I was born in Birmingham, where laws designated where you could live based on your color. My grandfather, a klansman, lived a few blocks away, across the street from the notorious Bull Connor, who was the Police Commissioner who ordered that fire hoses and German shepherds be loosed on black children who dared march. My father drew up the routes for the city buses, which had clear lines designating who could sit in the front and who had to go to the rear. He got regular phone calls from Connor, who wanted to make sure segregation laws were being enforced. I tagged along when my father was assigned as a “Color Guard” to keep people the wrong color from worshiping in our Baptist Church. I never had a black classmate until 9th grade.
I remember watching a little black girl squirm and cry downtown, and asking my mother what was wrong with her. Mother shushed me and explained that the restrooms were for whites only.
I enrolled in the University of Alabama a mere decade after George Wallace stood in the door of Foster Auditorium to prevent two black students from enrolling. Wallace was still in office when I began my career, and I covered him from time to time.
In other words, today isn’t about ancient history for me. As recently as a year and a half ago, when we put our house on the market, a friend warned me that “you might end up selling it to a black.” (Never mind that I’d had a black next-door neighbor for 25 years.)
I know people who want to go back to those days, but they’re polite to black people and swear that there’s not a racist bone in their bodies. But manners have nothing to do with it. Many want to quit fussing with such inconveniences as enforcing the laws giving all citizens the right to vote, live wherever they can afford to, or get an education.
Every advance we have made has been a result of public policy and enforcement of our laws. The Emancipation Proclamation. Eisenhower’s nationalization of the Arkansas National Guard, which was preventing enforcement of court desegregation orders. The Civil Rights Bill of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Every one of these laws and actions was bitterly opposed by my parents and theirs, and by good people of like mind who would insist that they’re not racist because, after all, they’re nice to black people and have black friends.
The generation before mine raised people my age who, today, are talking very much like my parents and grandparents did.
There are many issues on which I disagree with people around me, but I keep my mouth shut on most of them. On race, I cannot do this. My faith and my conscience do not afford me the luxury of doing so.
I hope you’ll understand. It’s not up to me to call anybody a racist, and I won’t. But I have lived long enough, and seen enough, to feel an obligation to say out loud that my family was on the wrong side of history at every turn. And there are people who, even today, remain on the wrong side of history. I’ll leave it to others to attach labels.