The Middle Distance 9.7.12: Embarrassing to Remember

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Photo by Sean Cayton

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 “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.


10 Responses to The Middle Distance, 9/7/12: Embarrassing to Remember

  1. kathryn says:

    Correction: I was 46-years old in 2000, not 44.

  2. Pat Musick says:

    This is a very important story that needs to be shared and read and heard far and wide. There’s so much ‘convenient’ cultural amnesia making the campaign fear-mongering so persistent. Thank you for speaking up and providing this essential perspective.

  3. Mary Ellen Davis says:

    WOW! Thanks for bringing this into focus for us.

  4. Wendy says:

    Thanks, Kathe. I wonder what I’m overlooking now in my home, my neighborhood, my city, my state, my country, and my planet.

  5. Lonnie Mathis says:

    It is easy to point out to the Republicans and call what they are doing as “fear mongering”. What is hard is to look at your own party of choice and see what they are doing in kind. To say that one side is doing something more than the other is being disingenuous. Both sides are hip deep into muck raking because that is the state of affairs in today’s political scene.

    One side cannot simply take the high road and not get involved in the muck raking because to do so is a ticket to a loss. Today’s population seems to be more in tune with faux pass’ than with understanding the content of one parties intentions. One way is lazy as Hell, and that is the American way these days.

  6. Paul Richardson says:

    I grew up in the north and so was not part of the Democratic Party imposed Jim Crow laws and their fight against Republican attempts to repeal them for decades. The democrats have done a very effective job of convincing the minorities that they are on their side when all they really want is a solid voting block for their side. Who designed the school system that continues to harm generations of minority and poor kids via the achievement gap? Dewey, the supreme Progressive, dumbed-down the old American Common School approach that was best in the world at the time because the Progressives wanted a credulous electorate (at least the majority). Why did Margaret Sanger have a negro project to limit reproduction of the “less desirable parts of society”? Because she was a Progressive eugenicist. Why do the democrats criticize conservative blacks so strongly? Because they have the temerity to think for themselves which doesn’t fit the Progressive agenda. Yes, the blacks have been treated very poorly by the democratic party members in the past as described in the article.

  7. rose enyeart says:

    I remember getting involved in sit ins when I was in college, in the north, in Colorado, and going to the State Legislature to demand fair housing be practiced in my college town. I also remember the racial slurs and the signs that were painted when blacks and whites dated. Now, that was 50 years ago. Was that long? Not really. We need to focus on all people and their rights. We need to be part of a world that includes all people and doesn’t exclude those who are different from us because that difference doesn’t exist, except in our small brains. I can’t believe that politics is the issue. Racism and small thinking are. Ignorance is not bliss, it’s just ignorance.

  8. DIna says:

    How could you not have noticed that your school was all white? Didn’t that somehow imply to you that there was something wrong? I was approximately the same age and often visited relatives in the south who took a stand against this type of discrimination. I do not mean to be mean spirited, but this excuse doesn’t hold up in the US anymore than it did in Germany or South Africa or other places where such horrible discrimination was practiced.

  9. James R Miller says:

    I am a retired educator. I live in Colorado Springs today. I grew up in central Texas near Austin. I started school in an all black elementary school. I loved my school and teachers and received a great elementary education. In high school my school was all white and I was the lone ninth grader in Northwest
    Texas. I was lonely and afraid most of the time, but soon went out for sports and there I thrived. I often think about the friends I had in high school, I wonder if they think about me. I finished my career with three post graduate college degrees. Nothing feels better than to know that you conquered all the biggots and racist the world could throw at you. I credit my teachers mostly black but some white for my success in life. My wife is also thankful for my inclusive personality and I am thankful for hers. We are an interracial married couple with family for over twenty years. James Miller

  10. kathryn says:

    You are absolutely right, Dina. Not an excuse, but an admission of how dreadfully wrong things were and how ignorant I was. Good for your relatives for taking a stand. The white people I lived among, including my family, did not.


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