What does it do to my black grandchildren when they watch television and see mobs of threatening white people supporting a South Carolina congressman who shouted “You lie” at the biracial president of the United States in a Joint Session of Congress viewed all over the world? How does it affect them to see guns brought to speeches given by the president? How puzzling it must be for them to hear some white people say they want their country back – from whom? I know what to tell them. Hold steady and keep the faith is what I tell my grandchildren and I bring perspective to the current white hysteria. Things were much worse 50 years ago for black people in America. Fifty years ago a far larger percentage of white Americans expressed anti-black sentiments in far more direct and violent ways.
Fifty years ago there were only two black congressmen, no black senators, no black governors, and few blacks in local governments around the country. The highest black office-holder in a local government in the country was Hurland Jack, the Borough President of Manhattan, in New York City. It is, I tell them, a measure of African-American social progress that there is a black president to whom racist sentiments can be directed. It is also a measure of white Southern incivility that such an outburst can happen as it did.
I live in South Carolina where many whites are crazy with the reality that a black man is president of the United States. This is, for them, a situation that must be confronted by all means necessary. This translates into insulting behavior by South Carolina’s politicians. One of the state's two Republican senators want to “break” the president by making his health care plan his Waterloo. Rusty DePass, a South Carolina political small potato, said that an escaped zoo gorilla was one of Michelle Obama’s ancestors. The state’s embattled governor had to be made to take the president’s stimulus money. Then along came Joe Wilson’s vulgarity. White politicians in South Carolina can behave this way with impunity because its majority population is largely racist. Fortunately only two of my grandchildren live here and will grow up here in this place of lagging social indicators.
My grandchildren are 17, 13, 10, 8, 5, and 4. Each of my three sons has a boy and a girl. I try to turn this contemporary moment in history into a teachable moment for them. I tell the two oldest, who are boys and cousins, about an evening 50 years ago when I was a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne in Ft. Bragg, North Carolina and got into all white drive-in movie, unnoticed, with white soldiers from my platoon with whom I had been out drinking. Halfway through the movie, we had to use the rest room. After using the rest room we decided to ring the bell for the concession attendant to make a purchase. When the man came from the back and saw black me he turned red and shouted, “What are you doing in here?”
“He’s with me,” my friend said, “and he’s a United States soldier – he’s entitled to be in here.”
“Look, I don’t make the rules, it’s the law of the land,” the attendant said. “You better get that nigger out of here and don’t let anyone see you leaving or he’s dead.”
My friend and I left insulted and demoralized, but I survived.
Fifty years ago was a time when the South waged its last bloody battles against full citizenship for black Americans. Dogs, water hoses, clubs, lynchings, bombs, and bullets were the weapons the white obstructionist wielded in those days. Many black people and some white people of good will died during the Southern white rage of the civil rights period. That could never happen today, I tell my grand children, there are far many more whites of good will in the South than there were in those days. I do warn my older two grandsons though, that it may have been easier for my generation to defeat raw racism then it will be for the current generation to defeat irrationality. It is going to be difficult to placate people who are so irrational that they argue against what is in their own interest. It’s like I used to tell people who I didn’t care for: “If you see me in a fight with a bear, you help the bear.” People who are shouting "I want my country back” are telling Obama, “If you see me in a fight with my health insurance company, you help the bear.”