Sunday, August 16, 2009


I grew up in the Civil Rights South. I was born a few years after Brown vs. Board of Education set the course of American schools (for better and worse), and a few years before the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act effectively ended state-sponsored segregation. I don't remember ever seeing whites only drinking fountains, or "don't let the sun set on your head in this town" billboards, but I know they were around when I was little. This, and the Vietnam War, were the backdrop for my childhood*.

The civil rights movement ignited a sort of civil cold war in the South, almost exactly a century after the real Civil War, once again pitting neighbor against neighbor and dividing families. The only time in my life that my father ever slapped my face was when I spoke the n-word in his house. I was six or seven, and relaying a message from a neighbor boy to my older brother. I took it as an unambiguous declaration of which side our family was taking in the conflict.

My father was a general contractor in those days, and employed men based on the quality of their work and the cost of their labor, without any seeming regard for race. If anything, I think he may have been running his own little affirmative action program, though it would have been more for pragmatic reasons than ideals. There is a persistent family rumor that my great-great-grandfather owned a single slave, and that one of his descendants (who shares our family name) became a prominent civil rights activist. Most of my family stories are apocryphal (to be kind), so I don't set much store in this one. One family trait I have retained is the belief that one should never let the facts stand in the way of a good story. I mean, the man and his accomplishments are real. He has a freeway named after him. It is only his relationship to my family that is in question.

In his later years, my father's insecurity, the deterioration and violence that were overtaking the city he loved, his new family, and (I suspect) his upbringing led him away from some of the principles he taught me. It was small things really, offhand comments and ill-informed remarks. Still, it was a profound disappointment to me, and I took it as a stark warning that age and fear can rob us of more than our health and future. In the end it seemed that he defeated whatever doubts had plagued him, and he dedicated much of the last year of his life to helping an African-American community near my hometown. I take that as an even stronger reminder that it's never too late to reclaim what is important.

I attended six different public schools, including a year at Horace Mann, a traditionally black high school that had been converted to a junior high as part of the school desegregation plan. I rode a bus 45 minutes each way to school, and made some lifelong friends. I will be the first to admit that the quality of education at Horace Mann was not equal to the schools I had attended previously, but I learned a lot about survival. A long time family friend -- now a judge -- was small for his age and suffered some form of violence almost daily.

In the end, it was abandonment that destroyed our public schools, and contributed to a host of our society's current ills. As whites fled first the schools and then the neighborhoods and cities, we returned to separate and unequal, except now the division was as much economic and ideological as it was racial. The poll tax was replaced by private school tuition, and interstate highways provided the separation that Jim Crow laws no longer could. I'm not implying that the people who left were wrong. They did what they believed to be best for their families. But the cumulative results are undeniable.

In addition to the cultural and civic and traffic problems that resulted, I believe these changes accelerated a fragmentation of our society that was already in progress. When I was a small child, our city park had a municipal pool set among the zoo, a golf course and a few permanent rides and other attractions. Of course, I never really noticed that everyone there was white, but as soon as that changed, many people stopped bringing their children to the city pool. Subdivisions with their own, private swimming pools began to spring up seemingly from nowhere. Within a few years the city pool was closed for good, and the great meeting place of children from across the city was replaced with a few dozen isolated descendants. My father was either unwilling or unable to join one of the local developments' pools, so he built his own, an enormous blue boomerang that did wonders for my high school popularity, at least in the warmer months.

Did we move too quickly to end the injustice of segregation? Too timidly? Is there some way we could have avoided the problems that have resulted, while still reaping the benefits? Would it have been better (or worse) if children had not so often served on the front lines of this war? Frankly, I don't know and I don't think it's important any more. We are where we are. I live in a city with a majority white population and an African-American mayor. The arguments of racism have evolved (mostly) from race to culture, which is not where we want to be, but you would know it's a lot if you grew up when and where I did. Still, we may have a "post-racial" President, but I am sure we have not yet achieved a post-racial society. And the rising Latino population will bring new challenges to our country's ability to be the "great melting pot of humanity" that I learned about in school.

School busing and forced desegregation are ending now throughout the South, and state-sponsored discrimination is mostly a thing of the past. It's time to tackle the problems that were created -- or at least exacerbated -- by the steps that were taken to address a great injustice. But we can't go back, and I would be heartbroken if our haste to find solutions led us to give up any of the ground that so many suffered to win.

* It's no wonder music was so important to us.

1 comment:

  1. nice historical glimpse. i don't think we're anywhere near done yet... there are people in my family who still refer to folks as "colored", and they aren't all over 60 years old...