I am six-years-old, almost seven, and I am in the first grade. It is April 4, 1968, and The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated at 6 pm in Memphis, Tennessee. I have a stray memory that I have always associated with this day. I am watching television and the announcement comes on that Dr. King has been killed. My Uncle Jimmy, my mother’s youngest brother, who is eighteen, is watching us kids. In addition to myself is my 3-year-old sister and my 8-months-old sister. My parents are probably out bowling, which, in those days, was almost always why they were out and we had a sitter. I hear my Uncle Jimmy say, “They got him.”
I do not trust this memory entirely, and I have never asked my Uncle about it because I don’t want to embarrass him. He is a good guy and I cannot now imagine him saying such a thing, but I also don’t know what emotion was attached to those three words. Was it just a statement of fact? Was it bewilderment? Was it excitement? I don’t know.
But I do know I was living in a racist environment. Of that I have no doubt at all.
My husband John was raised in North Florida, in a rural area much like the one in which I was raised in Upstate New York. This is true beyond census numbers. Comparing notes on growing up, we are surprised at the cultural similarities of our hometowns, and attitudes about race are at the top of the list. Northerners like to think of themselves as more enlightened than Southerners. We did, after all, win the Civil War. But whatever we were fighting for, it was not the equality of black and white, or if it was, it didn’t take. Any progress made over the hundred years since is infinitesimal.
In my hometown in Western New York, of around 2,000 people, I remember two black families. One lived in the village, and one lived halfway up one of the hills outside of town. The latter may have been more than one family. Where they lived was called “the nigger camp” by those who did not live there. This “camp” was for permanent residents. In the Autumn migrant workers, mostly from Florida, would come to pick potatoes. They lived in several camps on various farms in the town. Their children came to our school for the six or so weeks they were at work, although they had a separate classroom in the basement and I have no memories of seeing them.
When people were being polite they called the black folk among us “darkies,” or “colored fellas.” My great-grandmother Pearl’s house was on a street that those who lived at the permanent camp walked down if they walked into the village to one of the stores. In reviewing the events of any given day, she would note how many “darkies” had passed by. She was still doing this the years I lived with her during and immediately after my time as an undergraduate.
My mother frequently comments on the smell of black people. “I don’t care what anyone says, they smell.” I have heard this dozens of times. It is often provoked just by seeing a black person on the street. My father often uses the words, “jungle bunny.” More than anything else this slur bothers me as a kid. Why? I’m not certain. I suspect it was so obviously demeaning.
Today, April 4, 2018, 50 years later, I want to remember these things. My parents don’t say those things anymore, and my journey has included being the rector of a majority African-American parish. I voted for our first African-American President and rejoiced in his victories. But I do not dare forget my history; it is still there in me, enough times surfacing in tiny, almost instinctual impulses, that I must remain vigilant.
Issues of race still plague America. They still plague the communities in which I know live and have lived. They still plague the church to which I belong. We have come so far, but the inequality is still stunning, and so-called “white” America, including myself, just cannot get it. We want desperately to believe in a society of equal opportunity, and the desperation placates us, makes us blind, deaf, and dumb. We cannot see our own privilege, despite the fact that we are awash in it, like some kind of eerie reverse baptism, awash in the original sin of our society, underneath the veneer of good will still festering, bubbling up more times than we care to know, and often even when we do see it, we are quick to self-absolve.
Today I am glad I am not living in 1968, but, fifty years later, I cannot allow myself to think we live that far away from it.