A watershed moment
I am a white man and a child of the South. Until the age of 16, I lived in Jackson, Miss. In fifth grade I attended Council 5, which was a private, whites-only, “segregation academy” backed by the White Citizens’ Council as a response to desegregation. Better known as the Citizen’s Council, its motto was “State’s Rights, Racial Integrity,” and it used the Stars and Stripes along with a Confederate battle flag in its logo.
Sixth grade found me back in Jackson’s newly integrated public school system. I was bussed to Watkins Elementary, a predominately black school in which I was one of two white kids in my sixth grade class. I was bullied at first, but when I stood up for myself a group of black kids stood up with me.
That experience forever changed me, because what those kids demonstrated by taking up for me was contrary to what I’d been taught by my white friends, the community, and even my family.
As I got older, I began to understand on a broader level what I intuitively and experientially knew on a personal level: Racism in our country — especially in the South — is structural and institutionalized, and it is the foundation of white entitlement.
Complicating the situation is the fact white entitlement is intertwined with a narrow-minded version of Christian fundamentalism. This aspect always confounded me, since it’s virtually impossible to confront a belief system with logic without being accused of intolerance. There’s a twisted irony when it comes to being intolerant of intolerance.
By the end of the ’70s, their influence having dwindled, some members of the Citizens’ Council would go on to start the Council of Conservative Citizens, a patently racist, white-supremacist hate group that made the news recently due to being named as an ideological influence by the perpetrator of the racially motivated massacre in Charleston, S.C.
The calls for the Confederate battle flag to be viewed for what it is — a symbol of racism — brought all of my experiences back to the fore. As I followed the news, it began to occur to me that the nation was experiencing a watershed moment. No longer was this a matter of left versus right; the moderate center had suddenly awoken from an uneasy slumber to emphatically and collectively say, “No more!” It was also a shot across the bow, indicating that the far right can no longer hide regressive fear mongering behind the mantel of conservatism.
Japanese Marshall Admiral Yamamoto, upon hearing that a diplomatic communique breaking relations with the U.S. had been mistimed immediately prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, remarked, “I fear all we have done today is to awaken a great, sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” A similar awakening has taken place in our nation through the legalization of gay marriage, the affirmation of the Affordable Care Act, and the removal of the CSA battle flag.
The march from Selma to Montgomery continues symbolically today, and there is still a long road ahead. Our criminal justice system still targets people of color disproportionately. Economic segregation still exists. Our education system is underfunded. The list goes on.
One day, maybe, old beliefs will be rejected and replaced with an awareness of the empirical fact that we are all in this together.