- On-Air Playlist
- Program Schedule
- Community Calendar
- Sponsor Directory
- Featured Programs
- Arts & Life
- Support KRCC | Underwrite
A friend recently weighed in on Facebook about the intense fearmongering this election season, most of it designed to make a case against the perceived danger of Barack Obama as President. Watch for the catch phrases, if you want to know what he’s talking about: We’re headed in the wrong direction. Love him hate him, you don’t know him! Obama, freedom hater.
I was thinking about this as I watched the televised Michelle Obama lovefest at the Democratic National Convention this week. Michelle was fabulous. The dress was fabulous. The speech was fabulous. But even more fabulous were the pan shots of the conventioneers — pasty, overweight veterans with limp signs hanging across their knees; lesbians and gay men holding hands; faces of brown people in every imaginable shade.
Out here in the middle distance, it’s hard for me to get all riled up by the question that keeps getting tossed out like a red flag: Are you better off now than you were four years ago? I guess it’s because I remember what it was like 44 years ago, in 1968, in the American South when the civil rights movement was in full swing and in my sleepy little white world it barely even registered that the times, they were a changin’.
In Jackson, Tennessee, where I lived when I was in junior high school, there was a white junior high and a black junior high; a white high school my brother attended and a black high school in a part of town I never saw. In my white world, segregation was so complete, in a town with a population nearly half African-American, that sightings of black people were rare for white kids. Older boys bragged that they drove north on the highway to the county line to buy bootlegged liquor from black men. Black women could occasionally be seen getting off a bus on the highway near our suburban neighborhood, in white uniforms with a lunch sack in hand, headed to a white lady’s house to clean.
I remember a boy, a white boy with an important family name and a reputation for being wild. He took a curve on the Old Medina Road too fast one Saturday night and flipped his car. The way I remember it, he lost his arm in that accident, but the talk of the town, the whispering that went on behind locker doors at school, was that he had passengers in the back seat, two black teenagers. Nobody asked what happened to them; everyone was too bedazzled by the fact that this white boy had been out cavorting, and presumably misbehaving with two members of the opposite race.
It’s embarrassing to remember this, and it was shocking to discover much later in life the degree of ignorance that governed the era of my growing up.
At a coming-of-age moment in my life and the country’s, I was blissfully unaware that in Jackson, just a few years before, black students from Lane College, a school I barely knew existed, had been spat on and kicked, their backs used as ashtrays, called coons and niggers, and frequently arrested for sitting at “whites only” lunch counters.
This happened repeatedly over a year’s time just a block away from the offices of the town’s daily newspaper, The Jackson Sun. The Sun regularly buried stories of the sit-ins and later, stories of blacks protesting egregious voting rights violations, in brief paragraphs behind the social announcements, the business report, and the sports section, just before the classified ads. But in October of 2000, in an act of truth and reconciliation for their many years of turning and looking the other way, the newspaper honored the 40th anniversary of Jackson’s civil rights movement with a detailed retrospective of “the events that led to massive changes in race relations” in that community.
I was a 44-year old newspaper editor a thousand miles away from Jackson when I first read about all that had happened there. I read about Ruby Brown and how she remembered being kicked for two-and-a-half hours, coffee poured down her back, while white policemen watched and did nothing. I read the words of one of those policemen, who said he thought it was all handled “very, very well. Nobody that I knew of ever got hurt,” he recalled. “They may have gotten their feelings hurt a little bit.”
Ruby Brown, her daughter, or her granddaughter could have been in that convention crowd on TV. Knowing that gives me comfort. Not knowing about the price she paid until 40 years later? Now that’s plain scary.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.