When I was in high school and even before, well over fifty years ago now, I understood that Black people (we innocently used the term “Negroes” back then) had—or should have—equal rights in America. I don’t remember being taught to believe that, but somehow during my childhood it had become for me an obvious truth.
Race was not a topic of conversation around our dinner table. Teachers didn’t talk much about racial equality that I remember, but the racially derogatory “n” word was in circulation in the hallways and on the playgrounds.
I remember stumbling over the meaning of the terms of the civil rights era: “integration” and “desegregation.” I didn’t comprehend the concepts around issues that were abstractions in my small world of White privilege. I believed I had no “problem” with Black people but likely that was because I saw so few Black people in my world. Of course, I was aware that Black people lived in another part of town, but I didn’t think to question why they weren’t next door.
The number of Blacks who were classmates of mine could be counted on the fingers of one hand. I suppose I believed it was their choice. If parents wanted to send their kids to my school, they were perfectly free to do so. I didn’t wonder why they didn’t—or couldn’t—make that choice.
I did not know then that my paternal and maternal grandparents had at one time entertained themselves with membership in the Ku Klux Klan. In the rural Midwest heartland where they lived, it was the thing to do in the mid-1920s, now a full century ago. My parents didn’t talk about that part of their past, and yet their transition to adulthood must have included rejection of their parents’ racial and anti-immigrant fears and prejudices.
In 1960, my parents took me and my brother to a sermon by Martin Luther King. I didn’t understand the sermon, but I knew this was an important occasion in my life, and I knew that King was a man whom I should respect. When, eight years later, he was assassinated, I experienced his murder as an American tragedy, as a terrible wrong committed by bad people motivated by racial hatred.
I also remember television images of white police in Birmingham using dogs and water cannons to terrorize civil rights demonstrators. That was in 1963. The March on Washington was that summer. I remember that my parents talked about the March, but they ultimately chose not to go. Were they afraid we might get injured? Arrested? Maybe making the arrangements to go was simply too much trouble. But maybe the thought of a gathering of so many Black people made them a little uncomfortable.
I don’t know what I believed about race in those days. I knew our nation had suffered a Civil War over slavery. I knew that Abe Lincoln was a great president because he freed the slaves and paid with his life, but “slaves” and “slavery” were terms of America’s past. The present I didn’t understand.
I believed that the cause of civil rights was a just cause and that those who carried the banner of civil rights were on the right side of history and would ultimately prevail. It was only a matter of time.
I was too naïve and too ignorant to focus on the issue of race. Besides, I became distracted by the Vietnam War, the 1967 Summer of Love and dawning of the Age of Aquarius, and the seductive wonders of marijuana and sex. I was hung up on myself, occupied with the process of separation from my parents, a process which I managed to make more difficult than it needed to be. It was difficult for me to work out what there was for me rebel against.
These fifty years have been a long time, but the years failed to erase the scars of the 60s. All the promise of that era remains unfulfilled—its “golden living dreams of visions” unreal.
The ideology of White supremacy remains with us in a multitude of forms, enabled by today’s so-called “social” media and fertilized by the doublespeak that America needs to be made “great again.” Democracy itself is under attack by people who fear racial justice while denying the truth of their own White privilege. It has come to this: that we should need a growing list of law enforcement Black homicides—that is, killings of unarmed Black people by police officers—to “awaken” us to the idea that Black lives matter.
It more than saddens me that my generation has not solved the problem of race prejudice. Why haven’t we done better in these fifty years? I think about the legacy we will leave and wonder if we might have one last chance to make a difference. Will racial injustices, revealed in a new light, be recognized and rejected so that our democracy can begin to repair the damage? Let racial equality become a more widespread obvious truth, and my generation can leave a more hopeful legacy.
Some other stuff for later,
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