“Not since the Civil War has our country been more divided.”
That exaggerated claim appears occasionally in social media. It’s not true, of course, because we are not forming factional armies and going to war with one another. At least not yet.
But it is certainly true that the issues of the Civil War never went away. There are still Southerners who believe the war was fought over states’ rights, not slavery. And as Bryan Stevenson, civil rights lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative points out, slavery never really went away anyway. It just evolved. For millions of persons of color, equal justice and equal opportunity are empty words.
It seems to me that white racists who hid in the shadows during the Obama years have now erupted in the national soil like jimsonweed. They sense their natural tendencies to hate persons other than themselves will be sanctioned by followers of the current president, and that if they act on those hatreds they can count on the president’s approval.
They may be right. I think it’s patently obvious that the president is a racist, even if he has to try to hide it from the 60 percent of U.S. voters who are appalled by him.
But the odd thing about racism is that racists tend to think everyone shares their prejudices. They think their hate of the other is the most natural thing in the world.
American racism is certainly not restricted to the south but it takes on a special flavor there.
My own encounter with the Jim Crow south took place a half century ago. I had just returned to my native land after three years as an Air Force chaplain’s assistant in England. I stopped by South Carolina to see one of the chaplains I had worked for before reporting to my new assignment at McConnell Air Force Base, Kans.
The first thing the chaplain did was take me to Sunday services at a small white Southern Baptist Church near Sumter, S.C. The visit was memorable, at least for me, because the pastor – also white – kept punctuating his sermons with “wise words” from “an old n—– preacher.” He used an exaggerated Joel Chandler Harris accent to complete the effect.
Perhaps he was making the point that wise sayings are not racially exclusive, but I told the chaplain I was shocked to hear the ‘n’ word used from a pulpit.
“Aw, everyone uses it here, both colored people and white people,” he explained. “It doesn’t mean anything.”
The next day, the chaplain and I decided to take a trip from Sumter to Charleston, where a mutual friend Bentwaters/Woodbridge was waiting to take us to lunch. We invited a staff sergeant friend of the chaplain’s to join us and hopped into a cavernous Chevy wagon for the three-hour drive to Charleston.
Even in February, the South Carolina countryside was beautiful and the chaplain and I began telling the sergeant diverting tales of our last assignment in rural England. After an hour, the car engine began to gasp and the chaplain pulled off the road.
“Out of gas,” he said. We were in the middle of nowhere, a long way between Sumter and Charleston.
“I have an old gas can in the back,” the chaplain said. “When was the last time we passed a gas station?”
“I think there was one back there,” the sergeant said, gesturing down the long road we had just traveled.
The chaplain got out of the car to retrieve the gas can and handed it to me. Military life simplifies many decisions, and the fact that both my companions outranked me made it obvious that I would volunteer to buy the gas.
“Wait here,” I said, stressing the irony. And I took the can to the side of the road and stuck out my thumb.
Even in bucolic South Carolina in the sixties, a hitchhiking stranger was suspicious and several speeding cars ignored my honest white face.
Finally, a beige Lincoln Continental pulled over. The driver was a large, middle-aged white man wearing a crisp blue blazer and a Stetson hat like Boss Hogg’s. The man was smoking a large cigar, “Where to, Son?” he asked, stifling a wheeze.
“Ran out of gas,” I said. “Can you take me to the nearest gas station?”
“Hop in,” he said. The man tossed his cigar out the window and pressed his dashboard lighter against another one.
“We see a lot of GIs in these parts,” he said, although I was in civilian clothes and had not mentioned I was an airman. I sat quietly as he reminisced between drags on his cigar and raspy wheezes about his own service in Texas during the Second World War.
“Never fired a goddamn shot,” he said.
As his anecdotes unfolded, I noticed a gas station ahead and was a little surprised when he passed it. Trying to keep the conversation going, I told him why I was in South Carolina and where I was headed. He nodded attentively and sped passed a second gas station on the right hand side. I rustled the gas can in my lap to remind him of my mission.
When we surged past a third gas station I pointed it out to him. The man coughed wetly. “Yeh,” he said. “Well, shit, Son, those is n—–r garages.”
Obviously, he intended the explanation to suffice. Soon he pulled into a gas station that had his approval and I jumped out.
I filled the can and went back to the road to stick out my thumb. Immediately, a battered pick-up pulled over and I jumped in. The driver was a black man wearing a cloth cap and overalls.
“Thanks for stopping, Sir,” I said. “My car is down the road a few miles.”
The man nodded and the transmission grated loudly as he put the truck in gear. He didn’t say much, but he smiled when we passed the first gas station that I had obviously spurned.
When we passed the second, I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. When we passed the third, I feigned good humor and said, “Almost there.”
“Yes, Sir,” the driver drawled.
When we pulled up to the stranded car, the chaplain and sergeant were engaged in quiet conversation. They didn’t notice the driver of the truck who had delivered their gas to them.
“Let me give you something for your trouble,” I told the driver as I fumbled for my wallet.” “No, Sir,” the driver said, adding inscrutably, “Angels unawares. Angels unawares.” And the truck’s muffler popped loudly as he eased onto the highway.
I told the chaplain and the sergeant what had happened, but they soon lost interest in my account and changed the subject.
It was my first encounter with the Jim Crow south, and it stayed on my mind all my life.
And I wonder: has life in the American south changed in fifty years?
Or have old times there never been forgotten?