Far back in the woebegone days of my childhood, small-town Enumclaw had a great deal of covert bigotry toward black people. It wasn’t out in the open because there weren’t any blacks around here but, make no mistake about it, the racist attitudes were surely there – as confirmed by the none-too-subtle, negative remarks made behind the back of my Hispanic classmate, Jim Morris.
In those days, prejudiced practices and comments were more openly displayed in Seattle; for example, white barbers and salons wouldn’t cut or style the hair of black people. At that time, black men often straightened their hair and wore it plastered flat against their heads. (There was a name for that ‘do, but it escapes me at the moment.)
Anyway, I was relatively unscathed by such nonsense. When I arrived for my first semester at Washington State University, I became friends with two black, female students from Richmond, Va., and I dated one of them a few times. (My roommate dated her several times.) As a couple, we attracted a quizzical glance or two, but nothing really disparaging, which says quite a lot about the hip and progressive attitudes of WSU back then.
I didn’t really confront blatant, in-your-face racism until I arrived in the Deep South. I vividly remember segregated restrooms, segregated restaurants (blacks couldn’t go inside the dining rooms, but they could order and receive food through a rear window in the alley) and segregated bars. Blacks weren’t allowed in any of the Bourbon Street dives unless they were playing in the bands – and, in this respect, blacks were essential because white tourists didn’t feel they were listening to authentic New Orleans Dixieland jazz unless, of course, blacks were playing it. I recall spending a night or two in Birmingham, Ala., where blacks couldn’t even use the same water fountain as whites. I think Birmingham was probably the most segregated city I ever experienced.
Yet, strange enough – and perhaps it reveals a serious flaw in my character – such institutionalized inequality didn’t make me angry. Sadly, I merely accepted it with a shrug of my shoulders. When my parents came to visit me I simply told them, “That’s the way it is down here.” My passive attitude is even more difficult to understand when you realize that civil rights demonstrations were erupting all around me. I was entering Thalhiemer’s Department Store in Richmond, Va., just as eight or 10 whites and blacks were being led out in handcuffs because they had sat down at the lunch-counter, thereby disturbing the charm and tranquility of the Old South.
So, this Monday we honor Martin L. King, who lead the frontline troops in the battle for justice in Birmingham. It’s really quite astounding when you realize the revolutionary social changes that have occurred in the last 40 or 50 years. Today, 95 percent of the blacks 18 and older are registered to vote in Mississippi and half of that state’s sheriffs are black. That’s the state of Mississippi, friends, not upstate New York. And less than 40 years after the racial riots over school busing in several Northeast cities – even Boston, for crying out loud – we’ve elected a black man president of the U.S.
Things change. In this case, much quicker than many of us expected.