angry neighbors that we left behind were still black and most of them could not go anywhere they chose. Their only recourse, in response to injustice, was generations of continuing struggle. When I reflect on this, I feel heart-sick and ashamed.
“I doubt that I can properly imagine the despair and hopelessness that many blacks have felt in their generations-long struggle to achieve the dignity and justice that is due to every person in America. I continue to be impressed, moved and proud of the patience, peacefulness and persistence demonstrated by my brothers and sisters of color. But, no apology will suffice. The end of their struggle can never be fully achieved by the oppressed, but must be completed in the hearts of those who still harbor fear and prejudice.”