I grew up in Brownwood, Texas, an ordinary segregated county-seat town. I gave little thought to the welfare or needs of the folks who lived in “The Flats,” the place where the blacks lived.
The shoe-shine “boy” in my dad’s barber shop was a gray-headed man, but everybody called him “boy” back then. I never heard him referred to as “Mr.” I don’t suppose I ever knew his full name. Usually blacks were called by their first name or debasing terms worse than “boy.”
At the church the janitor was always an African-American. As a teenager I saw him as about the most thoughtful and interesting person around. He must have thought us young white kids stupid.
And we were. There was little concern with us that he had to drink water from a different spout. He could not enter the drug store next to the barber shop or have a hamburger at Ma & Pa’s. He had to go to the other side of the tracks for that. If he ever listened to the sermon, it was out in the hall or under an open window.
No buses ran to The Flats. They had their own school, and it was always fun on Thursday nights to see one of their football games. I never gave it a thought that they could not come to see our games on Friday nights.
We grew up looking at life through an entirely different lens. I had no idea in the 1940s what black soldiers and civilians were facing every day of their lives. I do not remember seeing one black soldier on the streets of Brownwood during the years Camp Bowie was there. It was well after the war that President Truman desegregated the military.
By 1962 things were changing. I came back from Taiwan knowing about the Supreme Court decision to end segregation in the school system, but I saw little evidence of it. The dominant group kept control of the most successful schools, and minority opportunities became less and less.
The “separate but equal” idea never worked. Many middle and upper-class white Christians were starting their own schools simply to get away from having their kids in a school with blacks. (Some deny that was the beginning of so many private schools, but it is one of those truths we don’t like to admit.)
Gov. Orval Faubus ordered his Arkansas national guard to block the admission of nine black children at Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957. President Eisenhower had to send U.S. troops to protect the students.
I was well aware of that episode from the Taiwan press. It forced many Americans overseas to answer a lot of questions–questions I had not given much thought to. The great “we the people” democracy did not appear to the rest of the world as if “we” really included all the people.
There I was learning Chinese and living in a Chinese country and system while some in the “land of the free and home of the brave” were second- and third-class citizens. At the same time the mainland Chinese (Nationalist government) looked down on the local Taiwanese and both looked down on the aborigine people. And the more I looked around the more I found race and class bias that needed to be faced, studied and cured.
I was invited to speak to the Sunday evening services of the El Bethel Baptist Church on Golden Gate Avenue in downtown San Francisco. D. Manning Jackson was pastor of this predominately black church.
Pastor Jackson called a little boy to come forward and he put his hand on the 7 or 8 year-old boy and said, “Anybody, even this boy, could become president of the United States.” I said “A-men” along with the entire congregation.
Earlier I sat with Pastor Jackson in his office. He said to me: “They’s gonna be some bad trouble soon.” This was the summer of 1962. He told me of the angry and confused young black men who came to him all the time, most of them filled with hate for the racial injustice they were experiencing. He was a burdened man working among a burdened people.
These last 40-plus years a lot of stuff has gone down. There have been improvements here and there, but on the whole, just as women are still paid less than a man in the same position, blacks are still not moving up the economic ladder as fast as Pastor Jackson and many others hoped. (Not counting the select few in professional sports.)
Britt Towery is a freelance writer and retired missionary living in San Angelo, Texas.