Montana Viewpoint: Facing my own racism
It was 1960, and a friend of mine and I were playing pool and drinking beer in a bar in South Florida. We were both 17, and should not have been in the bar, nor were we wanted in the bar, but we were not asked to leave.
The bar was in the “colored town” section of Boynton Beach, and we were two northern white boys taking advantage of our skin color. That put the bartender in a very awkward position; he was breaking the law by serving us, but kicking us out might have caused him unpleasant repercussions. We knew this, that’s why we were there.
We played a couple of games of pool with one or two of the black customers and then left to get something to eat. There was then a chain of hamburger joints called Royal Castle where you could get 15 cent hamburgers fried with onions. They were small, but they were great, and we usually ordered three at a time, which was called a “trip.”
As we were sitting at the counter we saw one of the men we had been playing pool with waving at us from the take-out window. That was the only place black people could order food and it was always referred to as the “N….r” window. Unthinking, we waved to him and told him to join us at the counter, which, amazingly, he did. As we were talking the place became incredibly silent.
The patrons — all white — had left and the cook and counterman were standing as far away from us as they could get. In a very short time two police cars arrived and the officers escorted my friend and me outside, as well as they did the black man. We were Northerners, and the officers took that into consideration.
“We have different ways of doing things here,” they said, and sent us home. They put the black man in the cruiser and drove away. I do not know what became of him. I doubt that they just took him home, but whatever happened to him was our fault. We were ashamed of ourselves, as we should have been. I still am.
In those days in the South there were bathrooms marked “White” and “Colored,” as were drinking fountains and train station waiting rooms. The trains in the South had “divided” coaches, which meant they were for Blacks. The front seats of buses were forbidden to Blacks. If the bus was full and a white person got on a Black was expected to give them their seat.
Blacks who displeased whites were beaten and often murdered. Emmett Till, a Black 14-year-old from Chicago, who was visiting family in Mississippi, was accused of “getting fresh” by a white woman. In the middle of the night two white men came to the house of Emmett Till’s great-uncle, where he was staying, took him, beat him mercilessly, shot him, and dumped his body in the Tallahatchie River. A 14-year-old boy.
Amazingly enough, the two white men were arrested, and a Grand Jury charged them with murder. At the murder trial Emmett Till’s great uncle, Moses Wright, committed an act of incredible bravery. When asked if he recognized anyone in the courtroom as the kidnappers of Till he rose to his full height of five feet, three inches, pointed at a man with extended arm and declared, “Thar he!”
The jury found the men not guilty. The prosecutor referred to Moses Wright as “Uncle Mose” throughout his testimony.
It is easy for those of us who did not experience the degradation, inhumanity and murders that blacks were subjected to, to forget they ever happened. It is impossible for those who have inherited these experiences to forget them. What has been happening to blacks who have been murdered by white policemen is not new.
If you have ever walked down a street in a part of town where the color of your skin made you conspicuous, marked you as someone who “didn’t belong,” made you feel self-conscious and even afraid, you should have at least an inkling of what it must feel like to be a person of color in a white neighborhood.
And that’s all you’ll have, just an inkling, because you won’t have to face that constant concern for your entire life. In theory, there are no longer any laws that sanction racism, but in practice, as long as any person is singled out solely because of their skin color there is racism by consent. I doubt if that will ever disappear, but at least we need to acknowledge that it exists. It’s a start, and long overdue.