I don’t remember how old I was when I first rode a New Orleans bus. I do remember the sign. One side read “White Only,” the other “Colored Only.”
I suppose there were two ways for a child to understand a designation like that: It’s just the natural way of things, or something is fundamentally wrong. Later, when I watched on television the fire hoses and attack dogs forcing blacks away from lunch counters, and later still, when I saw the faces of angry whites screaming at young black children who were integrating their schools, there seemed only one way for me to feel about that race screen on the bus.
By the time I read of the murder of Medgar Evers, the three civil rights workers, Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner, and the news of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, I had already become what is spat out as an epithet today: liberal.
I was a Liberal simply by observing that, throughout all of it, there was only one institution in the Deep South that made any attempt at administering justice, if not equality and fairness. That institution was the federal government. It was hardly successful, but there was a persistence that, for all its failures, suggested that someday it could all be made right. That hope is why I became a Liberal, and why I remain one.
In college I marched when we learned that one of our black classmates was refused service at an all-white neighborhood bar. We carried signs that read, “There’s a bigot at the spigot.” Then we learned in talking to the bar owner that he sincerely believed the clientele that kept his business going would never accept even one black in his bar. I learned he was simply a businessman, not necessarily a bigot. That didn’t make things right, but it did make them real.
I eventually came to see race relations as a matter of education and, ultimately, wisdom, rather than a moral absolute. After all, it was a moral absolute of a different sort that got those civil rights workers, leaders and Dr. King killed in the first place.
Had that bar owner found a way to convince his patrons that allowing blacks would increase profits and keep prices down, for instance, his business would clearly grow. That’s a matter of intelligence, of education, of a practical wisdom that teaches that getting along is just good business.
I’m a Liberal not because I believe I occupy some elite moral ground, but because I believe the more we educate ourselves, the more practical wisdom we can express, the better we become at creating a fair and just society. Yes, I also possess a practical wisdom that understands government can screw up a one-car funeral, but that calls for persistence and commitment, not the absolute of believing government is by definition incompetent, if not inherently evil.
The continuing improvement in race relations is an accurate measure of how much wisdom we have achieved, just as mounting tensions in those relations are an accurate metric of a slide backward and into ignorance. Should we think the anathema with which President Obama is being held in some quarters has nothing to do with race and that backslide into ignorance, we need to think again. Nothing regarding race in this country can be assured without constant vigilance, education and wisdom.
Reid Champagne’s usual brand of sophomoric humor will return in full force next month.