Recently, someone suggested that I was a racist. The charge came, of course, from someone I do not know, who disagreed with something I said in an article, and who sent a comment to the newspaper anonymously.
I am a child of the South. I remember the segregated school systems, separate water fountains, separate entrances at the movie theater, and the segregated seating on public transportation. I also remember our high school being integrated in the fall of 1966 and black and whites playing on the same sports teams for the first time in history. So I know something about the way things used to be.
I turned 59 a few weeks ago and this was the first time in my life anyone ever insinuated that I was a racist. At first I was amused. Then I was sorrowful — not that an anonymous person who refused to sign their name would express such an opinion — but that such a damnable charge can be leveled against anyone for any reason without any substantiation.
One of the black football players who became part of the Dobyns-Bennett High School football team was named “Freeman.” I once asked him why he was named “Freeman.” He said, “If you don’t know, you probably wouldn’t understand.”
He was right. I didn’t — at that time anyway. Black history was not routinely taught except for notables like George Washington Carver and Frederick Douglass.
I wouldn’t know until much later that the first casualty of the Revolutionary War was an escaped slave who died fighting for the nation’s independence. I wouldn’t really begin to understand until the marches in Selma, Birmingham, and in other places were televised and we could see for ourselves the treatment the marchers received — dogs being set on peaceful marchers, women and children being blown down by powerful fire hoses, grandmothers being clubbed by white police officers — it was there for all to see.
I remember hearing the “I Have a Dream” speech and being moved by the passion and the powerful words. And when Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in my own state of Tennessee, something changed in nearly every person I knew. We knew racism was not confined to the pre-Civil War days and that it was ugly, unrighteous, and unacceptable. We could see it on television and that helped us to see it in more subtle ways in our own communities …and in our own hearts.
A few years ago when I served as a hospice chaplain, I visited with a black woman in her 80s. Over the course of the next few months, she told me about her life. Without any anger or rancor, she shared about long-ago days of being on the receiving end of bigotry in Coweta County. How blacks had to walk to school because the buses were for the white kids, how black children would be spanked if caught playing with their white friends, and how white girls would be referred to as “Miss Julia” while black girls were just “Julia.” How white youths who turned 18 would be “Mr. Smith” and black men, even elderly men, would be called by their first name — even by white children. And worse, much worse.
One day, grieving for her in my heart, I said to her, “Mrs. Smith,” (not her real name) “I am so, so sorry.”
Surprised, she said, “Why, son, there’s nothing to be sorry for! You didn’t do anything. Besides, folks just didn’t know any better back then.” Then smiling, she added, “And, Lord knows, it’s much, much better now!”
Yes, it is. Even I know that. Perhaps, that’s why I was so saddened when this blog writer threw out such an accusation. Only those who know me and know my heart, especially those who are “of color,” can judge whether the charge has any validity.
But to blithely and ignorantly call someone a racist because they simply don’t agree with some political or social view is to demean all those who truly suffered under the cruel hand of oppressive segregation and overt bigotry. It is to deny the gains that have been made and the high price that has been paid by so many. It is to fail to recognize that men and women, of all races, have risked their lives and livelihoods to crush the evil of inequality.
May God grant that the evil of racism — in every heart, regardless of color — be so stamped out so that when we see each other we fail to even notice the color of their skin.
[David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King (www.ctkcec.org.) 4881 Hwy. 34 E., Sharpsburg, GA 30277, between Peachtree City and Newnan. Services are held Sundays at 8:30 and 10 a.m. He is also the bishop of the Mid-South Diocese (www.midsouthdiocese.org). He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.]