In the late 1960s I was a reporter on the staff of a big-city daily newspaper in the border South. My beat was local politics, which at the time had edged into civil rights and sometimes racial confrontations. The issues were clear. The nation had ended slavery and declared segregated schools to be illegal. Now we were about to proceed into more personal matters.
During the debates over equal accommodations and such, time after time I was told by black and white, rich and poor, young and old that the speaker himself/herself had no problem with sharing a lunch counter or water fountain or study hall or locker room with those of other races but that the rest of the population wouldn’t stand for it. Sure, I muttered to myself, the problem is always other people.
The people marched and shouted, the laws were passed and went into effect, and it turned out that the people who’d claimed to have no problem … didn’t. The people of the South changed their beliefs about race virtually overnight. It may have been that the racists, the obstructionists, knew all the time in their hearts that they were wrong. In any case, where I was, that form of bigotry became something no longer expressed in public.
A few years later I was assigned to report on a luncheon meeting called by backers and alumni of what used to be my home state’s black college.
In the time of segregation, naturally the only college for blacks got all the black honor students as well as the sports equivalent of the 3.00 average athlete. The dumber kids didn’t make the cut, so the college had a good reputation and had no problem keeping pace. The cross section was vertical; there were all kinds of blacks there.
With the end of sanctioned racism, the cut became horizontal. The best black students were welcome at the other state colleges and even at Northern and Eastern universities. The college that used to get smart kids who couldn’t go elsewhere lost those kids.
The average dropped. The lunch meeting I was covering was actually an appeal for support from the well-to-do black community.
By luck I was seated next to a voice from the sit-in era, the principal of the (formerly) black high school in our city. He was intelligent, affable, dedicated, and shrewd.
What he wasn’t on this occasion was on the program. He’d declined, he told me, because he was not comfortable with what hinted of racism. Asking parents to send their kids to a black college instead of a good college wasn’t what he’d worked for.
I knew the family, so I cocked my head and gave him my cynical, knowing look. Yup, he said, his son had been accepted at the University of Michigan. Mom and dad had worked and saved and kept their mouths shut and looked the other way, getting ready for this. The son had done his part. He was poised on the springboard, movin’ on up.
For a leader and an example to his people, his choice was clear: send the kid to a school he’d improve.
For a father and a man who’d paid his dues, his choice was equally clear: send the kid to a school that would improve him.
Would he sacrifice his child for a vague principle? No, and he looked me in the eye and we both knew I’d do the same thing in his shoes.
So the son went off to Michigan, the principal went home without making a speech, and I was left with the realization that we’d gone beyond civil rights. We were going to have to deal with people now, and it was going to be a lot more complicated than I’d thought.