Monday, January 18, 2010

The meaning of race for me

I grew up white and male in the South. In my early years, I was a Methodist. I'm not gay. In other words, demographically, I'm a natural conservative and Republican.

What made me a liberal?


I didn't live in Memphis on April 4, 1968, but I did live there as a child in the early 1960s and again in the early 1970s. It was a place where equal rights for black people were very much in doubt. "I am a man" in 1968 was completely on point as a social and political statement.

I did experience my parents distraught and appalled by the vicious and often fatal attacks of white racists on black people and on civil rights activists. How could Philadelphis, Mississippi, fail so completely to live up to its name!

Their liberalism on race was in turn rooted in their experience. My father in 1965 advocated integration of the Memphis City Schools. The federal courts would do it soon enough, he realized, but no politician would move to desegregation in a way that might be voluntary and more successful. My mother recalled the surrogate mother she had had in a domestic who had loved her and been loved in return. Her father had been instrumental in the early integration of one traditionally white state college in the South, only two generations up from a slave-owner (though my great-great-grandfather had freed his inherited slaves in the 1850s before the Civil War).

This history was dramatically different from the norm in my all-white neighborhood. It showed me that I could think differently from those around me, that I could look beyond the Jim Crow consensus, toward justice and my common humanity with all people and pointedly with black people, who then lived subservient all around me. This was my escape from the dull and static conformity of conservatism.

Today I honor Martin Luther King, Jr., for his huge part in delivering this legacy, a gift that is mine and his together.

No comments: