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My Racist Past
January 21, 2013
by William P. Meyers

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It is Martin Luther King day. When I was a young adult I used to compare King and his crew to more radical Black leaders. I liked Malcolm X and Angela Davis better. I believe that King's non-violent approach to change worked partly because others got tired of waiting and saying "Please," and instead rioted and formed militias. Those brave men and women changed the menu from a choice of desegregation eventually versus no desegregation, to desegregation now with social peace vs. desegregation later as long as you are willing to put up with a civil war in the meantime.

Martin Luther King, Jr., did a lot. I admire him. Nevertheless, this really should not be called Martin Luther King day, but Civil Rights for All Day, or at least Civil Rights for African Americans day.

This year more than ever Martin Luther King Day calls to mind my own segregated childhood. It would take a small book to recount all the stories; today I will just touch some of the highlights.

My mother grew up poor and white in the South, in what I saw one person call the (formerly) whitest, most racist county of Texas, near Greenville: Hunt County. Her middle name was Juanita, which she hid as best she could. Given her complexion and hair color, she did not want to be suspected of being Hispanic. I did not learn her middle name until I was 16 years old, and then only by accident.

My father, in contrast, grew up in Chicago, Illinois. He was not interested in rocking the boat in any way, but he was not as openly racist as my mother.

My mother was also your basic angry, ignorant, hateful person, so she fits well with our stereotypes of the racists of the era. However, she was polite, in public. She never said the N. word. Even at home always called non-whites colored people. Say any word she deemed unacceptable, cross her and any way, and a child would be thrashed.

When my father was still in the Marine Corps in North Carolina, when I was 5, we had a black woman helper. I liked her; she presented as a lot nicer woman than my own mother. I remember before we left Camp Lejeune, when my father was dismissed, we took a car load of things out to her house, which I remember as a shack among others lining a dirt road. My parents locked us in the car and said not to get out or even roll down the windows to talk to the curious children that were playing outside.

In Jacksonville, Florida, my new home, which had a large African-American population, I went to segregated Catholic schools (noting that Hispanics were admitted, and that I had one white, ex-Cuban teacher). In second grade one teacher told us that her grandfather had owned slaves and colored people were happier when they were slaves. No kidding.

The civil rights movement did not have much impact on me at first. As a child I had my own worries. But I did make a couple of mental notes that helped inform my later attitudes. I noticed that while we were supposed to be in a rich capitalist company, in Jacksonville many black people appeared to live in run-down circumstances, and wore what can only be described as rags. I also noted that the Catholic religion was a big package of lies, so I tried to remember that almost anyone could be lying to me about almost anything, including the inferiority of the black race.

The teachers sometimes talked about desegregation at school, because the public schools were being desegregated. Jacksonville had the usual white and black riots and the introduction of bussing. Friends from my neighborhood who went to public school mostly reported it was not so bad. After all Jacksonville was one of the last major cities in the nation to desegregate schools. Not only did it seem inevitable, but it was impossible not to have at least heard Yankee propaganda about racial equality. I was told the KKK burned a cross in a field not too far from where I lived, but I never knew anyone who would admit they had a Klansman as a parent. Of course most of my friends were Catholic, and so could not join the Klan.

Starting with 9th grade, in 1968, at a private non-religious school, my attitudes changed relatively quickly. It started with the Jews. Given my Catholic upbringing, I was probably more prejudiced against Jews than against blacks. There were a lot of Jews in my new school, and they befriended me even though I said some pretty terrible things, not even realizing at first there were Jews in the room with me.

The Jews at my school, with a few exceptions, were firmly on the side of civil rights for blacks. Also, my being for civil rights was just another way for me to feel superior to my own parents.

There were no blacks in our suburban parish church, or in our whites-only subdivision. So my mother almost made it through the civil rights era without acting out. She tried very hard to be polite in public. My mother was a good secretary, working full time once my younger sister was in school. Her secretarial talent put her in good stead in the parish Catholic Woman's Club, and then in the Jacksonville Catholic Woman's club. She became its President. Not bad for someone who had not graduated from high school and was raised Methodist.

Well, some liberal Catholic woman decided it was time to nominate a black Catholic woman for membership. The rules did not specifically exclude blacks from the club; there just never had been any in it. Well, my mother and many of her friends were not about to allow a black in the club. They decided to move their club meetings to a building (the Daughters of the Confederacy Hall, or something like that) where blacks were not allowed to enter except as servants. There was a vote and my mother's side lost. Then my mother and her friends got on the phone. I heard some of this. They organized a special meeting to vote again, and forgot to inform the members who had voted against it.

So my mother and her racist friends won. Black women could not be in the Jacksonville Catholic Woman's Club.

The Bishop of the Diocese lived in St. Augustine, the oldest continuously inhabited town in the United States. His office called her. The Bishop would like to see her.

She came home from St. Augustine fuming. The Bishop had lectured her on Catholic principals. The Roman Catholic Church could not discriminate among its members, not anymore. Everyone was equal in the eyes of Jesus and all that. The Bishop pretty much ordered her to cease and desist her racist ways.

And she did. Being a Roman Catholic was more important to her than being a racist. Blacks were admitted to the Jacksonville Catholic Woman's club while my mother was its President. She was polite to them.

I learned another lesson. Within another couple of years my mother had entirely re-written history. The events detailed above had not happened. For public purposes my mother avowed she had never been a racist.

By the mid-1970s things had changed. There were still racists in Jacksonville. There was still a class structure in Jacksonville, too. But good people were not racists. Everyone knew that. Most people were now embarrassed by the hatred all too many white people had displayed for centuries. [But my mother did start voting Republican in 1976]

Thus history is re-written, at least in some people's minds. My mother prefers to have never been a racist. I prefer to remember the facts. I understand racism in a way that people who have not been raised as white supremacists can't. It helped me to understand other prejudices, too. I might even catch myself, to this day, making a prejudiced judgment about someone that is based on surface appearances, rather than on reality.

That is why I don't believe every bad thing Obama or the New York Times says about Islamists. It's why I could not fight Vietnamese peasants who were just fighting against imperialism. It's why I accepted equality for women and eventually advocated full equality for gays.

Like Martin Luther King said, it is not about justice for black people. It is about justice. Period.

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