When my Mom was growing up in Jackson, Mississippi in the nineteen twenties, her public high school was next to the one Catholic Church and school. She believed that the nuns wore headdresses to cover their horns. Most of the Catholics in Jackson were immigrants from countries in Eastern Europe that she had never heard of. And their languages seemed strange and scary to her, as were any Blacks that she didn’t know. She ended up with a job in New Orleans and married to a Catholic newspaperman, who also happened to be a strong advocate for integration. She was a naturally kind person who cared about people, so she gradually adopted my Dad’s way of thinking. Though she remained Methodist, she was one of the most active mothers in my Catholic school and became great friends with the nun that taught me in first grade. But when my Dad went away in the army in the nineteen forties, Mom and I went to live with her parents back in Jackson. I went to a public grade school near by. As a new and very scared second grader, I experienced everyone in the school gathering in the gym and being separated into groups by religion. I have no idea why. But out of several hundred children, I was the only Catholic. Not a comfortable experience for an eight year old child.
In the mid-nineteen-fifties, my Dad, now a newspaper editor in Houston, Texas, endorsed the first black to run for a position on the school board. The schools were still separate, but the black schools had never had any representation. Late on the night of the election, the entry hall to our apartment was bombed. The bomb was primitive, but strong enough to make sharp pieces of slate and even the confetti packing all stick in the door and walls. Fortunately, I stopped on the way downstairs to answer the door when the bell rang. It was long after midnight and my dad wasn’t home from covering the election yet, so I stopped half way down just as the bomb went off.
In the sixties, now living in my husband’s home town of Nashville, Tennessee, one of my social friends proclaimed furiously and proudly that as a hospital volunteer, she had refused to carry a black baby out to the car that day. She had done this right in front of the parents. I was horrified that a Christian mother with a college degree would be so cruel. So, I decided to volunteer at a black grade school as a tutor for children having trouble reading . As I grew fond of these delightful small children, I began to consider how limited their future would be, even if they learned to read. So, I joined the NAACP and worked in their offices trying to find employment for blacks in the white community. I happened to be working there on the day the Poor People’s March on Washington came through Nashville. Young blacks, who were in the more extreme Black Protest movements, came through the office where I was working that day. They obviously hated whites and made sure I was very aware of that. I went home stricken by my experiences of the extremes of hatred between the races. How could we avoid a bloody race war? But God sent Martin Luther King, Jr. and his message of non-violent protest. Thanks to him and many other brave Christian Blacks, we live in a different world now and my grandchildren have friends of all colors.
In the early seventies, my husband and I and our five children moved to a very rural area of middle Tennessee. One day, as I came into the little neighborhood grocery that had chairs around a potbellied stove, I overheard one of the men sitting there say, “Yep, If someone hadn’t of killed those Kennedys, we’d have a Pope running our country now and those Catholics you think are your friends would be killin’ us in our beds.” No one argued the point.
Don’t assume that because you are a law abiding white middle class American, you will never experience prejudice.
In the eighties, I had to use a wheelchair because there was no medicine yet for a condition that made walking excruciatingly painful for my feet. About that time, one of our sons went to work for an airline that allowed him to take us abroad for only the tax on tickets. So, we began years of traveling with the challenge of me in a wheel chair. America had already become mostly handicapped accessible, so we were not really prepared for the differences in Europe. In many countries the only accessible bathrooms were in a McDonalds’. In the German speaking part of Switzerland, in Vienna, Austria, and in the Czech Republic we met with open hostility. And the hostility was not just from skin heads. In Prague, when trying to get across a road in the rain and onto an awning covered side walk, wide enough for a wheelchair and other people to walk, several middle-aged, middle class looking women standing together chatting, not only wouldn’t move even slightly to let us get out of the rain, but one scowling, turned and literally hissed at me. I cried that night. I considered myself a kind middle class woman of reasonably pleasant appearance. Why would someone hate me without even knowing me. We learned it wasn’t because we were Americans. Now that the communists were gone, the Czechs were welcoming westerners with open arms. But until that year those with any kind of handicap had been kept inside, sometimes in attics.The new President’s wife was just starting a campaign to help them become an accepted part of the society. Shortly after we returned to America, we read that a German family had sued a restaurant in Germany for allowing a handicapped person to be seated where they were visible to others. They claimed that having to see this person while they ate ruined their vacation. The saddest part is that the court agreed and they were awarded $20,000.
Don’t assume if you are a liberal Democrat, that you aren’t prejudiced.
My assumptions about my lack of prejudice were knocked silly when I was substitute teaching a seventh grade English class in my small rural town. I called on a young black man and just stood there speechless with my mouth hanging open when he answered in an upper class British accent using four and five syllable words, that I had actually never spoken, only read. I had been totally unaware of my preconceptions, because of my limited experience.
I realized that I had some prejudice against Germans from WWII and years of movies and books about the Holocaust. Though I knew not all Germans agreed or participated in persecuting the Jews, I had not read of many Germans that risked their own their lives for them, except the Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, author of the book The Cost of Discipleship. At first, my experiences in Europe reinforced my prejudice. But, when reflecting back on the many experiences of kindness and generosity by Germans, Austrians, and Czech’s while in their countries, I realized I was focusing on a minority because of my long unchallenged prejudice.
We can and will survive our current fears and prejudices, if we commit to working toward a better America for all people, including both whites and blacks, who cannot afford college or have different gifts more suited to vocational education and also for immigrants seeking sanctuary for their children from wars not of their choosing.