“Everyone is a prisoner of his own experiences. No one can eliminate prejudices – just recognize them”. — Edward R Murrow
Did you ever have someone make a remark that stirred some distant memory from your past? That happened to me recently and now I feel compelled to tell the story. He was a Sunday school teacher in a class I was visiting and made a statement that sent me back in time. He said we really need to work harder on having better race relations. I couldn’t agree with him more. I grew up in the south and have a good understanding of what he means.
Back in my college days, somewhere around 1957 or ’58, I went home to Memphis, Tennessee, for the summer. Two of my friends also went east, one to work in Washington D.C. and the other to work in Pennsylvania. I agreed to meet them in Washington and we would drive back to New Mexico together – three of us in two cars. On my way up there, I picked up a young man about my age. (Remember hitchhiking was an accepted thing among college age people then.) It turned out he was a Baptist seminary student and he spent the next 6 hours trying to convert me, until I dropped him off at his house. That was just an interesting and humorous sidelight to about what was to happen next.
Somehow, we all managed to meet in Washington and with only a short delay; we started out for New Mexico. Early the next morning as we passed near Ft Campbell, Kentucky, we stopped and picked up another hitchhiker – only this time he was a black soldier in uniform. (note: I never liked the term African-American. You are ether African or American, but not both) He was having marital problems and was trying to get to Dallas to get his marriage back on track. The fact he was black didn’t bother us, besides, we now had two people in each car. We were scheduled to make a stop back in Memphis and have lunch at my house. Arriving in Memphis, it was pouring down rain and I felt bad about letting the soldier off in the rain, so I stopped at a phone booth and called home to tell my parents the situation. I told them about the soldier and that if they so desired, I would skip stopping and continue on. It turned out my grandmother was there as well – two generations of southerners! Well, they had us all come by, fed us, wished us well, and we set off again. That night as we were entering Louisiana, the soldier offered to buy our dinner in payment for taking him all this distance. It was then I got the shock of my life. We were refused service at every restaurant we entered. It turned out we had to park the cars and one of us went up to a restaurant and ordered sandwiches to go. That was the only way we could get food. I was sad, mad, and embarrassed all at the same time. Here was a clean-cut soldier who could fight for our country, but couldn’t eat with us “white boys”. His only crime was being black! Sometime early in the morning, we dropped him off at his front door and made the last 500 miles back to school. I don’t remember his name, but I hope he got his marriage back on track as he was a nice guy. I’ll never forget that trip as long as I live.
Has race relations improved? Without a doubt it has since the 50’s. I would hope we wouldn’t be turned away from restaurants anymore. But I would hasten to say it hasn’t progressed as fast as it could and it still has a way to go. Give it a few more generations.
Do you remember the old radio show “Amos and Andy”? It portrayed the humorous events in the lives of several black people. The stars Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll were both white. Also during that time various churches and organizations where white people dressed as black people and performed musical and comedy routines in the form of minstrel shows were popular. Now, I may be naive, but I never thought them to be a put down on black people. I enjoyed them and looked at them as a tribute to their way of life. Music and laughter are great ways to come together. I would love to see one put on by real black people.
Sadly, race relations aren’t just limited to black and white. I remember the gross mistreatment of the Japanese living in Americans during WW II. At the time no one thought of it as mistreatment; history now does and points it out as a shameful period of this nation. And even earlier, the settling of this nation and our treatment toward the Indians or “Redskins” was a prime example of racial injustice.
Did you ever watch Star Trek, The Next Generation? There is a lesson to be learned from that series. It’s simply that in the 24th century, race relations weren’t an issue – many aliens as well as races, learned to work together nor was there concern for wealth, both admirable goals for us. Hopefully, it won’t take 300 years for it to be a non-issue.
We certainly can’t solve all the problems in our lifetime, but we can take another step forward. Each step taken, no matter how small, is one step closer to reaching the goal of mutual respect for all races. I don’t know when “Race Relations Day” is observed, and don’t really care – it should be every day! Yes, we all have our prejudices, and we should not only recognize them, but make an effort to overcome them.