He was joined in my musings during a near-sleepless night by people sharing comments on social media that indicate a belief we no longer have racial strife in this country, that the Confederate heritage is nothing worse than sweet iced tea on a front porch and that the fact guns do not actually kill people means there should be no restraints on who can get one.
And I keep thinking about a high school playoff football game. And there was my youthful hope when our school was integrated in sixth grade.
There are plenty of competing thoughts for me this Father’s Day morning, including the families in Charleston who are incomplete today. Some of these are difficult to say; please bear with me.
I was not raised among racial hatred, not in my family. I spent many years working in my Dad’s grocery store where we were expected to treat everyone the same. But the memories were still there, including the side window at the burger joint, a remnant of the not-too-distant past (if, indeed, it was no longer true at the time) when blacks were expected to use it and not one of the front windows.
There was also lettering on the laundry window that said, “No Maids.” That seemed strange, but my mother explained they were trying to keep black people away.
As a child, whether it was innate or … more likely … implanted by my parents, I knew this wasn’t right, just as I knew black and white children shouldn’t be attending different schools, especially since the black school seemed so rundown.
But things were looking up. Classes integrated in sixth grade; we had one black student in a class with 29 whites.
A customer at our store managed a semipro baseball team comprised almost entirely of black players and he insisted Daddy take my brother and me out for a game. They played against an all-white team and everyone seemed to have a good time.
Yes, we all got along, it seemed, and my young hopes felt validated. It won’t be easy, I said to myself, but we have the power to make this work in my lifetime.
My sophomore year at a new school, our football team was in the state playoffs. It was the first game, bi-district, and played on a neutral field. I was in the stands, probably with friends but surrounded by a crowd of people I did not know.
One of our running backs was black. After he was tackled on a particular play, an adult male unknown to me yelled out, “Hey, get your n—– off our colored boy,” to no small amount of laughter. That struck me hard.
Years passed. Daddy suffered a debilitating back injury after all of the kids were gone and he and Mother eventually moved to the region where he grew up. He worked at different things for a while but gradually settled into quiet years where he only saw a few of the same folks at a coffee spot. He listened to them and read crime news from the semiweekly newspaper.
Eventually, he talked a lot about the problems the community was having with the “colored” people and, more importantly, he talked about various things generalized in “the way they are.”
I finally asked him, “Daddy, you used to not talk about blacks the way you do now. What has changed?”
“You’re right, I didn’t, but they’re different here,” he said, adding that he didn’t know why but it was so.
What was different, I believe, was he no longer knew any blacks in the community except for the fry cook at the coffee shop. All he knew was what other whites were saying. And if he did have an uplifting conversation with a black resident, that person was the exception.
Through years of retrospection, it appears that a lot of the “racial harmony” I felt growing up was merely the effect of blacks “knowing their place” and not causing discord by insisting too forcefully that they be treated like everyone else.
Could it be I foresaw blacks and whites getting along simply because I wanted to, maybe because I was not close enough to the issues to identify them? Did my ignorance exacerbate the problems?
For much of my life, I’ve been willing to accept the argument that most of those who displayed the Confederate flag did so primarily as a tribute to the heritage of Southern grace, but I can no longer do so.
Let me be clear, the flag itself is not the problem. The trouble is the history behind it written in the blood, sweat and tears of enslaved people and their descendants who, though no longer technically enslaved, faced a life of near-to-impossible odds.
By all means, remember the good old days of playing on the front porch with iced tea or lemonade, but it is not represented by the Confederate flag; there is too much bad history wrapped up in it. Oh, and don’t bring up the argument the Civil War was more about states’ rights or economics. Maybe it was, but it was all encompassed by slavery as well and that trumps everything else. Period.
This is still a free country and you’ll be able to fly that Confederate flag, but you must understand the majority of people view it as a symbol not of a proud heritage but of a shameful history. Fly it if you wish most people to think of you that way.
Yet, things have improved. Haven’t they? I hope so, but the odds of seeing blacks and whites on purely equal footing in my lifetime are diminishing. That is to say, relations are not improving nearly fast enough.
Recently, a series of blacks who died needlessly at the hands of police have underscored prejudices and preconceptions. People have tried to make excuses, but they fade under scrutiny. They point out that the victim, though unarmed, was not a wholesome character. They say he should not have run. They say a little boy should not have been in public with a toy gun. Not good enough.
We are asking a lot of our law enforcement officers, but we must. When we give them badges, guns and a higher level of public trust, then we do have the right to hold them to a higher standard. Those who cannot measure up should not be cops. The rate at which we’ve been seeing these offenses (and there is no way future events will any longer be hidden) are propelling discord at an alarming rate.
Leaders from small towns to Washington need to get a grasp on this problem now. Personally, I would like to see them start by reducing police forces, keeping the best officers and letting the others go. Refocus these smaller departments on important matters, not the piddling things that fill our courts and jails now. Fewer speed traps and fewer arrests for recreational use of non-threatening substances.
I own guns and I want to own guns. My favorite is the gun that was my first, a .22-caliber single shot rifle that belonged to my father’s father. We called him Papa and he died when I was 4 years old. It’s because of him I chose the name Papa to be used by my grandson. When he is old enough and mature enough, I look forward to presenting him that same rifle. I do not want to lose that right.
However, we must preserve the right to bear arms responsibly. There are people who are not mature enough, not of sound mind, who have a habit of violence … there are people who should not be allowed to purchase or possess a firearm. Government alone cannot do this; gun owners must step up and take care of each other, particularly when family members are involved. Don’t you see, fellow gun owners, we can take the biggest step toward assuring government has no reason to seize firearms? That includes getting counseling and other professional help for people who need it.
Daddy gave me that .22 after Papa died. He took me hunting with it in the corner of Texas where he’s now buried. We saw one squirrel, frozen on a branch above us. Daddy gave me three shots to attempt to bring it down and then he did so. He showed me … or maybe he just told me … that all three of my shots grazed the squirrel. Thinking back, I wonder if that was the truth.
Happy Father’s Day, Daddy. Thank you for the start you gave me, and for encouraging or at least not discouraging pursuits you did not understand. I hope I’m able to follow your example and leave this world a better place than I found it.