Tuesday, May 26, 2009

At the Crossroads, the Impossibility of Remaining Silent

As expected, the California Supreme Court upheld proposition 8 today.

And as I mull over the court decision, I’m thinking back some 40 years to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In particular, I’m thinking about why I could not remain silent, as the rights of African Americans were debated (and assaulted) in my nation, as I grew to adulthood.

I was in junior high school when Congress passed the Civil Rights act of 1964. For anyone living in a community in the Deep South, as I did—in south Arkansas near the Louisiana border—it was impossible not to notice and to be affected by the many social changes that this legislation implied.

Within a few years, the white high school in the community was integrated, while I was in school there. Businesses in the town that had kept blacks cordoned off from whites—and which could do so legally—were forced to change their practices. These included restaurants which usually had no provisions at all for black diners. If they did so, those provisions consisted of a separate "window" where African-American citizens could purchase food and then eat it outside. Even doctors' waiting rooms were strictly segregated, with a well-furnished room for white patients and a shabby small room for black ones.

There were only two cinemas in our community. One of these forbade black patrons altogether. The other required black moviegoers to sit in the balcony, while whites sat in the main theater.

All this changed after 1964, slowly and painfully, and at a certain price for anyone, black or white, who contravened longstanding custom. As far as I know, the decision a black friend and I made to go to the movies together in 1967, to sit together on the main floor, was the first quiet act of defiance to integrate the theater, following the abolition of legal segregation. I remember little uproar at our choice to do what now seems so natural—sit side by side, black and white, watching a movie. I do remember an ominous silence, though, as if everyone else in the theater had held his or her breath when we sat down—and a few whispers.

I also remember the warnings my parents received as this friend and I continue do to do social things together, and after he visited my house. Neighbors told my parents that they themselves did not object (interesting, isn’t it, that no one ever wants to admit being prejudiced, even when his or her prejudice is obvious?), but feared for their safety and that of the neighborhood, if any person of color continued visiting houses in the neighborhood socially, rather than to mow the lawn or clean the house, cook, do laundry, and tend children.

Perhaps my most vivid memory of the paths that integration forced me to take—because I had no choice, confronted with the changes all around me—was the controversy that arose in my church following the Civil Rights act of 1964. As I have noted in previous postings, the abolition of legal segregation led to requests—I believe these came from conscientious members of our church itself—for us to reconsider our whites-only membership policy.

All the churches in my community except one were, to the best of my recollection, segregated. The town was dotted with black and white Baptist and Methodist congregations, and with exclusively white Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Pentecostal, and other churches not represented at all in the black community. The one exception to the pattern of rigid separation by race was the local Catholic church, which had closed its blacks-only mission by 1964 and combined that parish with the white parish.

The African-American friend with whom I socialized in high school was Catholic. I knew him from both church and school, since he was one of the students in the black school chosen to integrate the white high school when it was integrated. As I’ve also noted on this blog, when my Baptist church dithered about integrating, and when a divisive debate (full of rancor that shocked me) ensued in the church after the request that we reconsider our segregated membership policy, I left my family church and became Catholic. I did so in part because of the Catholic church’s progressive stand on racial issues in my particular Deep South community.

The point I want to make with these stories: it was impossible for me to avoid making choices, as integration took place in my town. It was impossible for me to remain silent. It is the nature of crossroads to force us to decide. We cannot go ahead, at a crossroads, without choosing one path or the other.

And so today, I’m thinking about why I could not remain silent in the 1960s, as the civil rights movement challenged longstanding laws and customs that separated the community, its businesses, its churches, and its schools according to race. I am thinking of why I could not remain silent even when speaking out put me at painful odds with members of my own family and church community, and forced me to make choices that radically affected my future. For those reasons, please see my next posting.