In the conclusion of his book, White Too Long, Robert P. Jones acknowledges his personal narrative of growing up white in the South is not unique.
Many, perhaps even most, he notes, could uncover “ways in which white supremacy, like kudzu, has crept its way forward through the family tree.”
His story so resonated with mine that I went digging through some old files and notebooks of family history. Aunt Edith Nuckolls was the keeper of such information for my maternal branch of the tree.
After her death, I gathered some of those scattered pieces to learn more about my roots. Among the items I found was her correspondence with a beloved cousin in Decatur, Georgia.
Alex Nuckolls, who had the same name as my grandfather, died when I was 1 year old. But there were many warm references to him I heard over the years.
In a typewritten letter, dated Oct. 2, 1957, and addressed to “My Dear Cousin Edith,” he thanked my aunt for her recent correspondence and expressed sorrow that “Margaret’s boy has chicken pox.” (That would have been my brother, Rob, who was about to turn 3.)
His advice was to “just scratch and it will soon be over.” I don’t think Cousin Alex was a dermatologist.
In just the second paragraph, he turned to lamenting current events. Then he offered this bit of encouragement for my aunt in Chattanooga to not worry about the Ku Klux Klan.
“I was a full fledge member of the Twelve Twenty before the KKK was organized,” he wrote. “One of our members got mad and told the secret and broke up the lodge …”
Then, without a break, he added: “…and in a few weeks they met on top of Stone Mountain in Georgia and organized the KKK.”
Hopeful Cousin Alex said he was told “some time ago that there would not be any negroes left in Georgia.” He reported there were “no negroes” in 12 Georgia counties now, and “there may be more counties without negroes.”
Then he added, “If I am living, I’ll be glad about that.”
In the very next sentence, he assured my aunt of how much he would enjoy attending a surprise birthday party, to which she had apparently invited him, “for the old preacher.”
He then joked a bit with his cousin and talked about other family members before returning to the subject that clearly had him in its grasp.
“The integration worries me so I listen to the radio and television very little, and decided not to read the papers,” he wrote. “That is hard for me to do for I can read better than I can hear.”
He returned to discussing various relatives, including one “that didn’t turn out too well,” and apologizing for any typing errors. Then he concluded the letter:
“If I never see you again, please remember I am expecting to meet you on the other side. God bless and keep you. Love, Alex.”
Soon after reading this letter, I came upon a yellowed clipping from The Atlanta Journal. It was the obituary for Henry Alexander Nuckolls, who had died at age 87. The date of his death was two days after pecking out the letter to his beloved cousin.
The former schoolteacher was memorialized at First Baptist Church of Decatur, Georgia, and buried at the massive Westview Cemetery in Atlanta.
His thoughts and comments on race were surely not an outlier opinion within the broader family. He just put his thoughts into writing. I heard others speak them to one another while eating homemade ice cream on a front porch.
It would be easy to excuse such perspectives on race as being typical of the times. But these people had access to better ways of thinking and loving, including the gospels in which Jesus so clearly revealed, in word and deed, the value of every person.
We should not let anyone off the hook for demeaning or mistreating other human beings. And we must never excuse ourselves from acknowledging our own white privilege and seeking to rectify that which continually gives us an advantage.
Like author Robert P. Jones, whose story parallels mine and others willing to face the facts, I am committed to not just prune back the inherited, invasive and strangling evils of racial injustice for a season, but to “kill it, root to stem.”
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.