Having grown up white in Huntsville and Birmingham, Alabama, I entered college regarding segregation as a matter of personal inconvenience. It denied me access to the musicians I wanted to learn from. From my mother I had gathered that racial prejudice was worse than inconvenient. It was rude.
That it might also be unjust was a thought that had not yet presented itself to me. Standing on a corner waiting for a bus, I had heard a man say that the country would never be free until it rid itself of all the Niggers, Jews and Catholics. This struck me at the time not as frightening but merely odd. I had never knowingly met a Jew or a Catholic. Brother Cecil O’Rear at the West Huntsville Baptist Church had explained that Catholics were Christians, too, they were just in “bondage.” I had seen plenty of Black people, but I had been dimly aware at 13 and 14 that I knew no Black people my own age. Where were they?
So having led the sheltered life of the Southern white liberal, I enrolled at Birmingham-Southern College, located in a neighborhood that had experienced 65 unsolved bombings in recent years. BSC was considered a nest of Communist agitation by many locals. However, the commencement speaker at my graduation urged us to marry within our own race.
The college did have a Communist cell, located just off campus. I dropped by there on Saturdays in the fall, lured by free liquor, color TV for football, and the sexiest woman I had ever laid eyes on, who met me at the door with a wide-open smile and said, “It’s Jack Daniels, isn’t it?” I’d have joined anything she wanted to see me in, but she never asked.
I did get asked to coach a Little League baseball team — at the Jewish Community Center. People there were friendly and invited me to come watch foreign movies. Thus was I introduced to Ingmar Bergman and to bomb threats. At almost every showing the film would be paused while we went out to the lobby and let the bomb dogs do their thing. These Jews seemed unafraid so I stayed close to them. Much of the conversation focused on efforts to rid the city of Bull Connor.
I had regarded Connor as a clown, a dolt. How dangerous he was I learned at the JCC.
I had thought of politics, insofar as I had thought of it at all, as a circus where you watched fools in their folly, applauding the most outrageous for their entertainment value. That it was our duty to get rid of these buffoons was news to me.
>From time to time I saw Rev. Shuttlesworth, Dr. King and their followers marching as I drove from college to gig and back. In a short span of time I went from seeing them as a traffic problem (more of that good old personal inconvenience) to regarding them as unutterably heroic. Every time Martin Luther King, Jr. was taken to jail for parading without a permit, I expected him to be killed. Every morning I looked at the paper to see whether they had blown up Shuttlesworth’s home.
I never joined them in the streets. I was not yet fully awake and, to tell the truth, I was afraid. Where people found the courage to walk into the mouth of rage and hatred, to face police dogs and fire hoses and tear gas and billy sticks, I could not imagine.
I was with them in my heart, but I had a long way to go before I would learn how different that was from really being with them. I hadn’t even begun to identify the ways in which I had personally benefitted, however unwittingly, from racism and segregation.
I did go to work in Tom King’s campaign to unseat Bull Connor. King was the great progressive hope in 60s Birmingham. He never had a prayer. His poorly-run campaign sent us out repeatedly to places where there were no people. I wound up driving a flat-bed trailer rig that the band and the candidate would stand on. With no experience in driving a truck with so many gears, I tended to run late, like everything else in the campaign. I pulled into a steel mill parking lot where King was greeting a shift change just in time to take out the tail lights of a row of cars belonging to the men he was shaking hands with.
I began to attend political events at the college. At one of them I stood up and demanded to know where my cousin, Sen. John Sparkman, stood on the subject of Vietnam, a subject I myself was but newly aware of. He told me, in a ten-minute answer, that it was a good question and he was glad I asked it. Then he winked at me and changed the subject.
The Attorney General of the state, Richmond Flowers, came to campus running for governor, styling himself as a progressive alternative to George Wallace. He told us that Wallace had not a single Black person on his staff and that if we would elect him, he would change that in a hurry.
When he paused to take questions, I raised my hand. “You are the Attorney General of Alabama. How many Black people do you have on your staff right now?”
Flowers turned bright red and glared at me with unmistakable venom. “What you’ve got to understand about that is that it’s a completely different situation,” the answer began. I was gone before he finished it.
DAVID VEST writes the Rebel Angel column for CounterPunch. He and his band, The Willing Victims, just released a scorching new CD, Way Down Here.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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