Like many other blacks, my parents migrated North to find education and better opportunities. My father went to Howard University medical school, and my mother went to Howard’s nursing school. My parents wanted to shelter their children from segregation and all its belittling aspects, so they settled in Washington, which turned out to be as segregated a city as one could find.
In the 1950s, a clerk in a department store refused to let me sip from a water fountain, despite my mother’s plea that “he’s just a little boy.” Later, when my family got its first television set, I was entranced by the ads for Glen Echo amusement park. My mother couldn’t really explain why she couldn’t take me there. The reason, of course, was that Glen Echo did not admit blacks. Nor did many restaurants, movie theaters and other public facilities.
My deepest realization of what the Old South was really like came in about 1962, when my father, brother, a friend and I drove South to my grandmother’s house in Stuart, Fla. On the way we were denied a room in a Holiday Inn in Savannah, and wound up sleeping in a “rooming house” (read whorehouse) that hadn’t had an overnight guest in years. In Stuart, my father went into a hardware store to buy a Thermos bottle. The white clerk asked my dad, a distinguished professor of surgery at least 20 years his senior, “What you want, boy?” My father struggled to maintain his dignity as he told the clerk what he wanted. I felt in my gut, for the first time, how hard it had been for black men to preserve their self-respect under a rigid system of white supremacy.
Because of the civil rights movement, I will never have to explain to my four-year-old son that he can’t go to an amusement park or swim in a public swimming pool just because he is black. He will never see me diminish in his eyes because some white man can lord it over me and make me seem like a child.
White Southerners are now taking a great deal of pride in the region’s rapid adjustment to the post-civil rights era. The fact is that every change was resisted, every improvement fought, every overture turned back. Though many Southerners were made uneasy by the oppressive pattern of Southern race relations, most did little or nothing to change it. Not even Jimmy Carter resigned from his church when it voted to exclude blacks. Without unrelenting pressure from blacks and the Federal Government, white Southerners would never have changed. Southern behavior has changed, but the hearts, for the most part, are probably just the same.
White Southerners tend to have a passion for lost causes. The Washington Redskins, for example, were the South’s “adopted” pro football team. They remained lily-white, and they retained their Southern constituency, even though they were consistent losers. My dad and I used to go to Redskins games just to cheer when Jim Brown, Bobby Mitchell and other black stars “integrated” the Redskins’ goal line. It was great. The Redskins’ ownership would rather be white than winners.
Then the team’s owner, George Preston Marshall, died, and Lawyer Edward Bennett Williams took over. Williams realized that he was in a new day, and the Redskins began to get black players. Within a few years, they became winners. Now everybody loves them.
Much the same thing has happened to the South. It has become a region of winners. Blacks are playing on the team. Points are going on the Scoreboard. But is the change permanent?
My own guess is that the good impulses will win out. The Southern white man, even at his most bigoted, always had some noble impulses: loyalty, independence, courage. Martin Luther King spoke of the “redemptive power” of nonviolent love, and his followers nodded amen. They believed white Southerners could be redeemed. And if they thought that, after 350 years of oppression, who am I to quarrel?