Race Relations

   The day was already fairly warm as they settled on the front steps. It was early morning quiet. Some mourning doves were calling from down below the houses, and a few cliff swallows were trying to glean breakfast from the few flying insects. A cottontail rabbit hopped onto the lawn near their feet, realized it wasn’t alone, and hurried on across the driveway into the brush. They both laughed. It was a nice spot at a nice time.

   “So, dear,” Vic began, “Anything exciting going on?”

   “No, dear, not that I can think of. When you arrived this morning, I was thinking about Jo – Venita...”

   “What!” Vic almost spilled her tea. “Here I am, possibly on the verge of being disowned by my family, and you are thinking about my rival?”

   Greg put his arm around her, and softly pressed his lips against her ear lobe. “I’m sorry, Vic. That was very insensitive of me.” As he whispered, his lips moved gradually down her cheek, until they reached the corner of her mouth. “Is it in your heart to forgive me?” She was rapidly losing her battle to keep from grinning. “Because..” She turned her lips toward his. He moved away. “Because, I wasn’t really thinking about her, at all. I was thinking of some things that happened this past week that made me think – momentarily – about what I was thinking just after she left to return to Little Rock.”

   “You know that doesn’t make any sense at all?”

   He leaned forward, and finished the kiss. “Would you like to hear what I was thinking?”

   “Do you want to know what I’m thinking right now?”

   “Hmm, let’s see. I think you are wondering if you should select osculation or elucidation.”

   “Well, this is one of those rare cases in which your vocabulary may be slightly stronger than mine. However, I am going to take a chance, and go with Option One.”

   He obliged, for several long moments. Then, they sat side by side, holding but not drinking their now cold tea and coffee.

   After a while, Vic wondered, “Do you think that rabbit will come back?”

   “It seems unlikely.”

   “Then, maybe we should try elucidation.”

   “I would really like that, but it could be a fairly weighty conversation. Do you want to get into it, now?”

   “Sure, it’s still early.”

   Greg was a little hesitant to start. “I wanted to talk to you about all this right after she left. But then, you were here, and I was so glad to see you, and we had so much else to talk about – and I guess I really wasn’t quite ready, after all. I didn’t have my thoughts together. Then, there were so many other things going on, that it just kind of slipped into the background. My need to talk about it only came back because of what happened this past week.”

   She was puzzled. “So, what happened this past week?”

   ‘You know about the riots in Los Angeles?”

   “Yes, I saw it in the paper, and we were hearing about it on the radio this morning. It sounds awful.”

   “It is, and it’s been going on since last Wednesday. It’s in an area called Watts, that I guess is almost all Colored families. It started with a routine traffic stop. The police pulled over some people. I don’t know if it was a legitimate stop or not – there’s all kinds of tension between the police and the people there. Anyway, the stop turned into a scuffle between the police and the people in the car, a crowd joined in, more cops were called, and now we have this riot. Buildings and cars have been burned up, people have been killed, and a lot injured. The National Guard were called in to fight the rioters, which has made it even worse.

   “The traffic stop didn’t really cause the riot. It just was kind of the last straw for the local people, who had been upset for years about the poor living conditions and the lack of job opportunity for Negroes. There had been a series of smaller local demonstrations in the last two years – one editorial in the paper said there had been 250 different protests in that time. In those same two years, the police shot 65 Negroes – according to the editorial, most of them were unarmed. The L. A. police chief didn’t help the matter when he made some pretty inflammatory comments about both Negroes and Muslims.”

   Greg paused to catch his breath and collect his thoughts. “I heard all this just days after LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act. Almost 100 years after the Negroes were ‘freed,’ and we need a law that says the states can’t stop them from voting! They can’t ‘own’ slaves, anymore, but they are doing everything possible to make sure that the African-Americans can never become citizens with equal rights. They make them pay to vote; they give them literacy tests; they make it hard for them to get to polling places; they threaten anybody who tries to vote; and they even beat up and sometimes kill Negroes who try. It’s working. An editorial in Monday’s paper said that there are two counties in Alabama that have more Negroes than White people, but no Negro is registered to vote there. It’s the same in four counties in Louisiana, five in Mississippi, and two in Georgia. This is America in the second half of the 20th century that we’re talking about! Because of this new law, Federal judges are actually going to go into several Southern states, and make sure that no one is denied the right to vote because of their skin color.

   “Some of this information is new to me, but I studied quite a bit about slavery and segregation  in school. It’s been really hard for me to believe that anybody – any human being! – could keep another person as a slave. And it makes me sick – sometimes, actually sick to my stomach – to think that it wasn’t just individual people who were so lacking in human feeling that they could keep other people in total bondage. It was the majority of people in a whole region of the country who were so depraved – so horribly insensitive – that they could all do it – and not even call their captives people, but label them as ‘property.’ They treated them like ‘property,’ too. They bought and sold them like cattle. They even bred them like cattle, selling a wife or a husband, and bringing in some other mate that they thought might result in stronger slave stock. They took girls and boys from their families, and sold them off for similar purposes. There’s also mounting evidence that the use of women slaves – rape - by their ‘masters’ was not an unusual occurrence.

   “Did you know that almost all of our so-called ‘founding fathers’ owned slaves – owned! I hate that word! George Washington, the ‘father of our country,’ had many on his lands. Even after it became popular to at least talk about freeing the slaves, he never freed any. He claimed he couldn’t, because they actually belonged to Martha, his wife. Why he and Martha couldn’t mutually agree is unclear. Thomas Jefferson talked a good talk about freedom, but he didn’t free any of his slaves during his lifetime. He fathered a whole string of children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. Some claimed the sex was consensual – and apparently she was clever enough to get him to free some of their children – but only after his death, as a result of wording in his will – and he never freed her. And, honestly, can anything be really consensual when the woman is ‘property,’ belonging completely to her owner? We would rightly call it rape, today.”

   Vic had sat quietly beside him through all of this. He looked over at her, now. “I’m sorry, Vic. I didn’t realize how wound up I was. I really wanted to talk to somebody about this, and when I think about talking to somebody, it’s always about talking to you.”

   She touched his arm. “Go on, tell me how this ties in with Jo’s visit.”

   “Thank you.” He took a breath. “Your dad was really upset about Jo being assigned here. He thought it was crazy to send an African-American young woman all the way out here by herself – first, through country where she could be in danger from Southern white people, then to an area where she wouldn’t be welcomed by the Mormons.”

   “What about the Mormons?”

   “Your dad said that Mormons consider black skin the ‘mark of Cain.’ According to them, God gave it to the descendants of Cain - Adam’s and Eve’s son – who killed his brother, Abel, after God rejected Cain’s sacrifice and accepted Abel’s. In other words, they think that God rejected black-skinned people.”

   “Do Mormons really believe that?”

   “I think so. Mormons seem to have changed their beliefs a lot over time, and I guess now colored people can be in the Mormon church, but they still can’t teach or take part in any of the sacred rituals. That means that they can’t go to Mormon Heaven, either. Apparently, they are ‘saved’ somewhere, but Heaven is reserved for White Mormons.

   “Anyway, that’s kind of an aside, but I was interested because it’s hard not to consider  the effects of Mormonism in an area where most people are Mormons. So, I met Jo at the bus. She was the only colored person. She was dressed pretty much like you or Mandy would’ve been dressed, and shouldn’t have been viewed any different than any other pretty young woman. Instead, people stared at her like she was a kangaroo or an alien being. She didn’t seem to notice, but I did. Then, when I carried her suitcase out of the terminal, I got what could only be considered scandalized looks – a white man carrying a colored girl’s luggage!

   ‘On the way out here, we just talked about how flat and open the country is, and how ‘god awful’ long the trip is. Your folks were great, and your mom and Jo hit it off immediately. At dinner, they were chatting as if they’d known each other their whole lives. The next day, we drove around the refuge, and stopped and had lunch with Tim and Rusty. They teased her like I suspect they would tease any young woman, and she responded in kind. In all the time she was with us, there wasn’t one mention of race, or segregation, or discrimination, or differences. We were just people.

   “When I took her back to the bus was the first time she showed any concern about the situation. I really wanted to hug her, and she looked around as if she knew that wouldn’t be received well by onlookers. I told her I didn’t care – I was going to hug my friend, and we did. As I was leaving, I sensed some disapproval, but I didn’t care. I felt like I’d won a victory!

   “It seems kind of strange to say, but Jo is probably the first colored person I have ever known. There were African-Americans in my high school and at college, but we didn’t live close, and we didn’t see each other outside of classes. There weren’t any bad feelings that I knew of; we just didn’t associate. Although I’ve always hated slavery and segregation, and sympathized with what colored people were still going through, I realized it was still kind of philosophical and academic to me. I didn’t really know them. After being with Jo even that short time, I started thinking about her – a college graduate – being deprived of the right to vote; of her not able to use the same rest rooms and drinking fountains as white people; of her denied the right to eat in a restaurant. It has become very personal to me. Jo made it real. We had talked – not about race, or slavery, or desegregation, or how any of it affected her; they just talked, two humans conversing. And now, it isn’t some person being denied lunch at the counter in Woolworth’s; it's Jo. I don’t know if there were still segregated restrooms and drinking fountains in Little Rock, but there have been recently. It's Jo who has suffered the indignity of that kind of exclusion. When a state trooper clubbed a protester in Selma, Alabama, I see Jo being hit, and when Lester Maddox chased Colored people away from his Atlanta diner with pistol and axe handle, Jo was in the group being chased. It's real, for me now. Now, I can’t read about the Watts riots, or think about the passage of a voting rights bill, without wanting to do something! I don’t know what, but something.”

   After he finished, they didn’t talk for several minutes. “Thank you,” Vic said, finally. “I love you for that. I’m glad you told me.”


© Sanford Wilbur 2023