Saturday, August 16, 2014

This Train Ain't Bound for Glory

Ferguson, Mo., is not the last stop on this line.

Maybe there is no last stop in deeply racist Amerika. I shared a Pulitzer Prize with the rest of the Detroit Free Press news staff for reporting on the riot in which 43 black citizens died while their city burned around them. Things would get better, we thought while tallying the terrible costs of this civil distress.  This was half a century ago. "Things" are not better.

A wise and respected friend remembers his teen and young adult years in his parents' ranch-style house in then all-white Ferguson.  It was half a block from the intersection of Lang Drive and West Florissant Ave. where, just a few days ago, the Ferguson police used military force -- tanks, tear gas -- to suppress a crowd exercising its First Amendment rights. They were protesting the death of an unarmed black Ferguson teen-ager fatally shot be a white Ferguson police officer even as the kid threw up his hands and pleaded for his life.

Ferguson, my friend recalls, was lily white when he lived there. Today it is two-thirds black.  Three of the 53 members of of its militarized police force are black.  There is something terribly wrong with this ratio. My friend,  who is in daily contact with St. Louisians familiar with the benighted suburb, says they describe the Ferguson police as "brutish, stupid and unlucky." They blundered into a McDonald's in their riot gear and racist zeal and arrested a small throng, which, alas, happened to include two working journalists.

My friend says he grew up in a place "so steeped in racism that it is difficult to imagine the Deep South as being all that different." He writes that "my own family was as steeped as any and frankly I have struggled all my life to dissolve with reason and experience the attitudes imbued in me almost before I was old enough to walk."

This good man's confessional recall triggered an array of empathy in our online circle of writers, lawyers, teachers and philosophers. "You've got to be taught," Oscar Hammerstein III wrote, "to hate and fear, you've got to be taught, from year to year, it's got to drummed in you dear little ear."

My father's  racism was merely reflective of the common attitude in our all-white suburb of Cincinnati. Before kindergarten we knew there was, deep in The City, a place called "Niggertown," where people different from us in color and of lesser intelligence loitered insolently in deserved squalor. We knew the Niggers begrudged us our superior lifestyle, and if given the chance would take it from us by violence, which is why they had to be kept in Niggertown. In John and Dorothy Ashby's brilliantly satirical musical play about post-riot Detroit, "Three Six," the police would sing this prelude to a raid on a black numbers runner: "Ring around the ghetto, keep the Niggers in. Let them knife each other, fightin' over gin."

When the men of my suburban neighborhood joined my father in a tenperate glass of Heudepohl at the Westwood Inn, they never contemplated lynchings and fiery crosses, but they never either voiced disapproval of the depredations of the KKK not that far away in Terre Haute.  And when white hope Billy Conn fought black Joe Louis for the world's heavyweight boxing championship, not a penny was bet on Louis. The sons of these men went off to fight World War II in all-white units of a segregated army and most of those fortunate enough to return home in one piece liked the segregated United States they came home to and built Levittowns to keep it that way. Lyndon Johnson was condemned in the North, too, for letting Niggers have too big a piece of the Bill of Rights.

I spent my early years in journalism in Iowa, working often in towns where you could walk from end to end without seeing a black face, except perhaps laboring in the rail yards at the dirtiest and basest of jobs. My eldest son was swimming in the newly desegregated municipal pool when he saw his first black contemporary. For the briefest of moments he stared at the black kid in unbridled astonishment. Is there a glimmer of hope somewhere in this little event in that same son's life? That he was arrested protesting the Vietnam war in Washington DC. That he was stashed with thousands of others in RFK stadium before being shipped off randomly to storage in a precinct jail. That when I finally tracked him down in a precinct on a far edge of the district, and posted his bond, he refused release.  Why? "He's leading a protest," the jailer told me. "They say one of our officers insulted a black prisoner."

Like my writer friend, I have "struggled all my life to dissolve with reason and experience the attitudes imbued in me almost before I was old enough to walk." The great imperative of this struggle for me was to assure that the attitudes were not passed on to my children. Perhaps I succeeded. I hope I succeeded.

Even so, I have done little to slow the train that has just passed through Ferguson, this highballin' train of deeply racist America, this train that's bound not for glory, but for infamy.

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