(From "Patches and Pins" (or "The Quest for the Silver Beaver...."), by Mike Walton (c) 1988)
You want to get my mother going?? Bring up George Wallace, the symbol for most Black Americans of the *worst* parts of being an American living in the South!
"Do you think he's changed? God musta' really touched that man", my mother asked me. We were sitting at the dining room table, the air conditioner making a loud starting sound as it attempted to cool the air in our apartment. My mother sat in her "usual place" in the seat by the doorway leading to the kitchen. I was sitting in my father's chair, the one with its back to the living area and the television set.
On the set, former Governor and then Presidential candidate George Wallace was telling a group of reporters his feelings about race and how his State of Alabama has changed -- and that he must change with those citizens.
"You always told me that God has a plan for everyone, Mom," I replied, looking back to hear a part of the interview before turning to face my mother. She, in the meantime, picked up her Pall Malls, took one from the package, and after placing the cigarette to her mouth, lit it with one of those Bic plastic lighters. I watched her as she blew the smoke out from her lungs and throat, the smoke mixing with the cool but invisible conditioned air and sending it toward me.
"People like him don't change, Micheal, but maybe God got to him. All I know is that man was full of hate...," she told me.
George Wallace was later shot and paralyzed during a visit to Maryland while he was running for President.
"It'll be a cold day in you-know-where when I vote for him as President!" my mom told me one evening after dinner while we were watching the evening news. "I'm sorry that he was shot, and I think that the person that did it should go to jail, but I'm not sorry for what I think about that man!"
I lived a sheltered life, I have told you that. My parents did not, and they remember the actions vividly right over the border from southern Tennessee where they grew up. Actions to Blacks from those that hated Blacks and those few Whites that stood up for the rights of all people to live together in that age-old concept called "equality, My father rarely talked about it; my mother freely talked about it and let it be known of her hatred of "George Wallace." She never acknowledged that he was a Governor of a state as if her acknowledgment would justify his authorizations or honor him.
I read accounts in school about what George Wallace authorized. In US History class in high school, I was terrified at seeing for the first time in my life movie reels of Blacks being killed, bit by dogs and injured and maimed by billy clubs and high-pressure water hoses. We lived in Europe during the apex of the American civil rights movement, so I had no idea of the reality of "living Black."
I had never encountered anyone up to that point in life spitting on me or telling me to "go back to Africa" as those people were being told on the screen in our classroom. And when I yelled, "I don't want to see any more of this!" and ran out of the classroom and down the hallway to the exit door, I could hear the laughter from my fellow classmates still watching recorded history. All I really knew about George Wallace was the answer to a quiz question and what he told people living back then: "Segregation now...segregation forever!" I still did not understand the concept.
People in Valley Station and Pleasure Ridge Park, right up the road from Fort Knox and Rose Terrace, were out in the streets fighting for and against segregated schools in the middle 70s while I was going to high school. I thought it was just another set of bored people wanting their 15 minutes of fame on the local TV newscasts at 11 pm ...for surely Black people were living in both of those southwest suburbs of Louisville.
Had to be.
You can't keep people from living or being around other people anymore. We passed laws against those things, did we not?
My mother and I were gassed and had things thrown against our car one evening, but I chalked it up to being at the wrong place at the wrong time. My peers at Fort Knox High didn't act like that. Words were exchanged between Black, White, and Latinos, but it was more in teasing and gags than it was of hate or superiority. We saw each other as compatibles, not equals, and we ate, slept, hugged, and kissed with others without regard to their skin coloring or where their "ancestors" came from. We saw green - the uniform of the Soldier.
Everyone in my town knew "who was better" than others -- and it was not a matter of race but rather position. At that time, while there were few Black leaders in our town, we all knew and respected all of the leaders -- the Black and the White ones.
That's another topic.
I never really saw the effects of "segregation" until I started college, and first-hand saw separated Black and White communities in eastern Kentucky and northeastern Tennessee. Jeff Brock explained segregation to me on our second-floor laundry room at Keene Hall: my first real lesson on what whites were told and what "the big deal is" about Blacks and Whites and "racial mixing."
Jeff, my white, first and best ever roommate, was from eastern Kentucky. Two miles west of the West Virginia - Kentucky border, to be exact. A coalmine trucker since 15, Brock never had a Black *friend*. He knew a lot of Black people living up the road from him in Canada, Kentucky.
They never slept in the same room as he and I did for the year and a half as roommates at EKU.
Never had to negotiate watching the news or reruns of "Andy" on the TV set with him.
Never asked embarrassing questions like "do you get sunburn" or "have you ever wished you weren't black?" We did much of our talking while doing mundane things together. Eating. Watching TV. Drinking beer. Doing the laundry.
"You asked me about why some of my people are mad about Blacks and Whites being together...like you and Anna," he started. Anna was the girl from his county whom I was dating. They attended high school together, and it was Jeff Brock who handed me the phone and encouraged me to "talk to the girl...I'm tired..." one evening.
"Because the races, like the clothes here, have to be separated." He started to separate his clothing into neat small piles. Jeff had a high school grade point average, according to him and many of his -- our -- mutual friends, of 3.79. He always had a way of reducing difficult things to simple explanations.
"Now the white stuff goes over here. If you had any of the colored stuff in with the white stuff, it gets all of the white stuff stained up, and you can't use it. The colored stuff goes over there. If you put white stuff with it, the white stuff don't get clean, and you get faded colored stuff."
I nodded up and down in agreement.
"That's how it is with people, Mike. You can't go around being with white girls because you'll get them dirty. Then, nobody will want them. And you don't see any colored - sorry, black - girls with white guys because the black girls will get some idea and think that they're white too."
He started the washers, placed the clothing into separate washers, and then closed the washers. I stood there, looking at him.
"Man, you're living back there with George Wallace! Got any of those sheets in there with holes in 'em?" I then grinned at him.
He laughed back, grinning at me. "I wouldn't tell *you*!" We both broke out laughing.
Our relationship reached a point whereby we could call each other names without blows being thrown. We argued a lot, that first year. But I was always on his side...and he was always on mine. Says a lot for people living "where they have to pump sunlight into the hollers."
"The world's changed, Jeff. See this?" I held up a box of Clorox2, a chlorine-free laundry additive.
"Remember when people said that you couldn't have blacks and whites living in the same place...you would get sick and I would develop "cooties" or something like that?? Back then, we couldn't even shake hands without both of us, reaching for something to wipe our hands onto afterward."
I added, "Well, with EDUCATION, we're up to the point whereby..." I poured the blue crystals into the washer, followed by the laundry detergent, and then started the washer up. The washer started filling with warm water. "...We can now live and work and be around each other and even date and marry each other...." I tossed all of my clothing into the washer, hoping that Clorox2 will do what it says it'll do on the package.
"The white stuff AND the colored stuff all touching each other. All mixed up in there... today, nobody with any good sense really cares."
I added, "Well...just that the stuff that I'm not SURE about, like these..." I held up a pair of bright red socks and put them on the floor in front of the washer.
"Boy George," I commented.
We both got the idea and laughed, our laughter bouncing off the walls and ceiling of the mostly empty laundry room.
"Just like with people. You and I didn't know each other at first, but we got used to being around each other. That's the "clorox2" part of it. See, we even get each other's jokes!" I closed the washer, and we stood there silently for about two or three minutes.
Then I said, "I read somewhere that Governor Wallace told an audience that there was a Biblical reason why Blacks and Whites shouldn't live together. But I never found it in my Bible."
I added, "Back then, people were scared of each other. The white people were scared of the Blacks because they were something new, something different. The Blacks were scared of the Whites because of what they "heard" that "all whites did." They used the Bible to explain and scare us all into believing it. And nobody doubted it and everyone all believed it. Until someone SHOWED them otherwise. It's not as simple as washing clothes, Jeff...but we're getting better at explaining it. And talking about it."
Jeff looked at me and knew that my assessment was right. We moved our conversation to the second-floor lounge and to Anna and me dating...
Wallace was right. It is time for Americans to move on forward, although, as he admitted, "we in Alabama still have a long way to go."
There he was, in his wheelchair, his wife at his side, his old wilted white hand outstretched...
...as he grasped the hand offered him from Coretta Scott King, the wife of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and those with her. There was no wiping of hands afterward. No "cooties" or dreaded diseases. Both King and Wallace continued to live long and relatively healthy lives and were able to tell their grandchildren about their encounter and the discussion.
[Clorox2 is a registered trademark of the Clorox Company, with no infringement nor malice intended. I still use the product today, and it does work -- using the product as the box directs.]