I was in high school when the Civil Rights movement swept through my hometown of Nashville, Tennessee in the early 1960s.
In my memory, I was largely oblivious.
This is the story I tell myself when I’m feeling ashamed about that: I was a privileged country-club brat who was waited on by maids and servers and golf caddies and I didn’t even notice their plight.
This is the story I tell myself when I’m feeling a little more charitable: I didn’t really fit in at the country club. I mostly played golf with my dad, or alone. The black headwaiter, Cooper, liked me enough to sneak me sweet rolls the size of catcher’s mitts. A caddy who was close to my age, Sammy, liked me enough to relieve me of a good many quarters by making long putts into a soup can on the hard-packed dirt of the caddy yard. Pap, the white-haired, dark-skinned caddy master, liked me enough to let me fish with him at five thirty in the morning in the creek that ran through the golf course and the neighborhoods of my paper route.
The truth is somewhere, lost in memory and my slowish moral awakening. I was feral in those days. Working for spending money, going to school, sparring with my father. I knew a lot of black folks, and liked them, but somehow I didn’t understand their lives. My only excuse, I suppose, is that in those days I didn’t even understand my own.
When I went to college, my new best friends were card-carrying C.O.R.E. members. They had been Freedom Riders that summer. That was the beginning of awareness for me. Still, it has been a long time coming.
New York Times columnist Margaret Renkl, a Nashvillian herself, says Nashville likes to tell itself that it peacefully accepted integration. Not really, she says, in her review of a photo exhibit of the time titled “We Shall Overcome.” I ordered the book. It will do me good, even all these years later, to see now what I didn’t see then.
But this is more than history. We’re at it again. And while I may have been oblivious to the plight of blacks in the South in the fifties and sixties, I understood the white Southern man very well. They weren’t all Deliverance rednecks, but there was an authoritarian entitlement about them that was generous and kind at its best and venal and brutal at its worst. That streak ran up and down the income scale.
That’s the kind of man we are dealing with today. He’s wounded, but he’s not dead yet, and he’s dangerous. The Randy Newman song “Shame” has these lines: “My father, he was an angry man. You cross him, he made you pay.”
My father was like that. I’m not sure it’s fair to call him angry—he was as charming as they come most of the time—but he was quick to anger. When I, or anyone, crossed him, he made us pay.
That’s the man we have in the White House now. That’s many of the Republican men in Congress. I may not have understood blacks when I was eighteen, but I knew those men. I understood them. I knew them well enough to know the best thing I could do was get away from them.
So I can tell you with complete confidence, we need to get away from them now. Or, more precisely, get them away from us. They’re dangerous. If we cross them, they’ll make us pay.
Don’t wait for the next rage attack, the one that might put not just our constitution at risk but our lives. They’re a lot of nukes in unstable hands these days, including ours.
Don’t sit around thinking someone else is going to solve the problem. It’s up to us. Thankfully, there is something we can do that is both easy and effective.