Category Archives: Losing My Sense of Safety
1949 The first and the last protest I ever started: I was twelve.
In grade school in St. Louis, I was a bench warmer on The Saint Pius girls’ basketball team. After home games we always went to a small store near our school for cokes. They had a couple of large booths and we would all cram into one. After one game, someone accidentally knocked over a coke which not only spilled, but broke. The woman who owned the store yelled at us and told us to get out and never come back. I felt it was very unfair since we apologized and cleaned up the mess. After we went outside, I encouraged my teammates to stay as a protest and tell other kids to boycott the store. A couple of younger boys came and we told them not to go in, the woman was mean and unfair. But they went in anyway. Then, as they were leaving, they threw their candy wrappers on the floor and called her a witch and slammed out of the store. Not what I had wanted at all. The younger boys with their penchant for physical responses had hijacked our peaceful protest. Before we could decide what to do, the woman told us she had called the police. The rest of the team took off. Self-righteous me stayed. And sure enough, a very large policeman appeared. The policeman listened to the lady and then admonished me for inciting the boys to cause trouble and wrote down my name and address. I was warned to stay away from the store. I was struggling to not cry or throw up, fearful that as a newspaperman, my dad would see police reports. When I started walking home, the policeman was going the same way and when we got away from the store, he tore up the paper he had written my name on, handed it to me and said, “Don’t worry. She calls the police every other day about something. Just stay away for a while until she gets over it.” Later I found out that the boys’ team had been unruly in the store after their game the day before and gotten thrown out. And now knowing what I know about hormones and middle age, I have a lot more sympathy for the grumpy lady. I also have a warm spot in my heart for kind policemen.
Around the same time, my parents had a group of six or seven that met at our apartment to discuss “Great Books.” The ones I remember were an elderly Congregationalist Minister and his wife and a young black man. They met around the dining room table and sometimes I’d sit in the living room reading, but also listening. Several things made an impression on me. They often disagreed, but they discussed the ideas and even seemed sometimes to reconsider their original opinion. Also, my father sounded open to some of the Congregationalist minister’s liberal ideas that I was pretty sure wouldn’t be popular with the Catholic hierarchy. So perhaps religion could be questioned also. And while my mother was quiet, the other woman was quite articulate and held her own in the discussions. I knew my Dad was against racial discrimination, but I saw for myself that the young black man could hold his own intellectually with his white elders. This probably did more to keep me free from the prevailing prejudices of that time than anything someone could say. About this same time, I was reading stories my dad wrote about an unarmed Mexican being beaten to death in a jail cell and no one questioning it. So, I began to suspect that all policemen were not kind.
In the early 1950’s when schools were still segregated my dad was City Editor of the Houston Post in Texas. He wrote an editorial supporting a black candidate for the school board so the black schools would have representation. She didn’t win, but in the wee hours of the night of the election before Dad got home, our doorbell rang and I got half way down the stairs before what sounded like an explosion sent me running back up the stairs. Someone had put a homemade bomb in the foyer of our apartment. It wasn’t as powerful as the ones people make today, but it had enough force that both the confetti packing and slices of sharp pieces of slate stuck in the walls and door. The FBI never found out who did it, but thought it was a response to dad’s editorial. I struggled to understand how anyone could hate so much that they would try to maim or possibly kill someone they didn’t know, who had never done anything to harm them. I was seventeen and my feeling of being safe in my world shattered that night. I had experienced just a tiny bit of how people in minorities feel all their lives. And now, I was reading my dad’s stories about Texas Rangers getting confessions by tying prisoners to heaters so that if they tired and slumped, they would be burned. Obviously, not all law enforcement officers were honest or kind. But some were, because they were giving dad the information.
In 1967, a friend of mine doing volunteer charity work at a hospital rudely refused in front of the parents to carry a tiny black baby to the car and then bragged about it at a party. I was so disgusted, I decided to volunteer as a tutor in one of the black elementary schools. As I tried to help first and second graders with learning disabilities learn to read, I realized that learning to read would not get them jobs other than manual labor in the larger community. So, I began to work as a volunteer at the NAACP headquarters interviewing people for job applications. Then I went back to my own neighborhood and tried to get retail stores to hire some of the people qualified for the work. This was before laws on diversity in hiring. I had absolutely no success getting any of the merchants to hire a black, but I continued to work twice a month at the NAACP headquarters. So, when the poor people’s march on Washington came through Nashville in 1968, I was answering the phone at the NAACP headquarters. The young black men who were activists in SNCC and CORE, which tended to be more aggressive than those with Martin Luther King, Jr, were hanging out in the office waiting for the buses. Their hatred of whites, even those of us trying to help blacks get equal rights, was so scary, I became convinced that we were doomed to have a bloody race war. The thought of what that would be like not only for my own children, but the innocent young children I had tutored, broke my heart. Martin Luther King, Jr. with his faith in Jesus as the Way with His commitment to non-violence saved us from that.
My husband was a very kind and ethical man, but he was influenced growing up in a very Southern environment to be prejudiced. I’m not sure he was comfortable with my activism in the beginning and it did take about seven years for him to decide prejudice was wrong. But once he did, he acted on it by being the first Architecture firm in his home town to hire a young black architect before any diversity laws. And his firm helped with projects of a black owner of an Architecture firm while he was unable to work. To me, it takes a rare combination of intelligence and humility to recognize when you are wrong and true courage to act on that realization in a culture that has not yet accepted it.
Prejudice doesn’t look past the surface. It doesn’t recognize that all races, genders, nationalities, even social levels are diverse within their own group. My husband designed a beautiful home for the president of a black university. The area where the university was located was mixed use. I’m not sure if it was to provide surroundings of beauty or to not rub the comfort and beauty of it in on those who didn’t have either, but they wanted it surrounded by a tall wall that hid the house. Then when protests were getting stronger in the black community the mayor sealed the whole area off. Police and barricades kept everyone black in “their” part of town. Those that had jobs as maids, janitors, movers, construction, whatever, could not get to their jobs. My maid had a college degree. I did not at that time. She worked so she could help pay for their son to go to a Catholic school in their neighborhood. Her husband was so outraged that the peaceful, hardworking, and educated blacks were treated like cattle that could be penned, he insisted that she quit working as a maid in the white neighborhoods. I was taking my oldest son with me when I worked at the NAACP office, but I couldn’t take all four children, so I had to stop working at the NAACP headquarters.
In the past, most blacks have had to develop walls around themselves when in the white community. Walls of stereotypes to not appear threatening, walls that hid individuality, feelings, intelligence, resentment, fear, and vulnerability. A black parent said recently that as soon as their children can understand, they tell them don’t challenge whites. Don’t do or say anything to make them mad. Try not to be noticed. I think it takes a long time and a lot of courage to outgrow that. And sometimes it takes defensive anger to fight the fear of disappearing again. In many jobs such as waiters and maids, blacks were required to be invisible as a person. That’s what white employers required. When my mother visited her extremely wealthy older sister in Richmond, as a kind and friendly person my mother thanked the maid serving dinner. Afterward, her sister informed her that it was not proper to thank the servants. Blacks really were expected to be invisible as people. It takes a lot of anger to get the courage to become visible.
In 1993 when traveling in Europe in Prague, Vienna, and Lucerne, I had to use a wheel chair for walking more than a block or so. In Prague which had been recently freed from Communist rule, I was blocked from getting out of the rain to a covered side walk by middle-aged women who literally hissed angrily at me. In German speaking Lucerne we encountered a taxi driver at the airport, who wouldn’t take us even though he had a large car with a huge trunk for the wheel chair. His rude refusal made the second taxi have to drive over a median to get around him to take us. This wasn’t prejudice against Americans, because when I wasn’t having to use the wheel chair people were friendly. At that time prejudice was so strong against people with handicaps, they were kept in their family’s homes and were never taken out. The only handicapped accessible bathrooms were in the airports and the McDonalds. But, when in the airport on the way home from Lucerne, we and another tourist family with someone in a wheel chair were separated away from the seating area with our families left standing for forty-five minutes until everyone else was on the plane. When we got home, we read of someone in Germany actually winning a $20,000 lawsuit against a hotel for ruining their vacation by allowing a handicapped person to eat in the dining room. I wept each night at being rejected by people who had no idea if I was a kind person, an intelligent person, a talented person, or even a person temporarily hurt in an accident. That’s what prejudice does, it prejudges without knowledge or understanding. I grew up during WWII and became aware of the horrors that Germans inflicted on Jews, gays, and the handicapped, so when experiencing hate based on prejudice by people with Germanic backgrounds in the 1990’s, my own latent prejudice against Germans surfaced. Intellectually, I know that many Germans are kind, good people and some died resisting the Nazis, but I still have to struggle against assuming they are all cruel and hostile toward people different from them.
Prejudice against police is still prejudice. Just like whites or blacks or other groups, most of them are good people having to do an incredibly difficult and hazardous job. But protecting the violent ones with union backed laws that hide their violence until it results in murder and chaos has to stop. That’s the core of the murders of many blacks and can be solved. I am not against unions, I’m against a law that protects the guilty instead of the innocent. As so often happens, a law intended for good, when applied without common sense, becomes used for evil. Power, prejudice, and a violent temperament is an explosive dangerous combination.
Power is a scary and tempting thing. When someone taunts someone with power or challenges their legal authority, it takes certain types of people to resist abusing that power in response. There needs to be a system that instead of protecting those that abuse power, rewards those that don’t. Law and order go hand in hand. And when those, whose job it is to protect the people through upholding the law and maintaining order, break the law, order is destroyed. It is cause and effect. In times of civil unrest, this takes extraordinary character, courage, and self-control. When you need exceptional people, you need to pay them exceptional pay.
An experience I had in a town in Louisiana opened my eyes to the difficulties that come when power changes hands. I flew to a town in Louisiana for my Aunt’s funeral. I wasn’t in a wheel chair, but I needed a walker. I was flying home that evening and my cousin dropped me off at the Airport. My plane was delayed. Eventually, I was the only passenger still waiting there. Every employee was black. I was literally the only white in the airport. The black employees simply ignored me. I got to experience being invisible. Finally, I risked being assertive and learned that the flight was canceled and there were no more flights until noon the next day. No announcement had been made that I heard. And it must have been obvious I didn’t know I was stranded. It was now after eleven at night. I had to call and wake my cousin to come get me. Once again, I got to experience being on the other side of prejudice. I also began to recognize that many towns in the deep South had much larger black populations than most other areas of the country. And shifts in power were happening. While inevitable, that sort of change doesn’t happen without resistance from those used to having the power. The change may be just. It may be karma. It may be Democracy. But it isn’t going to happen without resistance by those used to being in power.
I remember my Dad talking about Houston in the fifties being the murder capital of America. He said that much of it grew out of District Attorneys not prosecuting black against black crimes and Judges often throwing those cases out of court. Blacks were left to settle their own disputes, which they did by violence against one another.
Immigrants settle naturally into their own communities for support, but then competition for influence and affluence leads to fighting between groups. Back when there were times of large influxes of immigrants from Ireland and Italy, they fought as separate groups to gain a foothold in the culture. Blacks struggling for equality and a chance for the American Dream find themselves competing for jobs and acceptance with Latin Americans. Immigrants, whatever country they come from are predominantly from the poor or oppressed who have had to literally fight for survival. In the 1980’s I knew an elderly priest, whose mother had worked as a maid in Boston where prejudice against the “shanty” Irish was widespread and often cruel. He said that each nationality or ethnic group begins to try to work their way up in America through sports. In the early 20th century for the Irish it was boxing, then with Notre Dame University’s “Fighting Irish” it was football. And they brought a survival of the literally strongest and toughest mindset to it. Finesse and strategy may lose to sheer physical strength and aggressiveness learned on the streets where they have had to fight to survive. My Irish priest friend was the first in his family to attend college. He was not only large and strong in body and competitiveness, he also had an inquiring mind. So, eventually as a missionary he started a college in the Philippines that has grown and flourished. Then he became a Scripture Scholar for Vatican II. For the Irish, sports were not the only way up. The priesthood was a way to get an education. I listened recently to an elderly black scholar, who graduated from Harvard before diversity laws, speak about the fact that in the beginning of diversity laws, Harvard accepted blacks with scores of 75 on college entrance tests, a good score for most colleges, but at that time most Harvard students had scores of 100. He wasn’t saying blacks couldn’t do well at Harvard, he had his PhD from there. But at that time this meant the black students had to really struggle to do well and some gave up. Where if they had gone to other good colleges where the competition wasn’t as stiff, they would have been at the top of their classes. Of course, the reality is that without diversity laws and scholarships, because of prejudice, few blacks would have ever gotten a chance to go to college and begin the climb from poverty and the survival of only the physically fittest and aggressive.
The truth is that as long as there is prejudice against a race or nationality, there will be a prejudice for it by liberals. It takes a lot of generations to get to where every person is seen as they actually are individually.
When I began to work as a Director of Religious Education for the Chaplains’ Division on an Army Post, I admit I had some prejudice against the “Military Establishment.” But once I was a part of it, I saw that now that we have both men and women in the military and posts and bases all over the world, our military and their families represent the United Nations! And because the military life is hard on marriages, you can have all sorts of blends racially and ethnically in one family through remarriages in different countries. And on posts or bases there are no ghettos to live in or private schools to set anyone apart. The only real divide is between Officers and Enlisted. Working with the military gave me more hope for the possibility of world peace than I’d ever had.
But it also made me aware of my own prejudice FOR some groups. I was going with one of my volunteers to get her teen-age son out of the stockade. He’d done something silly, not serious, but her husband was overseas, so I was being support for her. As we were sitting in the waiting room, four white MP’s came in roughly manhandling a very muscular black soldier who was dragging heavy chains with manacles on both wrists and ankles. I immediately felt sorry for the black soldier and felt the chains were over-kill. But when I got back to work, the gentle, pretty eighteen-year-old private that worked in our office was there sobbing. She was a committed Christian, who had become so depressed by the cursing and fighting in her barracks that she had hiked down the busy highway while it was still daylight to spend the night in a motel to pray and have some peace. That morning, she was hiking back in the dark to be at roll call at dawn. There was very little traffic and she had been attacked and raped at knife point in the ditch along the highway. Her attacker was the soldier I had seen in chains. He had fled over a fence back onto the post when a trucker spotted them and slowed down. But in fleeing he left his wallet behind, so he was caught. I could only hold her and cry with her. The army immediately transferred her to another post in another part of the country. The soldier, who had been high on drugs, was sent to another post for trial.
Assuming anything either for or against a person based just on race, gender, nationality, or even religion is simply unreliable. There are wonderful and horrible people in every group. And let’s face it, the large majority of us in any group could be worse, we can also grow more caring and compassionate.