I remember the photo on the front page of the Fort Worth newspaper. You’ve seen it. It depicts the first day of integrated school in Mississippi or Alabama in the late 1950’s or early 1960’s. Three small black girls in pristine white dresses walk with determination through a crowd of angry white people who were screaming at them with hatred, and what I now believe to be fear. The children, stone-faced, walk between National Guardsmen with drawn bayonets and look straight ahead to the relative sanctuary of the school.
The white faces of the people in those photos scared me. At the time, I had only seen such hate-filled faces in films or comics. Tales of the war (WWII) usually showed the hate-filled faces of Nazis or “Japs” (our slang for German or Japanese soldiers). The bad guys in the daily funnies reacted in hatred when Dick Tracey closed in on them, and comic book heroes, like Batman or Superman, routinely faced some hate-filled villain. Hate was an evil thing — the preacher even said so in church.
As a kid, I knew about racism in the South with the lynching of black boys and men, beatings by police, and George Wallace with his ax handle approach to segregation. The tasteless jokes and the demeaning lore about blacks was ever-present.
But, who were those people in the photos? White, usually dressed for church, a shopping trip or their work, they looked like ‘normal’ people; the ones I would run into every day. Photo captions usually identified the kids in the picture, at least generally, but never identified the screaming, rage-filled woman attempting to attack them. What was wrong with her?
Growing up in the South, segregation was the norm, but my family didn’t seem particularly racist in retrospective. We had white schools and black schools and I got teased once when I drank out of the ‘colored’ water fountain. I knew a few black people that provided some service or worked somewhere that we frequented. But was in college before I sat in class with an African-American, or got to know any black people my own age.
I was in college in the Sixties, so there were many racist incidents and race riots during my school years. Racial activism was prevalent among both blacks and whites. But by the mid-60’s, the Vietnam War began to dominate the protests, and it lured away many participants from the anti-racist activities, since the draft collected many young black men.
I was struck by the hatred revealed in the photos of the protests, by both the pro- and anti-war protesters. (It reminded me of the faces in the stands during a close Texas-Oklahoma football game.) But many in the pacifist movement tried to de-escalate the hatred. Remember the young hippie girl putting a flower into the barrel of the National Guardsman’s rifle at a protest? It was reminiscent of the attempts by black preachers in the face of the state troopers or local cops during the civil rights movement. Most of the time their pacifism was answered with batons and bayonets. At Kent State they were met by rifle fire.
This past week, our nation remembered John Lewis, a civil rights icon, following his death. I have wondered what happened to all those people in the photos that spit upon, reviled, or attacked in other ways that icon, those young girls or other protestors. Being in the South, I’m sure they were devout, Bible-carrying church-goers that exemplified the values of White Christianity — and the KKK. They probably believed they were doing the right thing, defending their superiority over those “lesser beings.”
The institutions and biases of Lewis’ era have not been eradicated; merely suppressed. The photos from today’s protests reflect the same hate-filled expressions as I remember from the past — but now they are on new faces. Who are these people, filled with hate and the lust for violence? Did the people from that past or those today cut their ugly photos out of the newspapers for their memory book or family album?
“Hey grandpa, can we see the photos of you attacking those black kids again?”
“Gramma, can we play school segregation? I’ll be you and it’s Leslie’s turn to be the black girl.”
“Hey, Tommy. Let’s play lynching. I’ll be the KKK, you get the rope.”
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”