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A Single Lifetime

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Surviving to over age 50 is no major accomplishment, in and of itself. It's only a chance to see things and experience things, and sadly, most of it for the worse. As a child, playing in the sun was not seen as a danger; the polar ice caps weren’t melting, or at least we didn’t know about it yet. Gasoline was .29 cents a gallon and seat belts were a novelty only required in the front seat.

But I started life on a wholly segregated, post-World War II street, in a wholly segregated block, in a wholly segregated suburb. African Americans didn’t exist in public life; there were no African Americans on television except Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis Jr. and Louis Armstrong. No African American news anchors, or weather people, or sports reporters. There were few African American movie stars. Sidney Poitier is the only one that comes to mind.

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In 1961 we moved to Dallas, Texas, and I was exposed for the first time to racial and religious prejudice. We had moved into a new house and the lawn was overgrown. A neighbor lady came over and introduced herself and asked my mother, "Where did you find a white yard man?"

"Oh, it was easy," she answered. "I married him."

Some neighborhood children invited my sister and I to go to the community pool with them, but after finding out that we were of the Catholic persuasion, they left without us. I was a small child and I couldn’t understand how it could matter what church we attended. That was my first small taste of American prejudice, and my mother explained it as some people are just afraid of anything different and some can only feel good about themselves when looking down on someone else. For years I kept an ash tray from a dry cleaners in Dallas because inside of it was the motto: For discriminating people!

I remember, about the same time, running into the house to get a drink and hearing a voice on the television. A voice like I had never heard before, a voice that stopped me, a child, in my tracks. It was a voice that, if God spoke to you, that is what he would sound like. I was a kid. I knew nothing of left wing or right wing politics, but that voice stopped me in my tracks. "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

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In 1964 we moved to Montgomery, Alabama. My father, not liking the job in Dallas, took a job in Montgomery where I was exposed to an entirely new world. While the neighborhoods were segregated, the shopping was not. The library was having their annual book sale, but what was on sale was mainly text books because, at that time, students in Alabama had to purchase their school books. Just one of a hundred ways that African Americans were denied access to education. Sure, it impacted poor white students as well, but poor blacks outnumbered poor whites ten to one.

Montgomery still had downtown movie theaters then. Along the side of one that still stands today was a steel staircase that, if you didn’t know any better, you might mistake it for a fire escape. Being ignorant little white children, we wanted to sit in the balcony but were told the balcony was closed. It was a mystery to us, as it appeared safe enough. But as we looked we couldn’t find a stairway to the balcony except for that steel-framed staircase outside. It was federal law that had closed off the balcony and it occurred to me later that without an internal staircase they had no access to restrooms or the candy counter.

This struck me as mean spirited and vicious. The candy counter was one thing but the restrooms were another matter. The city, faced with forced integration of public pools, chose instead to fill them in and have none. This, to many in the white population, didn’t seem extreme or incredibly cynical but necessary and something that they were forced to do by militant blacks and rabble-rousers. Why, you scratch any black militant and right underneath you’ll find a communist. Martin Luther King was called a communist in the local paper right up to the day he died.

The white population was frightened and the politicians exploited that fear. But Montgomery was a pretty dull town in 1965. So when the marchers started from Selma my dad loaded us up in the old Chrysler to see them. Riding down Hwy 80 I saw the marchers and the state troopers and lots and lots of police cars. I saw the Edmund Pettis Bridge for the first time and recognized it from television. Returning to Montgomery my father tried to get us into downtown but the police had the roads blocked so he attempted to sneak us in on a back road. We got close enough to hear loudspeakers but not close enough to hear what they were saying. We could see the dome of the capitol with the Stars and Bars blowing in the breeze.

That was as close as we got to downtown and shortly after that we returned to Chicago, but things were changing. A TV station hired a black anchorman, and Diahann Carroll starred in a sitcom with black actors. A young, black comedian named Bill Cosby was a hit on the TV show "I Spy." While progress was being made, feelings among many in the white population hardened. Graffiti was ugly and many saw it as African Americans never being satisfied. I remember thinking, I wonder how they would feel as a child seeing the swimming pools filled in rather than let you swim in them. Or taking a date to the movies, up a long flight of steel stairs, outdoors, and paying your money but not being able to use the restroom.

Slowly blacks were getting elected to state houses, and city councils, and becoming mayors, and even governors, and lo and behold, the sky didn’t fall. I ended up back in Montgomery and much had changed, both for the better and the worse. The political division, rather than being Republican and Democrat, was black versus white. For nine years black members of the city council tried to get a section of Cleveland Avenue renamed Rosa Parks Drive. The section ran through several black neighborhoods but many in the white population saw it as blacks still pushing for more. That same city council, with a white majority, renamed another major street after a retiring republican congressman, with just the bang of a gavel.

An African American congressman got a section of I-85 renamed the Martin Luther King Memorial Expressway. The dedication sign was vandalized repeatedly until it was moved overhead, out of reach. But attending an integrated high school named for the president of the Confederacy was tenuous. The back and white populations were more distrustful then hostile. Conversations were short and rare; it was a segregated school in an integrated building. We were guinea pigs in a way. We were always filling out state or federal paperwork as government tried to glean knowledge about us, both white and black.

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One day in home room the teacher began to pass out a state form, on white paper for white students and yellow paper for black students. I had already started to fill out my form when I heard a murmur from the black students. They would not fill out the yellow form; they wanted a white paper form. Why was theirs yellow, they asked. I got it, and understood just how easily these things can become institutionalized without even thinking about it. The black students were refusing to fill out the yellow form and began crumpling them up and throwing them in the trash can. I crumpled up my white form and threw it away, as well. It didn’t make me a hero; I did it as much for my own personal rebellion, but it cost Hillary Clinton my vote.

When Hillary Clinton came to Selma to celebrate the anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery march, she kept saying, "y’all." Right, people who live in New York and attended Ivy League schools always say y’all. She was trying to draw a parallel between herself and Dr. King, when in fact she didn’t do any more than I did, crumble a form and throw it in the trash. She might have been supportive but that doesn’t make you a hero, and certainly draws no connection to a man who took a bullet to the throat.

I used to ride the bus to work in Montgomery; the ridership was 98% African American, and me. Most were women going to work. I would sit behind the bus driver, a man about my age, and we struck up a friendship, talking politics each day on my ride. One Saturday an elderly white woman pulled the cord, and as she got to the door she turned and said, "Thank you, Boy."

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I who am I? Born at the pinnacle of American prosperity to parents raised during the last great depression. I was the youngest child of the youngest children born almost between the generations and that in fact clouds and obscures who it is that I (more...)
 

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