Reading The New York Times today, especially regarding my adopted state of South Carolina’s ongoing battle to heal after last week’s mass murder, I note that our governor, Nikki Haley, “…finds herself in a familiar place: somewhere between the Southern binary of black and white” (Fausset, “SC Governor Points to Personal Reasons, Not Politics, For Shift on Confederate Flag,” NY Times, June 23, 2015). A native of Alabama, I’ve lived my entire life in that binary, almost sixty years. I think of myself as open-minded, progressive, sensitive. I married a woman from Iran, a non-religious, westernized woman who, according to family stories, might also be half-Jewish, like me.
When I told two friends of mine that I had married, they asked what it was “like to be married to one of those sand-niggers.” Sometimes friendships end gradually over time, over trivial things, but sometimes only two words can destroy what built over a lifetime.
After last week’s mass murder, states across the country are looking into removing the most popular incarnation of the Confederate flag from government grounds, state flags, license plates, Wal-Marts, Amazon.com, Target, and even NASCAR. Our South Carolina legislature, at Gov. Haley’s request, has voted overwhelmingly not to remove the flag from capitol grounds, but rather to consider doing so. The flag found itself flying from the dome of the capitol building back in 1962, which according to its proponents was simply a 100-year commemoration of the beginning of the Civil War, although most of us recognize that the war started in 1861, but what’s a year or two when it comes to remembering? Others believe the flag had been waving from that space ever since South Carolina seceded from the union. Neither group knows our history well and maybe doesn’t recognize either what was occurring here and throughout the South in 1962, and why some people wanted to raise the flag exactly then.
Raising the flag of the Confederacy during the midst of the Civil Rights struggle, especially when it looked clear that public schools would finally have to get around to de-segregating, sent a clear and dramatic message, one that back then did include the “N-word” both in public and private space.
Even after integration became the rule, leading to the establishment across the southern landscape of segregationist academies, that word and that flag were invoked and waved regularly by people I knew. In this era—the 1960’s and 70’s—you might get looked at funny if you didn’t put your hand over your heart and sing our national anthem at high school football games. But if you didn’t sing “Dixie” or join in the popular but supposedly unofficially sanctioned waving of the “Stars and Bars,” you might want to watch your eyes for fists or spittle, depending on how well you knew your “friends.”
Until I was seven, I had one of those flags nailed across my bedroom wall. Maybe it just seems so big to me after all these years, but I swear it was four by six feet long. I had a set of plastic Confederate soldiers, too, and some Civil War trading cards. The one I remember best was a depiction of Stonewall Jackson mistakenly being shot and killed by his own men, a turning point in the war and one I learned to lament as a little boy.
Though these images are never far from my mind, they were brought to the forefront last week in a column by Tuscaloosa, Alabama, sportswriter Cecil Hurt, reflecting on Charleston and history. Invoking his own high school years attending Butler High in Huntsville, Alabama, Hurt remembered scenes of football games and other such revelry. He remembered, too, that Butler High’s nickname was “The Rebels,” and that their mascot was the same Colonel Reb figure who glides down the sidelines at Ole Miss games. Hurt expressed shame at his younger self, lamented this history, and then clearly called for the Confederate flag to be removed from the South Carolina capitol grounds.
I am a member of the Tuscaloosa News’ Rivals.com Alabama Sports football forum, AKA, “The Talk of Champions.” After Hurt’s column, members began weighing in. The first ten, including myself, praised the column, citing it as one of Cecil’s best, and agreeing that the flag should come down. Then came one saying he should “stick to writing about what he knows.” Over 100 replies later, we have covered the war, state’s rights, grandparents who fought, the Scopes Monkey trial, and possibly a memory or two of being attacked for being white.
I wish I could say that this series of responses was one of Alabama’s finer moments: a time and place where reasonable people gathered to discuss a sensitive topic. But it wasn’t and of course, when it comes to discussing race or memory or certainly the Confederate flag in Alabama or elsewhere in the South, it usually isn’t, and perhaps never was.
When I entered high school in 1970, I walked through the doors of newly built Jess Lanier High, named after the then current mayor of Bessemer, himself a George Wallace man. This new school was conceived by the city fathers as an attempt to keep the children on the western end of Bessemer at a neighborhood school. The children in the western end of town, coincidentally, were predominantly white. This strategy worked for that first year. I’d guess that the racial divide was something like 75% white, 25% black in that year.
My family lived just inside the eastern border of that zone, so though Abrams High, an all-Black school that never saw a white student before or after busing, was closer by half, I attended JLHS all four years, part of the first class to matriculate fully from the new school. I’ve wondered what we would have done had the line been drawn a block further east. Unlike my friend Randy, who did live on the other side of that demarcated line, I had no relatives whose address would stand in for my home. I doubt my family would have moved, as some did, but I’m betting that somehow we would have greased those district wheels so that those other wheels running through town on regular schedules would pass me by.
District courts are funny bodies; some don’t notice a thing, and others see all. The district court incorporating Bessemer, however, was one of the latter in that year, so by 1971, it ordered black kids to be bused wholesale across town, often arriving at JLHS as early as 6:30 am. Though the black-white ratio swung closer to 50-50, the one dominant hairstyle that second year and the years following was the Afro. Big, glorious Afros worn by girls and guys, the only difference being that the guys often had combs in their back pockets whose handles formed an impressive black fist.
Oddly, or maybe not given what football means down south, the great unifier became the school’s football team. At pep rallies and games, the crowd kept its segregation to itself, meaning that one area was silently consigned to whites, another for blacks. There were threats of fights that first year at gym and stadium alike, but after the first few games and threats, student body president Rodney Murrell spoke to our assembled body: “Our team could be really good this year, but we’ll come up short unless we recognize that none of this would be possible without Ricky Davis throwing touchdown passes to Ronnie Nelson.”
Ricky Davis was white; Ronnie Nelson, black. Ronnie had been the quarterback at Abrams High the year before. After he transferred to Lanier, he graciously accepted the position of flanker. When Rodney Murrell mentioned Davis’s name, everyone white in the gym cheered, and when he mentioned Nelson’s name, everyone black did the same.
Of course this seemed at first to exacerbate the problem. In that way more subtle points creep into us while we sleep, many of us realized on that Friday night that when our team, the Purple Tigers, scored and we went into crowd-induced frenzies, we were cheering for all, black and white.
I know that probably most in the stands on the night after that apocryphal pep rally cheered in their hearts and minds only for their racial brother. Still, by year’s end, Jess Lanier High, in its inaugural season, posted a 7-2-1 record, beating its crosstown rival, the Hueytown Golden Gophers (who would later boast Jameis Winston as a star) in the process. The combo Davis to Nelson proved the key to winning those games, and don’t tell me that in our secret hearts, many of us didn’t clap and yell for each.
Yet up in our stands was a group of white guys, the self-anointed “bleacher bums.” They wore khaki-green GI jackets, smoked Marlboros, and claimed to be tougher than anyone on the football team. I know this because I rode to school every day with one of these bums, a guy who’s still a good friend of mine and who in so many ways has repented his high school ways.
One of these “ways,” unfortunately, was that for every game, the Bums brought an outrageously large Confederate flag and waved it when the Purple Tigers scored, and often when we didn’t. At least once every game, they’d also break out into a rollicking rendition of “Dixie.”
This of course was not harmless fun, and I believe that many of these bums hoped that their actions would lead to a fight, one that would show “them” their place. Deep in their GI coat pockets, the bleacher bums were ready.
I cannot know now how their actions are remembered, how everyone was affected by seeing that flag and its defiance.
I do know that our flag-waving bums cared nothing about history or heritage except of that formerly segregated place, and of who once controlled whom. Now the bearers of said flag wanted that history and space returned to them, and they learned to want this not in any school curriculum, but where most teaching moments truly occur. At home, the place where “nigger” might be uttered openly and not just callously or venomously, but worse: off-handedly, as one might utter the word “barbecue.”
Of course, in my childhood I heard it venomously too, as in “Kennedy is a nigger-lover,” or “Look at those niggers run,” the latter utterance spoken by our neighbors down the street whose dog, “Blackie” was clearly into racist threats.
Despite all of my own parents’ admonitions against using or thinking this word, this era might have been easier on me had our family not employed a black woman, our maid Dissie, and had I not only loved her, but her nephew Billy and granddaughter Juanita too. Billy played football with me in our backyard—never of course in the front—and we all cried when Billy was drafted into the Viet Nam war. ‘Nita played baseball with my brother and me and ran faster than us. For a time, she came to our house almost every Saturday to play. I loved those times.
Billy was ten years older than me and so our school days did not overlap. But when I was a junior at Lanier, ‘Nita entered as a freshman.
Though tensions had slightly decreased at school, we were still socialized against speaking a friendly hello to members of the opposite race when we passed them in the hall. That, however, is what ‘Nita and I did, shyly but clearly. I don’t know if her friends gave her any trouble for doing so, but no one said anything to me.
I lost touch with ‘Nita for several decades, but a few years ago we found each other again, mainly because as I related this story to my students, they asked about her and encouraged, if not guilted me, to find her. It turned out that she had been looking for me too. We text often now, and I see her when I return to Bessemer several times a year.
I haven’t seen her since Dylan Roof terrorized the people of Charleston, and so many more of us. She remembers our high school days as well as I do. She’s told me about some of her friends, and many of our former teachers who had affairs back then with students, or who have died recently. She remembers the day that most black students staged a walkout, protesting the school’s discriminatory treatment. I had forgotten that, but then, as a white student, it didn’t affect me in the way it would have her.
I asked her about that flag, though, and how she felt at the football games when it was so ceremoniously waved by my redneck friends.
“I don’t remember that,” she says. “I guess it happened before I started attending games.”
I didn’t ask her about the other educational action of that time: the founding of the segregationist, private school, Bessemer Academy. If you view BA’s website, you’ll note its history:
“In 1970, a small group of parents met to share their dreams for a new school in Bessemer that would better meet the needs of their children. They were committed to building a school where children could receive a challenging curriculum within a framework of traditional values.”
So what were the traditional values of 1970? Mothers staying at home while fathers worked outside? Families going to a segregated church every Sunday? Teenagers sitting at a downtown lunch counter only with other white people?
All kids attending separate but [un]equal schools?
As you read BA’s history, you’ll also note that the first headmaster “walked down the hall of the little red school house that was located on Old Tuscaloosa Highway, ringing a dinner bell for class changes. At the end of the 1970 – 1971 school year, the 116 students of the Bessemer Academy Tigers were making history.”
Making history in the form of his students being taught in classrooms that were formerly old chicken coops, as my friends who went there related to me.
You’ll also find that the original Bessemer Academy nickname was “The Tigers.” But somewhere in those early years, that nickname changed.
To “The Rebels.”
I think all of us in Bessemer received this message, too, loudly and clearly.
To be fair, I never went to a Bessemer Academy Rebels football game, so I don’t know if, like my friends the bleacher bums, anyone officially or unofficially hoisted a Confederate flag. But then, given the all-white crowds at those games, they didn’t need to.
For most of their years there, my BA friends were taught in an unaccredited school. I know that in their Spanish class, they were not taught that adjectives come after their nouns. They laughed, for instance, when I called our KFC fries, “Papas Fritas,” one Sunday evening at our church youth group supper.
“Potatoes fried?” they asked in their derision.
Yes. Potatoes fried.
And coops chicken to avoid becoming mongrelized. And Rebels Bessemer Academy so that you can feel bad and good and all those things in between.
So you can stay white. Date white, procreate white.
And so that two of your “traditional valued” students can call my wife a sand-nigger to my face.
Today Bessemer Academy is racially mixed. I don’t know the year BA first integrated or how that decision was made. Jess Lanier High died a few years ago, replaced by a new school named Bessemer City, harkening back to the pre-JLHS days when there was a Bessemer High. Only now, of course, Bessemer City High is predominantly black, whereas Bessemer High through the late 60’s was wholly white.
I hear now that racism in America is not institutionalized, but such pronouncements are coming mainly, if not exclusively, from white people. I don’t know where these people were in 1970, what they experienced or what they remember. I also see now that old friends on my Facebook site are lamenting the assault on "all things Southern.”
But I’m not seeing where these same old friends are decrying the fact that a boy who is legally an adult, can get a gun, can wrap himself in a Confederate flag and blow away nine black people worshiping in their church. If they remark this atrocity at all, it’s to say that Dylan Roof’s problem is an isolated one, that he’s a lone wolf, that his acts were “only deranged,” that he’s “only evil.”
I don’t disagree that he’s crazy and evil.
But I grew up in an era where crazy was an institution called “freedom of choice,” which back then meant, “We want to send our kids to schools with only those of their own kind.”
And I grew up in an era where evil was what our institution did to black people.
Still, in the binary I’ve always lived in, I haven’t always hated the Confederate flag. I learned to hate it in 1961 and ’62, when it was invoked by former Birmingham Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Conner in his campaign for Mayor. Every TV commercial featuring Conner began with “Dixie” playing and that flag waving. When we first saw these ads my Daddy uttered a word I’d never heard before, a long word incorporating the name of our deity.
What if my Daddy had loved Conner and George Wallace? What if he had condoned all those bombings in Birmingham? Where would I be today and what would I be thinking, writing?
I suppose Dylan Roof wasn’t as lucky as me. He has grown up in an era when white people claim their values are being assaulted by the government and the liberal media. He has heard his president, Barack Obama, referred to as a “tyrant;" as someone without an American birth certificate; as a Moslem; and, if you look just a bit harder and listen just a bit more attentively, as what people with President Obama’s skin color have always been called in our America.