History is not that far away. Or maybe it’s that I have lived long enough to remember the times we pretend are behind us.
I grew up in the segregated South. I remember the separate school systems — not because I was mindful of the schools for blacks, necessarily, but because when I was in high school my hometown tested integration by allowing students to choose their own schools. A few black students enrolled at my Catholic school.
When I graduated from there in 1970 — six years after the Civil Rights Act and 16 years after Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka — the segregated school systems in my hometown still existed. The only black students enrolled in white schools were those bold enough to challenge the natural order of things, plus the occasional athlete.
The athletes stand out in my memory because of incidents like a mid-football game brawl when our black teammate was jumped and pummeled by the opposing team. At basketball games, too, a couple of bench-clearing fights erupted because a black boy dared take the court at a white school in northwest Louisiana.
I also remember a summer night when, home from college, a couple of friends and I went to our local hangout. The drinking age in Louisiana was 18 then, and lots of college-age kids were there — all white, popular kids from wealthy suburbs, those who had gone to the prominent high school, the sons and daughters of prominent people. My friends and I ended up in a back room where the pool table was.
The table was occupied by an African-American group when we arrived, so we put a quarter down to take on winners, and then did. As we played a game of 8-ball, I noticed the room was filling up. We were being surrounded. The room was quietly tense; the circle closed in. We played on — until someone slammed a cue stick over the back of one of our opponents. Then came the fists and flying beer pitchers, beer mugs used as weapons, a black player knocked to the ground.
I lifted him up by the shirt, pulled him toward the back. I knew the way out through the kitchen, and my friends and I eventually hustled his whole group out into the night. It wouldn’t be far for them to get home; it was pretty much the edge of their neighborhood. They were not the interlopers there.
I could tell funny stories, too, about needing to pee at the state fairgrounds as a little boy mystified by my choices of public restrooms: Colored Men, White Men, Colored Women, White Women. I was a boy, not a man or woman, and uncertain my summery skin qualified me as white, which I associated more with albinism than the skin on the forearm I was appraising.
Or the time a fancy new Sears store opened in town and I found the water fountains. They were labeled colored and white. I could only envision clear water, not milky white water. The colored water sounded more appealing. I envisioned — at this fancy new store — a rainbow variety of Kool-Aid. I was disappointed to see and taste regular ol’ clear-running water.
My mom yanked me away. “Don’t drink that,” she scolded. When I asked why, I was told black people were dirty and had germs and we shouldn’t be drinking after them.
I heard other things, like the fact that blacks (that was not the word most often used) really did prefer to be with their own kind. And phrases using words like “lazy” and “uppity.”
I was sometimes puzzled by the natural order of things. I couldn’t understand why black people could come into our homes and take care of rich families’ children and cook and serve meals in our restaurants, but could not eat there themselves, or be otherwise welcome in our neighborhoods.
The African Americans in my community lived in squalid conditions, in shacks and shotgun shanties — many dating back to the slave era and nearly all sequestered out of sight, out of mind, on the wrong side of the levee.
Their schools and churches were there, too. There was no easy way out. But there may have been an example, maybe two, of an African American who had gotten educated and made a good life — “a good black” who was the evidence that it could be done, you could rise above it all, without handouts or special favors, if you just worked hard and adhered to the American dream.
I was also puzzled (“vexed” is probably a better word) that so many folks who purported to be Christian were intent on preserving this natural order, this inequality, this injustice, this apartheid. They were not seeing Christ in the face of the other. Their inability to represent their religious faith in real life made a lasting impression on me.
This did, too. My mother would take cakes and casseroles and hand-me-down clothes to women she knew who worked for friends and who lived in those ramshackle neighborhoods. She took me along. I was little. We’d go inside and visit. You could see daylight through the splintered walls, sunlight through the holes in the corrugated tin roofs. These were meager, impoverished households.
One time I asked to wait in the car, and, while I did, a little boy walked up. Deep brown eyes, bare feet on a dirt street, raggedy clothes. He stopped and looked at me and I looked back. Neither of us spoke; we didn’t raise a hand in greeting or acknowledgement. But I recognized his shirt as one that had been my own.
After a moment he walked on; I remember chickens stepping out of his way. I have never forgotten that meeting. That could have been me. I had witnessed the random chance of birth, had felt the guilt — and weight — of privilege.
But I had seen, too, the face of our common humanity, a face I have never forgotten.
Such memories, and many others, come back to me as Notre Dame observes Walk the Walk week, honors Dr. Martin Luther King and tries to apply its Catholic conscience toward racial injustice and insensitivities.
The past was not that long ago, and, in many ways, it isn’t past. We have pulled it forward with us. There’s so much we should have left behind. It’s an American tragedy that today finds us at this place in our history where so much anger, hatred and misunderstanding serve to segregate us still. I have often thought that things were getting better. I can’t help but wonder how true that is.
Kerry Temple ’74 is editor of this magazine. He was born and raised in Shreveport, Louisiana, a final stop for the U.S. Civil Rights Commission during its fact-finding tour of the South. The commissioners, because some were African-American, were denied accommodations in area hotels. They stayed instead at Barksdale Air Force Base before going to Land O’Lakes, where Father Hesburgh helped engineer the Civil Rights Act.