John Lewis, library cards, and my confession

John Lewis, library cards, and my confession

As I mourn with the country over the death of John Lewis and my thanksgiving for his life, my thoughts keep returning to…to library cards. In Walking With the Wind and in numerous interviews, Lewis told of being denied a library card when he was sixteen because the library was “not for coloreds.” Of the many horrendous acts of racism against him, this single event seemed to stand out as one of such emotional pain that he often returned to the story.

In the summer of 1964 my husband, a seminary student participating in an interracial ministry internship, was assigned to First Baptist Church of Raleigh, NC. The black First Baptist Church, located on the opposite side of the state capitol square from the white First Baptist Church. Having grown up in the South and attended white-only segregated schools, I could count on one hand the number of real conversations I’d previously had with a black person. 

We were warmly welcomed by this large congregation, many of its members educators and leaders in Raleigh’s black community. We lived in the “colored” part of town and were the only white faces at Sunday morning worship. One of my husband’s responsibilities was working with the youth. We went bowling with the group on Saturdays and met in different homes. Most of the kids planned to attend nearby Shaw University, the second HCBU in the Southeast. One teen, Johnny, had an amazing baritone voice and hoped to study music. 

To the topic of library cards. I was a reader. I applied for a card at the Raleigh Public Library. I knew it was the white library. That’s what to this day makes me feel so guilty: I knew. But I wanted to read.

John Lewis’s story is a harsh reminder of my choice. The youth we learned to know and love that summer had high aspirations, intellect, and talent, but they only had access to Raleigh’s “colored” library, with its sparse collection. What other resources were denied these boys and girls, many of them with Lewis’s potential?

They probably have grandchildren by now. Yes, there are laws that make public places like libraries available to all, but fifty-plus years later racism still thwarts the aspirations of black youth. Meanwhile, my white-woman privileges, if unexamined, allow that obstruction to continue. An abundant supply of books, movies, and TV shows makes that scrutiny possible. But taking advantage of the offerings requires motivation and sometimes a willingness to leave my zone of comfort.

In 1964 I knew that because I was white I had access to rows and rows of shelves filled with the latest and best of published works, historical documents, and daily newspapers. I knew that church members, many of them better educated and more intelligent than I, dare not even enter that building. Yet I weekly checked out books.

 John Lewis was denied a library card. He has died, but he inspires us all, black and white, to continue his work for justice.

Since Charlottesville

As a white girl growing up in the 1950’s South, I was socialized to suppress my anger. “Smile though your heart is aching,” Nat King Cole (a frequent target of racists) sang. “If you can’t say something positive, don’t say anything at all,” my mother taught.

When Trump was elected, I was devastated. I recognized the evil his new status as president had unleashed. Since then my heart has been aching. I am terrified. I am furious.

Not wanting to dump my anger and all the negatively I’ve been feeling on social media, I’ve taken a break from blogging. On Facebook I’ve mostly “Liked” and “Shared” what others post about the political and social climate under the Trump administration. Besides, plenty of excellent writers have been expressing my feelings much more eloquently than I can. Let them speak for me. I even set a new goal: find positive stories to post on my website (which I never got around to).

I thought I was doing the right thing, being silent these past seven months. Saturday’s violence in Charlottesville challenged that notion.

I may not have profound insight. I may not have profound words. That doesn’t mean my voice is worthless. I plan to express my anger and fears on my site in coming days.

For now, let me just say—not with eloquence—that as a white woman, I abhor the racism displayed this past weekend in Charlottesville.

 

Nancy Werking Poling’s most recent book is Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage (1945-1987). It is available in paperback and on Kindle.

I didn’t know: racial violence out Route 50

“Florida doesn’t count,” my North Carolina friends say when I tell them I consider myself a Southerner. After all, I attended Robert E. Lee Junior High, my classmates weren’t Yankee retirees, and I like grits.

I’m sad to say that my southern identity has been confirmed by the non-fiction book, Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America (2012, Gilbert King, author). I have no memory of ever hearing about events in Groveland, located out Route 50, less than forty miles from my home in Orlando.

In 1949 seventeen-year-old Norma Padgett, white, falsely accused four young black men of raping her. The NAACP defended the three young men, the fourth having been hunted down and killed when he fled capture. In one horrific chapter after another we read about a brutal sheriff, a judge with no regard for fairness, and a unabashed racist community determined to administer “southern justice.” By story’s end, three of the four defendants have been murdered. The home of the head of Florida’s NAACP has been bombed, he and his wife killed. Homes of other black citizens have been burned to the ground.

Events in the book are not from some vague, distant past; this virulent racism occurred during my lifetime.

Court rulings don’t extinguish attitudes that go to our community’s core. The increased visibility of African Americans in professions and a former black President can be daily reminders that white people no longer hold all the power. No, racism like that in Florida of the 1940s and 50s doesn’t simply disappear in one generation. The children of Norma Padgett, of Sheriff Willis McCall, of Klan members intent on lynching the Groveland Boys—many are likely still alive. Their grandchildren too. “Political correctness,” they’ve come to call expectations of civility, of respect for people of another race or ethnic group.

Under a Trump presidency racism need not be concealed any longer. In fact, according to Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, “2016 was an unprecedented year for hate. The country saw a resurgence of white nationalism that imperils the racial progress we’ve made, along with the rise of a president whose policies reflect the values of white nationalists” (http://abcnews.go.com/US/trump-cited-report-finding-increase-domestic-hate-groups/story?id=45529218).

Devil in the Grove and the resurgence of blatant racism leave me with a disturbing truth: If growing up a white girl in a segregated society enforced by violence is a credential of being a Southerner, then I’m a Southerner. As an adult in the era of Trump, though, I will not remain unaware of violent racism that has been unleashed.

Nancy Werking Poling is author of a new book: BEFORE IT WAS LEGAL: A BLACK-WHITE MARRIAGE (1945-1987)

When Michelle Obama speaks

President Barack Obama and the First Lady Mich...

President Barack Obama and the First Lady Michelle Obama dancing at the “Obama Home States Inaugural Gala.” The event took place at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I grew up in the South. Folks who say Orlando doesn’t qualify as a Southern town didn’t know it before Disney. I attended Robert E. Lee Jr. High, where we flew a Confederate flag under the U.S. flag. I was accustomed to spoken English drenched in y’alls and dropped syllables. I knew no African Americans other than the maids of two of my friends.

When my husband and I left the South for Chicago, I tended to base my impression of people on how they talked. I judged anyone who pronounced every syllable clearly and said ing instead of ‘in at the end of a word to be a snob. I took an immediate dislike to a young neighbor my age, obviously more intelligent than I, who enunciated her words clearly.

So today when an acquaintance said, “I don’t know why, but I can’t stand Michelle Obama,” even though I didn’t agree, I sort of knew where she was coming from. Now, I know my acquaintance to be a warm-hearted woman. I’ve witnessed the respect she shows children, frail elderly women, everyone she comes in contact with. So why would she, like many people, say she can’t stand Michelle Obama? To conclude she’s a racist is to oversimplify the matter.

As I said, growing up in the South, daughter of a construction worker and a secretary, I didn’t often hear clearly pronounced English. Neither was I accustomed to complex ideas and demonstrations of intellect. Especially if spoken by a woman. (Nearly all of my college professors were men.) Apparently I wasn’t alone. Twenty years ago people hated—yes, hated—Hillary Clinton. Not because of her ideas, I believe, but because we weren’t accustomed to hearing women with her intellect speak. Certainly not publicly. Today she’s one of the most admired women in America.

Then onto the scene came Michelle Obama, not just an intelligent woman but an African-American. Now my intent here is not to sway anyone’s political stance, but to make the case that our feelings of less than (less articulate, less intelligent, less sophisticated) often lead us to make negative judgments about people. Especially when they are different from us in gender, skin color, or education.

My Chicago neighbor? Yes, she had a Yankee accent. Certainly in terms of intellect, I was less than. But neither quality ended up standing in the way of our friendship.