Bob Higgins

Whites Only? No More, America is Finally Ready

Posted in Politics by Bob Higgins on January 20, 2009
Fifty years ago today I was halfway through my sophomore year at WE Stebbins High, an almost completely segregated school in the almost completely segregated city of Dayton, Ohio, a town said at the time to be a southern city that happened to be north of the Mason Dixon line.

The school was “almost completely” segregated because it was located within a good Hail Mary pass of Wright Patterson AFB. I don’t remember exactly the reasons but we were told that because the school received federal funds for students who were military dependents that it had to be integrated.

“Integration” was accomplished by the admission of two young Black kids, The boy was named Sam. I remember because we became friends for awhile until the transparent racist displeasure of my little Quaker Grandmother became thick enough to keep him from dropping by. She wasn’t ready for a black president.

The girl’s name is beyond my atrophied powers of recall. I can see their faces though; both were exceptionally attractive, beautiful in fact, bright, “A” students (National Honor Society), and the son and daughter of Air Force Officers. They weren’t related, although they might have passed for brother and sister (to my eyes) and they knew each other from the Air Base (the Air Force at the time wasn’t a lot more integrated than my high school).

Their presence among the lower and middle class adolescent white children of factory workers, shopkeepers and lower level bean counting managerial types caused no great stir. There were no serious problems (to my eyes) other than an occasional racist taunt, or snub. Civility towards them was rigorously enforced. The powers that be paddled freely and often back then and the sting of that paddle and its humiliation was seldom sought.

I’m sure that Sam and what’s her name saw their experience of being the only “colored kids” among fifteen hundred white kids quite differently than I did but they seemed to smile through it. Again, “to my eyes.”

Dwight Eisenhower was the President at the time, Kennedy, (who would become my boyhood idol, surpassing Chuck Berry) wouldn’t announce his candidacy for another year. Elections in those days were still conducted with a degree of merciful brevity.

“Brown v Board of Education” was only five years in the past; the Civil Rights Act of 1964 five years in the future and Dayton was divided by a river. Black faces were seldom seen east of the river unless on the bus or wielding a rake and although I rode buses frequently I had little contact with and I think, no animosity towards them. In fact, in my budding “beatnik liberal,” barely formed, pre Malcolm and James Baldwin consciousness, I confess to finding them exotic if not damned “quaint”. Please forgive, if you will, my youth and ignorance (and that of my country).

Three years later I would be in the Marines, stationed in North Carolina which was definitely south of the Mason Dixon. I remember distinctly the first time I saw a “Whites only” sign. I remember it taped to the inside of a glass door at a cheap eatery near the base in Havelock. I had heard and read of such things so I was “aware” of them in the abstract but I still cringe today with the horror and embarrassment I felt at the overwhelming “reality” of that sign.

Having sighted the first of these crayoned territorial imperatives I soon became aware of them everywhere. Whites only, colored drinking fountains, walk up windows in the sides of cafes posted with “colored” signs; commerce it seemed was integrated, money changed hands across the racial divide but there was a wall to prevent any mixing at breakfast or lunch of actual people. We weren’t ready.

There was no “river,” no physical boundary, as in Dayton, yet the boundaries were everywhere, carried it seemed, in the minds and hearts of everyone, constantly instilled and amplified by reminders, abrasive edicts scrawled on cardboard or plywood, a ubiquitous ugliness.

A year passed; on November 22 1963 I was driving a jeep transporting a Captain from Camp Lejeune to a chopper base at New River. As we left Lejuene through a back gate we were stopped by MP’s and told to report immediately to our unit, that we were on alert status as the President had just been shot.

In the barracks afterward, watching the news reports from Dallas and the reactions from various regional factions among my fellow Marines I was to discover the depth of the shared ugliness that permeated us all and to get a whiff, a fleeting taste of the ugliness on our shared horizon.

Vietnam followed, in less than a year and a half I found myself along with thousands of others thrust into a racist war in a tiny and largely impoverished third world country where the signs were scrawled not on doors but on the sides of bombs and rockets, racism and empire were promoted and enforced with air dropped leaflets followed by fire and lead. We still weren’t ready.

Bad news, all this blood and death, the foul stench of hatred, of racial, religious and ideological detestation, all the baggage that we carried with us to the domino war, followed us home.

Home, to a maelstrom of protest, home to a country divided, a division as sure as a river but wide as a sea, home to flags waved and flags burned by two vastly different kinds of “patriots.”

Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis and the country blazed with a fire that had smoldered beneath the forest of tinder for a century, for two centuries.

If there were any hearts left unbroken by the murders of Jack and Martin they were demolished wholesale by the sight of Bobby Kennedy bleeding out his life on that grimy kitchen floor in Los Angeles.

That June evening I came out of the woods in northern California following a two week backpack in the Trinity Alps. The unimaginable silence and tranquility of those woods was rudely broken by the sound of my old truck and shattered forever when I reached the highway, turned on the radio and heard the news of Bobby’s murder. Welcome back to America.

We still weren’t ready.

Fast forward through the eighties, rebuffed in our resource war in SE Asia we cast about in Central and South America and finding no low hanging fruit with which to gorge the appetite of our ruling class, we turned our eyes eastward again settling on the world’s oil patch as the key to wealth, empire and power.

A series of business friendly, electorate immune presidents and two decades of corporate control finally brought about a perfect storm of conditions that were ripe for the election of the worst president and the construction of the worst government in the history of the republic.

War and more war ensued, with a single crime as excuse for an eight year pillaging of the public treasury and the greatest transfer of wealth from those who need it to those who already have it in anyone’s memory.

Deeply embroiled in two wars to the tune of a trillion dollars and thousands upon thousands of dead and wounded, incomprehensible numbers of homeless and destroyed, after having transformed large numbers of the population of the Middle East into reeling, traumatized vacant eyed refugees, who are probably reconsidering their initial reticence to sign up as suicide bombers, America, at last, set a record for the longest delayed reaction in history.

We, you and I, an impressive percentage of us, tossed out the representatives of the failed and ruinous ideas and policies of the reactionary conservative past and elected a different man, a black man no less, to be our president. Are we ready now?

I was impressed with us on election day as I was with him, but I ask again are we ready to follow this man? Are we ready to do more than follow, but to demand, to pressure, to push and prod him as well as the rest of government at every level and the opposition party to do all that will be necessary to move us away from the corrupt practices and sordid criminal behavior that led us to this nadir in our history?

I hope so. I’ve waited a long time to have something to believe in again, to have an America to take pride in again.

This is my 12th president, I’m not going to get too many more and I hope to hell we got this one right. For the record, I think we’re finally ready.

Oh yeah, for Sam and the lovely “what’s her name,” I hope you enjoy this inauguration as much as I will and I’m sorry about Grandma, she just wasn’t ready.

Bob Higgins
Worldwide Sawdust

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