Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Was I racist because I opposed segregation?

The message from some black student activists across the nation is that those of us who fought for integration may have been the real racists.

Perhaps that's not their intent. But that's the message I'm getting from them.

My memories of segregation go back to when I was a child. Before the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

I recall driving down to Florida for two weeks of summer vacation (yes, we would go down to the heat of Florida in the summer) with my parents and stopping at rest areas along the way where there were white and "colored" drinking fountains. And three restrooms. Men. Women. And ''colored." I recall how this assaulted my sensitivities. I even drank once from a "colored" fountain. It was a young action of civil disobedience I suppose.

I also have vivid memories of a trip by Greyhound bus from my hometown of Detroit to a rural community in Mississippi with the neighbor across the street and his daughter. I was invited to join them to visit his brother on the farm.

One day he took me into town for lunch. We walked into the nearly empty luncheonette. There was a reserved sign on every table and in front of every stool.

We sat at the counter, and I remember whispering to him, "I don't think we can sit here, the sign says it's reserved." And his laughter when he responded, "Boy, that sign means it's reserved for us!"

When the town sheriff walked down the sidewalk, I noticed the black folk walking toward him turn around, go back to the corner and cross the street. There was no jaywalking. Not by them, anyway.

When I got older, my previously predominantly white high school, Detroit's Henry Ford, was, like the surrounding neighborhood, becoming integrated. There were tensions. Inside and outside the school. I was chosen to be part of a multi-racial group that trained to facilitate relationships between the black and white students. It was funded by the non-profit New Detroit. 

There was a walkout by black students one day. And panic from some of the neighbors across the street from the school. Cops were called. Guns came out in the hands of neighbors across Evergreen Road. Heads were busted open. 

A few years later, as a brand new reporter, I wrote stories for several newspapers about red lining. The practice of charging black families more, or not even showing them houses in mostly white neighborhoods. I remember a black real estate agent trying to bust my block by telling my scoutmaster, who lived two doors up from me, that the first black family had moved in just a block away. Suggesting he ought to sell now before the property values plummeted as more black people moved in. 

His answer was to go in the house and grab a shotgun and chase the salesman off his property.

I saw images of the vestiges of Jim Crow on television. I remember Alabama Gov. George Wallace, an avowed segregationist, running for president.

All of these things, I thought, were racist. Bad. Not good for race relations. Not good for black people who only wanted an equal opportunity.

Integration, we all believed, would give people a better chance at that opportunity.

But now, I'm being told, I was wrong.

Now I'm reading with greater frequency, about attempts at self-segregation by black students on campuses.

The latest taking place at the University of Chicago. Where a coalition of students is demanding separate housing for black, Latino and Asian students. They also want special studies established for minority students.

They also want to put “limits and/or restriction … on the funding allotted to student organizations that are accused and/or found guilty of discriminatory behavior.” Presumably these restrictions wouldn't apply to them.

If I'm reading this message right, now segregation is a good thing to strive for. Presumably I would be showing racist tendencies if I were to oppose their position. Which would then be a repudiation of my support for integration dating back more than 50 years.

Confusing, isn't it?

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