Reflections on Martin Luther King’s Birthday

My dad grew up in the South in a small town called Lancaster, the deepest, darkest backwaters of South Carolina.  He attended the Citadel for college, alma mater to Robert E. Lee, the civil war general.  Founded in 1843, Citadel graduates fired the first shots in the Civil War.  A rigorous military school, academically comparable to our national military academies, the Citadel was not a bastion of progressive thought.

citadel-campus-charleston
Citadel Campus
plantation home
Similar to my grandmother’s home

My ancestors, I am not proud to say were the plantation owners who came from England  in the 18th century.  English gentry, 2nd sons without land establishing large successful plantations based on slavery.  My sister and I can still remember visiting my grandmother, Daisy, who lived to be 102.  She owned a large plantation home, a replica of “Gone with the Wind”.  The plantation land had been sold by the time we arrived in the 1950’s to visit.  But her home and surrounding plot was still a compound with a family duplex built in back.  Sections of the house had been walled off so her black maid could have a place to live.  A big white mansion had screened front porches for sleeping during the muggy southern summers and large fans throughout because it had no air conditioning.  The rooms were huge with high ceilings. We never saw the kitchen, hidden somewhere in the back.  The black maid accommodated our food needs.

When we visited our relatives in Lancaster, we could have been dropped into the book, “The Help”.  Silent black women dressed in soft pastels with white aprons would appear and take our orders for sweet tea or Coca-cola.   As small kid from Wyoming,  I found being waited on and sitting quietly in a fussy dress while adults conversed around me quite bizarre and uncomfortable.

We drove to the south whenever we visited. Days of traveling on endless turnpikes with visits to historical monuments and battle fields.  I remember asking my mom, “Why are there signs saying whites only and colored on the bathrooms.”  Her response, “We don’t do that in the West.”  Not exactly an answer but I  got the message that this was not a way to live. 

My mom and dad were like, the current royals, Megan and Harry.  Dad met my mom in Wyoming when he was stationed at Warren Army base. He was smitten and wrote her throughout the war.  They married right afterwards. Dad joined the family business in Lancaster taking mom far from her western roots.  They lived in the duplex on the compound.  Mom used to describe black people lined up to pay their rent every Friday outside my Grandfather’s bank.  She did not approve of making money on the backs of poor black families. My dad was a partner in the family department store, the only one in Lancaster. Dad took his funds out of the family business and moved west.  I think because mother couldn’t stand the genteel standards of the southern women and the inherent racism in the town.  But in fairness to my Dad, the war had changed him.  He had fought with men of many different races and traveled the world eventually being stationed in India.

My sister and I were born and grew up in Wyoming, certainly not a bastion of progressive thought.  Yet, my sister and I are both liberal Democrats. We have seen and experienced racism as an ingrained culture.  We know what it’s like to be dropped, like Alice in Wonderland, into a world that is very different than our own.  We both have adopted children of different nationalities.  We have traveled the world and been open to new experiences.  The seething, undercurrents of racism in the 1950’s in the south have stayed with me always.  I don’t want to use restrooms delineated by color or belong to organizations that exclude entire groups of people.  I believe in welcoming all into our churches.

Martin Luther King Day reminds me of my upbringing.  I know he had a tremendous cultural and social battle to wage.  Unfortunately, that struggle continues.

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