Monday, January 21, 2013

A Statement of Unity

Some people think back to the good moments in their lives, and that is what stays with them. I usually recall the not-so-good moments or the not-so-admirable deeds. It is that mode of thinking that brings to mind the time I felt the most insulted in my life. And that, ironically, is what I am thinking about on this Martin Luther King Day.

It occurred during my junior year in college. I was part of a committee appointed to choose a Graduate Fellow to live and work in Pierson, my residential college at Yale. The man we were interviewing was the leader of the Black Law Students Association at Yale. He was a dynamic and somewhat belligerent individual from Atlanta. As a fellow Georgian, I wanted to make a personal connection with the man and asked if he had worked on campaigns to elect Maynard Jackson as a senator in Georgia or as the first African American vice mayor of Atlanta. (Three years later, in 1973, Jackson was elected as Atlanta’s first black mayor.) I noted that I had done what I could in Savannah to raise both money and awareness for Jackson. Surely, the law student and I had a common experience here. Right? Not really.

His response set me way back on my heels. “You upper middle class white people had time for campaigning and raising money from other rich people,” he said. “I was too busy trying to make enough just to get myself to college.”

He was wrong on so many counts in his statement, but I was too stunned to challenge him. I just let the sting sink in. I even felt guilty hearing his words, even though my financial aid needs to attend Yale were probably nearly as great as his.

The memory of that insult brings to mind images of the changing black-white dynamic in my life in Savannah, Georgia, in the 1950s and 1960s—my growing up years.  Here is what I remember:

  • Buses with signs that read “Colored Seat from Rear”
  • Separate water fountains near public building for whites and “coloreds”
  • When those signs disappeared in my late elementary school years
  • Overhearing a barber cutting my hair when I was about eight or nine lament to the adults in the shop that he might soon have to drink water from the same fountain as “the coloreds”
  • My being literally raised by our African American maid Louise (which was not exactly a scene out of the book or movie The Help) and my shock at seeing the conditions where she lived when my father and I drove her home one night. (This. I am sure, had an impact on my later political thinking.)
  • The desegregation of my junior high and senior high schools and our sports leagues
  • The amazement and jealousy we white students felt when our school basketball team played its first games against primarily black schools and we watched Beach High’s cheerleaders and fans rock to cheers such as “Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey, Big B, you look so good to me!” I think the Savannah High fans, with little rhythm, responded with something like “Hey, hey, hey, hey, Big S, we know you are the best.” Lame!
  • The lunch counter at Kresses becoming a hot bed of protest by both blacks and whites in 1962, and my vociferously defending the rights of blacks to sit at that counter (and my amazement today to see that store be an integral part of the Savannah’s reborn downtown that has occurred through the impact of the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD)
  • Arguments in school and at B’nai Brith Youth Organization meetings, where we raised money and helped distribute pro-Civil Rights materials
  • The deaths of Schwerner, Goodman, and Cheney in Mississippi and my pride as well as concern that the two whites were also Jews
  • My disgust when the buses of accelerated students like me attending American Legion-sponsored Boys State were greeted by racist gubernatorial candidate Lester Maddox (who would be elected governor the following year through a series of strange political circumstances)
  • My extreme sadness at the deaths of both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy in 1968 and additional sadness that Hubert Humphrey, who had stood up for Civil Rights long before Lyndon Johnson or so many other politicians, would be vilified during the 1968 elections, when I believed that he was the best person to help heal our troubled country
  • My confusion in reading a Time magazine cover story entitled “Black vs. Jew” in January 1969 and wondering what could be causing such a rift between two groups of people who should be bonded in their joint oppression

  • My being insulted by a puffed up black law student who didn’t know my history and decided to stereotype me when he thought I was stereotyping him
These are my good and my bad memories of those times. I am not proud of all of them, but they are strong in my mind.

All of this seems a little heavy to me, so I’ll end with my favorite black-white bonding moment, which happened not to me but to my wife’s cousin Lou Walter. Lou ran a successful dental supply business for many years and prided himself on remembering and caring about every customer. Once, while walking through JFK Airport, Lou spotted a distinguished African American man who looked very familiar to him. Certain he had spotted a former customer, Lou approached the man with outstretched hand, calling out “Hi, Lou Walter, Walter Dental Supply.” Somewhat taken aback, the man took Lou’s hand and countered, “Hi, Andrew Young, United Nations.” Lou was not at all embarrassed by the incident. He was proud of the connection he had made to a new friend, the UN ambassador.

That handshake is my statement of unity to commemorate this Martin Luther King Day.


  1. Sitting here with my girls watching the inauguration events. I will be forwarding this one on to them to read as well. Great Job.

    Kristine L.

    1. Thanks for the support. It's an exciting day and time for America. Let's hope it is the start of a new period of hope and togetherness.