I grew up in the segregated South. In my seven years of elementary school, four years of high school, and four years of college, there was never a black student in my school.
I was there on the Sunday morning in 1960 when the leaders of my Methodist church gathered nervously on the front steps fearful that a black family was going to come to worship. When I asked my Dad what everybody was afraid of, he said, “you don’t understand.”
I was there at my college when the Board of Trustees voted to refuse admission to a black applicant. When I asked the prominent Methodist minister on the Board why, he told me I didn’t understand.
And I was there in 1964 when my friend, Fred, the editor of the school newspaper, published the entire text of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The struggle and the horrors and the violence of the Civil Rights movement were current events, The AP machine at WTRP Radio in LaGrange spit out the stories, and I read them on the air.
I was growing up, and I opened my eyes. Television played a major role in my awakening. Bull Connor’s fire hoses, the Edmund Pettis Bridge, the riots, Dr. King, the viciousness of the sit-ins, changed me.
I’m not proud of the South of my childhood, nor am I proud of what it stood for. As I search through my family’s genealogy I’m sure I’m finding slave owners and countless bigots. I don’t disown my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. They were who they were, and I loved them. I’m proud of my father and all that he accomplished in his short life. I also think I knew who he was. He was a conservative and a product of the South. But I wish I knew more.
I came face-to-face with my Southern heritage recently at the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta.
The exhibitions there have sharp edges. They are far from subtle, and rightfully so. They make you think, and remember and reflect on who you are, who you were, and the construction of your soul. I have often said that everybody needs somebody to hate. And it’s true. If it’s not African-Americans, it’s Muslims, or Native Americans, or members of the LGBT community, or the Serbs.
So where are we? There’s progress, but there is much to be done. My worry is whether or not we can do enough. And I don’t know the answer to that question.