I’m not proud of having been a young racist. I’d have had a better excuse if I had been a teenage werewolf, but I can’t blame prejudice on genetics.
I could blame it on lots of things. In the time and place of my childhood and adolescence, I didn’t know anyone who wasn’t a racist, so far as I could tell. I went to a segregated school. When I saw black people, they were generally walking on the side of the road (few of them owning vehicles) or gathering around the one store in town that would offer them credit. When I heard others refer to Martin Luther King, Jr. as a troublemaker who ought to leave well enough alone, I believed them — I was among those who had it well enough.
I learned the “n” word in the same way I learned “banana” and “football.” I could blame it on my culture, but am nagged by the knowledge that I should have known instinctively that it was wrong. I can remember feeling sorry for the janitor, who had to drink from a cup when using the water fountain lest his lips touch the same spout that white children would later slobber over. There was a tweak of conscience there, but not enough to make me a nonconformist.
I joined my classmates in righteous outrage when word came down that our high school would be integrated in the fall of 1965 — though barely. Until the courts stepped in, my county was one of many that tried to get around court rulings by allowing students to choose which school they would attend.
There was certainly no line of white students anxious to attend the black school, and it took a special kind of courage for the half-dozen African-American students who dared to show up for classes at the white school.
I don’t spend a lot of time wallowing in regrets, finding it unprofitable — but I do regret the part I played in making those brave students feel completely unwelcome at our school. And I lament that I couldn’t see beyond my culture to act on the faith I pretended to have.
I’d never have thought it during those crazy days of high school, but when I look back through the 45 years that have passed since my senior year, I find that the classmates I admire most are not the ones who excelled in academics or sports, but the ones who surpassed us all in vision and in valor. We may call the third Monday in January Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, but the names bouncing around my head are those of classmates Lula, Laura, and Willie, and I pray God’s blessings on them and their courageous kin on this day of remembrance.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.