Sunday, August 27, 2017

Up From Racism: An Autobiography

            As a young boy growing up in segregated Nashville, Tennessee, I harbored racial prejudice. But an offhand remark by my third-grade teacher helped to dispel the prejudice against Negroes, as African Americans were then called, and to instill in me what became a lifelong commitment to the cause of racial justice.
            Born in 1948, I lived in an all-white working-class neighborhood and attended an all-white church. every Sunday. I enrolled in an all-white public school four months after Brown v. Board of Education and, with the slow pace of desegregation, had no black classmates through ninth grade or in the all-white private high school from which I graduated in 1965.
            In my early life, the only "Negroes" I knew personally were Barnell and Fannie, the married couple who were the custodians at my elementary school. We called them by their first names, not their surnames. I thought kindly of them, but I disliked the musty smell of the janitors' room and must have associated that smell with blacks generally.
            From age six or so, I can recall being careful not to touch or accidentally brush up against a Negro on the street, in an elevator, or at a store. I must have thought of their black as "dirty" and my white as "clean."
            My epiphany came in third grade thanks to a chance remark by my teacher, not in the classroom but in the hallway. With race relations in the news, she said something like, "They're no different from us." She influenced me more than she ever knew or might have expected.
            My parents were not overt racists: I never heard the "n" word in the house. We drove past a black church every Sunday on the way to ours: nothing was said, one way or another.
            By age 15, I had become a civil rights liberal, thanks in part to the influence of friends at my new school and in part to the hopeful excitement of the civil rights movement itself. My parents disapproved of the marches and protests, but I wrote a story for the school newspaper in spring 1963 on the college student-led effort to desegregate the nearby diner.
            I must have watched President Kennedy's televised civil rights address in June 1963. As my school's representative to the American Legion's civic education program All-State that summer, I ran for governor and echoed JFK by calling for enactment of a state public accommodations law.
            Five people had signed my petition, but the reaction to my speech was so strongly negative that I had to withdraw. One of my signers did not get the word, so I ended up with one vote: not mine.
            Back in school, I became the editor of the school newspaper and drafted an editorial calling for the school to integrate. The editorial was censored; I responded with an editorial attacking the censorship. That editorial was published and then the earlier one as well. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the principal had begun before my graduation in 1965 to notify parents and alumni that the school was preparing to admit its first black students, in the elementary grades.
            As a student at Harvard College in the late 1960s, I had black classmates of course: but acquaintances only, none of them "close" friends. I covered the "smash ROTC" student strike in 1969 as a journalist for the student radio station, WHRB. Black students added a call for an African American studies department to the list of demands; I was an observer, not a participant, but I thought the proposal worthwhile and still do.
            After college, I came back to Nashville as a reporter at The Tennessean, which strongly supported civil rights under the leadership of a great American journalist, John Seigenthaler. The Tennessean newsroom included three black reporters during my six years there. All three were friends, but not among my closest friends. The racial divide is that hard to get across.
            In four decades as a journalist, the struggle for racial justice has been a recurrent topic, never far from my mind. My current beat is the Supreme Court. I am glad when the court advances racial justice and was distressed when, for example, the Roberts Court gutted the Voting Rights Act by falsely denying the present-day reality of racism.
            In the end, my story illustrates that Lieutenant Cable is only partly right when he sings in South Pacific, "You've got to be taught to hate and fear." We are born, I fear, with some innate aversion to others unlike us: in color, nationality, religion, or the like. But my third-grade teacher also shows that one can be "carefully taught" a broader tolerance and appreciation of diversity. That lesson cannot be taught often enough: by parents, by teachers, by preachers, and by public officials—up to and including, one would hope, the president of the United States. 

1 comment:

  1. Ken:
    Unlike you, I grew up with black people always in my school, but like you, they were never among my close friends. Hate and ignorance, I believe, are the products of fear. Fear that we will not automatically be accorded the respect, status and benefits befitting our natural station in life, whether that be because of our race, our ethnicity or our real strengths and weaknesses. We do need to be reminded that others are no different underneath all of the superficial apparent differences. As we are reminded in the news daily, the flood waters do not discriminate, nor do those who are helping in the wake of disaster.
    Thanks for sharing.