Sunday, July 21, 2019

Racism, Hypocrisy Violence, and Isolation

This is about my personal lessons with racism, hypocrisy, violence, and isolation. as a white boy .  It is assembled from personal memory, family photos, and an accumulation of discussions that have taken place throughout the years by individuals who were participants.  I have done my best to be accurate with the story about events that happened around fifty-five years ago or so (in 2019).  

At that time I did not realize the social events happening around me in 1963.  We had left my father's Baptist church in a small town in Alabama so that my father could go back to Bible college in the fall semester 1963.  Since then I have learned that it was within a month or so after he started classes that a bomb went of in a Baptist church in Birmingham, September 15, 1963.  Our Baptist church was within a hundred miles of that church.  We lived fifty feet from the front door of the our church.  Two months and six days after the bombing  I turned four-years-old.

After graduation in 1965 my father took a position at Baptist church in Grand Junction, Colorado.

2016 Rood Ave. 

The first that I heard about any of the racial conflict back in Alabama came from listening in as a bystander on the discussions between my father and our next door neighbor.  I will call this neighbor "A".  "A" had three boys and a girl.  I became friends with the youngest boy who was my age.  I will call him "D".   I spent a lot of time playing together with "D".  The discussion between our fathers did not effect our play.  Even so this political ranting went on and on with each of our fathers literally standing on opposite sides of the fence that was between our two houses.  A thick swirl of honeysuckle vines grew all along that fence.  At various times of the year that would have smelled extraordinary.  

"A" expressed great scorn at those despicable Southern racists in Alabama and what they were doing to the blacks.  Much of this was targeted at my father who grew up on a farm in Northern Alabama.  I remember my father talking about this many time.  By all accounts my father would have stepped into a minefield when he would have started his introduction with stories about farming and hunting where he grew up in Alabama.  This was like a mini civil war, North and South.  "A's" family came from Illinois and were Catholic, my Dad was from Alabama and Baptist.  Difference in politics, race, religion, and geography created the ground for conflict.  Being a Baptist preacher made my father even more of a target since anything that was going on in Alabama was considered to be immoral or illegal was taken to be a direct reflection of my father's personal land of origin and his religious beliefs.  All I remember of the actual exchanges was my father trying to limit the hostility.  Some times this happened simply because my father managed to overwhelm "A" with a quantity of discussions.  My father was very used to speaking in public.  

We did not have a television at the time and since I did not read the newspaper I had no knowledge of current events.  My time was spend playing with the children that lived on our street and the street behind us.  An alley ran down the middle of the block.  One of my best friends lived in the house behind "D", at an angle to my house.   Again I did not really understand the events but the discussions increased with the conflicts going on at Selma, Alabama.  I learned about this mostly from my father venting his frustrations with my mother.  

That was a very busy time in my life.  On the day that one of my father's brothers had come to visit us on vacation, in June 1966, even while my family was standing around introducing relatives to members from our church who had already been at our house, my parents heard what sounded like tires on pavement and then a scream.  My mother has told me the story more than once that from the sound of my voice, half a block away, she immediately knew it was me.   

I had been riding circles in the parking lot of the bowling alley across the street from our house.  The parking lot was huge.  Straight across the street from our house was a large field of dirt, sparse weeds and rocks and red ant mounds.The red ants were huge.  Next to the field on the right was the bowling alley, and on the opposite side of the field was a VW automobile dealership.  Beyond that was a highway and even further on was a train yard.  My friend "D" was there with me with other neighbor kids while I was riding the bike.  At times "D" would chase behind me on foot.  At some point I tried to cross the street to the sidewalk on the other side.  "D" saw the car before I did and that it was coming too fast.  At that point the driver had not noticed me in the street.  "D" yelled at the driver to slow down.  I must have heard him and turned to see the car, and as soon as I did I tried to peddle faster.  I had almost made it, but the car hit the rear tire of the bicycle.  The impact threw me through the air and I landed on the curb face down.  My mother has told me that when she reached me she saw I was bleeding from the face from the impact.  Blood was coming out of my mouth.   I was also bleeding from the elbows and other places where there were patches of peeled skin.  I would spend one night in the hospital.  The X-rays showed two broken two ribs from where I landed on the curb.  

Looking back I later I realized it was a combination of the car accelerating too fast and an undetected problems with my vision that caused the accident.  I could not see the automobile at the far end when it had turned into the street.  It was in the second grade that I was forced to get glasses when the teacher discovered I could not see the blackboard.  For assignments I would walk right up to the black board then go back to my seat trying to remember what was written.  Up until that point no one had suspected I had that problem.

While I certainly struggled with the various pains from the accident I was also upset that I had smashed my first bicycle on the day it was given to me by my father.  It was bright red.   That was likely the first time I had ever ridden a bicycle because I had started out with training wheels.  We have a picture that was taken the next day after I had been discharged from the hospital.  The family photo includes my aunt, uncle, and cousins in front of their camper.  The picture also includes my

David, father, aunt, uncle & cousins  

father carrying me to keep me from getting injured any further.  Whatever pains I was in it was in August that we went to stay a week in our church camp.  The camp was on one of the far slopes of Grande Mesa, an extinct volcano that we could see from our house when we looked to the East.  We had a church camp there every year.

I spent the time at the camp hovered over by my mother.   When we pulled into the driveway on our way home from camp "A," our neighbor, was standing at the fence.  "A" was there before we even had the chance to exit the car.  The car doors were open and "A" was already trying to talk my father.  "A" said that a black family had moved into a house two houses down the street from his.  My dad finally stopped him and told him that they could continue after my father had unloaded our car.  The trunk not only had our luggage but odds and ends from the camp.  We store such things as the archery equipment in a shed built on to the back of our house.   As my father would tell the story "A" was so angry that he claimed to be willing to burn down the house the blacks lived in and the only thing that stopped him was a fear of getting caught.

To show how ignorant I was to this hostility I immediately started seeking out the black boy to play with.  I will call him "L."  "L" was close to my age.  I learned he going to be in the grade ahead of me.  The story of my accident prompted "L" be very protective of me.  "L"would run interference between me and the other kids when it looked like they might run into me.  My memories of my initial impression of "L" was that he had the capacity to be very attentive.  I am not sure of "D" had any reaction to this imposition be he did not get along with "L."  The church camp when "L" had moved in had happened in August and we were soon going to school.  The first real incidence happened when "L" and me were coming home from school.  We had come down the alley and were almost to the gate that led into the our back yard.  Some of the kids had gathered and started through rocks and tomatoes that they picked from someone's garden.  The way my mother has described the incident is that I threw my hands out in exasperation and asked "what is wrong with "L" anyway." She tried to explain to me that many people thought differently about skin color.    

 It was not long after the incident where the younger kids were throwing things at "L" that an argument developed between "L" and D's older brothers.  They initially backed off some distance and were yelling derogatory names at each other.  That escalated further someone started picking up rocks and throwing them.  From there is quickly developed into a full blown rock fight.  The two sides were hurling rocks at each other.  They were far apart enough and the rocks they were picking up were large enough that they had to be launched into the air up and over like throwing hand grenades.  These were the biggest rocks they could find.  "L" was out in the empty field of dirt and rocks so he had plenty of ammunition.  The brothers were dodging the rocks and collecting object to throw from the driveway, which was not composed of gravel but shaped rounded stones, or even larger stones that were used as boarders around trees or decorative plants.  To have watched them would have appeared like they were playing a game dodging some kind of small rubber balls but they were deadly serious.  It could have easily killed someone if they had been hit in the head.  I do not remember exactly how long this fight went on whether it was five or ten minutes or longer.  I have no memory of anyone being injured and I guess that is why the adults were never involved.  I was forced to watch these events play out unable to do anything.   My parents never knew of that incident until years later.  

The division between the two opposing sides solidified.  I wanted to play with everyone but that had becoming impossible.  It was some time after that fight that "D" told me that I was to stop playing with "L."  I was not to have anything to do with the "L" and if I did not agree that I could not be friends with him ("D") or be invited into his house.  There was a hinted threat that the older brothers might do something to me.  I was surprised at all of this.  I saw no reason for the dividing up of sides so I never agreed.  For a long while all "D" ignored me if I came around where he was at.

 I do not remember any of the particulars, it could have been about conflicts with "L," but do remember that whenever there some kind of problem with "D," or any of his friends, I began a habit of saying that I was going to put what they did down in my little black book.  I do not remember how long this went on and I have no doubt it was irritating.  It was like I was holding the threat of writing down whatever they did.  I was probably simply trying to get them to leave me alone and that had seen like a plan.  At some point I guess they had had enough.  They ganged up on me on the way home from school.  "D" and the other boys demanded that I turn over my black book.  There was in the alley that ran down the middle of the block.  Every house kept trash cans in the alley for the trash to be picked up.  I had made it to the closed gate that led in to our back yard when they had finally surrounded me.  They seemed to be afraid that something they had done would be revealed by what was contained in the book.  I do not remember why they were so paranoid.  

They had forced my hand and so I tried to explain that there was no literal book.  My claiming that I was writing things down in my black book was a mere expression for me putting things into memory.  Reasoning was beyond them.  They insisted that I give them the book or they would take it from me.  I could see they were not going to listen to anything I said.  I was surrounded and outnumbered.  My mind must have been thinking fast because I clearly was making tactical decisions in my head.  I knew that if a fight started at some pint it would probably end up on the ground.  The rocks in the alley were not crushed gravel but were all were good sized whitish-grey stone.   Many of the rocks had sharp points.  I kept backing up while I was talking, aiming at moving the fight into my back yard where there was soft grass.  My intention was to reach the most favorable ground for fighting for the least amount of damage.  In the end I made it through the gate.  They were still calling me names and demanding I give them the black book.

Of course this is me looking back on those events but I think I resisted for at least two reasons.  One reason was because differences in race did not mean anything to me.  When my father was in Bible college I had met missionaries from around the world. Students would be around from Nigeria or New Guinea or some other place.  Many of these individuals who were native to those countries were going to school in Bible training so that they could go back to their own countries.  This same thing continued at my father's church.  We had missionaries from around the world come to our house.

David with KC Thomas, from India

I had met natives from many other countries who had many different shades of skin.  When they ate at our table I had never seen a thing that differentiated them from any one else.  I hesitated to speculate too much about my reasoning.  It just was.  It probably had something to do with my personality of stubbornness that I have retained all my life. I was not going to be forced to do something against my will that made no sense to me.  

My neighbors started avoiding me and this conflict went on for many months.  I would simply play with whomever was available.  But because of when my birthday falls in the year I was one year behind everyone.  That extra year did not make any difference in size since I was still very small even in comparison with my peers.  I started first grade at small building many blocks away from the main Lincoln Park Elementary school building.  I would not have seen any of them during the day since both "D" and "L" would have been at the main building in the second grade.  Afterward I might see them on the way home as almost everyone walked to school.

I am sure "L" was having problems getting along with students at school.  "D" would have been in the same class.  It would not have been out of the ordinary for "L" to have been ganged up on at school as well.  If this happened, and it would be odd that it did not, he never mentioned this to me.  I do remember that there was one other black student at the school, a girl in my class named Delores.  I still remember her crying inconsolably when they announced the news at school that Martin Luther King had been murdered the Spring of that year, April 4, 1968.   She was crying so much the teacher let her go home.

I do not know if it was a particular event or an accumulation of events but at some point "L" turned on me.  "L" wanted me to stay away from "D" or the other kids.  I could not be friends with any of them if I was going to be his friend.  I am certain I would have sympathized with how much "L" had been mistreated but the threat of being physically injured would have taken priority at that moment.  This would have looked like more craziness to me.  I was stuck in a number of hostile situations with friends that I had nothing against.  The outcome was that I told him the same thing I said to my other friend.  I was not going to join either side of the conflict against the other side.  I would not take sides.  I liked them both.   When I refused "L" threatened me.  "L" said he would find me on my way home from school and beat me up every day that I would not stop having contact with these other kids.  When I talked about this to my father he had me pass on the message.  My father said to tell "L" he, as a pastor, was out on the streets every day, driving around the city, and visiting people .  I was to tell "L" that he would never know when my father might show up.  Whatever the threat was I never got beat up though I had clearly made enemies of both sides.  I was now isolated even more because I wanted to be friends with everyone.  I do not know if it ever crossed my mind that it would have been easier to chose a side but I now I never did. 

As time passed the conflict slowly dissipated, kids being kids.  I began playing with "D" again.  I do not remember having any further contact with "L."  That neighborhood was filled with children.  It was not too far out of the ordinary for kids to show up from three blocks away.  At some point in time a Mexican family moved in two houses down the street on our side this time.  I was excited that there was someone else.  I remember nothing about the rest of the family but there was a girl who was my age.  I will call her "T."  "T" was a tomboy and was bigger than me.  She would play in our fairly aggressive games of football and other sports. Among other things we would climb the trees in our front yard.  Once I climbed so high into the top of the trees that the branches were bending under my weight.  At times I was more adventurous than exhibiting any sense of commonsense.  I got frightened because of the instability.  I was stuck thirty feet up and afraid to move.  "T" had to go into my house to tell my mother that I was stuck up in the tree.  My mother came out and talked me back down to where the footing was safe.  After that I was able to climb down the rest of the way on my own.

It was not long after this that incidence, as my mother tells it, she looked out and saw the three of us, "D" from next door, "T," and me on the sidewalk in front of our house.  "D" and me were arguing.  My mother intervened and as a peace offering invited us all in for milk and cookies.  In reality that only amounted to to a temporary pause.   "D" told me I had to stay away "T" if I wanted to have any contact with him.  I was thinking how crazy this was.  I found myself in exactly the same kind of conflict that I had in the previous situation. This seemed to be even worse example of even more meaningless reason.  I could not detect any skin color or physical features that made "T" different from anyone else.  If someone had not said the family was of Mexican descent I would have not known anything.  To my mind has have no doubt that if there was the opportunity to have someone to play with I would have easily overlooked bright green skin and four arms.  For me it was just more of the same hostility toward certain persons that I did not understand.  I refused.  While no physical confrontation ever developed I am left with the impression that at some point in time "T" ceased coming around.  I do not remember if "T" simply stayed away from the conflict zone or the family decided to move away to escape any future conflict.    

"L" had stopped coming around after being warned off of his threats against me.  At some point in time his family also moved away.  I generally got along with "D" but because of school and other activities there was a limited amount of time to spend together.  I found other friends.  I spent a lot of time involved in church activities.  Every summer I played on a little league baseball team until I moved away from Grand Junction in 1971.   

I hesitate to attribute any of my decisions to what I had learned about the Bible.  I cannot imagine that it did not play some kind of role but I would hate to speculate exactly what that was.  Certainly, by that time in my life I had heard more than a thousand sermons in my father's church.  When various ill informed individuals would attempt to get into a debate about the Bible with my father I heard him more than once say that his five-year-old son had more Bible knowledge than they did.  

In my mind the Bible that I had been taught barred no person from full participation.  All human beings are exactly equal in the eyes of God.  There are no racial divisions in the same way there were no divisions between male and female.  Yet at the same time I had learned from direct experience that believing in the Bible or Christianity was not a preventative to any division or conflict.  I knew enough to recognize that belief the Bible had not inherently prevented the great animosity between the different persons or races.  Both sides of the literal and metaphorical fence were Christians.  "D's" house had a statue of Mary in the back yard.  

It was actually around this same time (second grade) I was targeted for my father's church position. These experiences made it clear there was not only racial bias but religious bias as well.  The teachers in my elementary school bullied me into making a false confession to writing curse words on the bathroom wall.  I got my first introduction to manipulative confession techniques.  The teachers seemed to delight at confronting my father with my supposed guilt.  To see how silly it was I was once accused of writing a curse word on a school assignment when I confused the word "hail" with the word "hell."  My mother had to explain to the teacher that I what not using the word in a cursing way as I had heard my father preaching about hell hundreds of times.  I am not sure to what degree that I reflected about the events but I learned quickly that children are born into the conflicts of a world beyond their control.  I also learned while we must attempt to do the right (certainly fair) thing when dealing with others that this in itself does not guarantee we will get fairness in return.

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Murphy's Law is one reason not to give up any weapon or capacity.