Saturday, October 18, 2008

Making History, 2008

In 1955, I was 5 years old. My family went on a vacation, camping across the country to lots of the great National Parks. We left Ohio and headed for Terrell, Texas, my dad's home town, to visit family. Terrell is now a suburb of Dallas, but in those days it was mostly a farming town. My great aunt's house didn't have central heat or plumbing. Lots of the streets were still unpaved, buildings my dad remembered from the nineteen-teens were still there, and segregation was in full force. A year earlier, they had filled in the town swimming pool rather than let black children swim. Some of our relatives talked about "the niggers" and how they should be shot. My dad asked them not to talk that way.

In the 50s I remember my dad's Uncle Earl and Aunt Fern coming to visit in Ohio. They were from Florida and they talked about the black men that worked for them in their orange groves. They didn't call them black men. Nigras. After all, they were in the north. My dad asked them not to call them that--they were people who worked for them and deserved their respect.

My parents were active in the Civil Rights movement. My dad took Bob and me to sit-ins at barber shops. I didn't understand why we had to sit there just because Nick refused to cut a black man's hair. I went to a lot of dinners in the basements of Baptist churches where my white face was in a sea of black. I saw kids from school there that I didn't have much to do with in school--it was the north, and we were integrated, but not really. Black men had their hair cut by black men. Black women cleaned our houses. I saw Malcolm X speak at a church in Cleveland after he had become more moderate. I saw Cleveland slums, I saw Cleveland burn. I saw Cleveland change.

In 1965, my dad, mom, and I went on a grand tour of the country. My last vacation as a kid. We came home through the south. Drinking fountains and restrooms said "White Only". Restaurants and cafes were still segregated. It seemed impossible to me that this way of life could ever change, regardless of the number of barber shops I sat in or the Baptist churches I ate in. Blind hatred and fear are too strong. I went to college and left my father's activism at home in Ohio. Sure, I protested the war after my girlfriend-who-became-my-wife, and her 1930s Communist parents convinced me the war was wrong and the world could be a better place. They were right. Other people continued to sit-in, march, sing, and die. How could they ever make a difference? How could they stare down the hatred? How could they face the fear?

Of course, it turns out it did make a difference when people sat, marched, sang, put their lives on the line, and died. It has always made a difference. They stared down hatred and they faced down fear. Thanks to them, today, I voted for Barack Obama to be the next president of the United States. Today I can hear my dad telling me that a man should be judged by what's in him and what he will do with it. My dad didn't always do that, but I think he always tried. He died last year, just short of 98 years old. I know who he would have voted for today--the man with the insides that show what the measure of this country can be. And he would have tipped his hat to all those who faced down hatred and said no to fear.

My vote today was for my dad, for me, and for a vision of what our country can be. My dad's the one on the left, by the way.


griffiskc said...

Very moving John. I'm thankful we've been able to see this day. John went door-to-door for Barack yesterday and we'll cast our votes today.

Ronna said...

Great entry John. I don't think we had the same stuff in Canada but my parents used to recall the "No Jews or Dogs Allowed" signs on many country clubs in the Laurentians in Quebec. Thank goodness times have changed...

Newsman said...

Salut, Jean:
As some pundit (maybe it was you) once said, all politics is local and personal.
You eloquently speak for so many when you make that profound personal connection to the mistakes of the past and the promise of the future.
As you note, individuals can make a difference.
Bonne chance en novembre!