How we relate to the question of race depends a good deal on our perspective. It is largely shaped by our history, our story. To close the gap between racial groups, we need to solicit the stories that have brought people to this moment.
My wife Dixie and I moved into our home in the Woodlawn community on the South Side of Chicago in July 1966. We were in our mid-20s. From my sister’s living room near Denver, we had been watching the nightly news for two days. We saw people hauling TVs down the street in front of our new home. The community was being vandalized. We drove all night and moved in. National Guard troops were less than a stone’s throw away in the alley beside the house. We are white; our neighborhood was 99.9 percent black.
Were we courageous, naive, searching for our own meaning or something altogether undefined? We always knew that we could leave anytime, a privilege not available to most of the people of Woodlawn. Ambiguous, certainly. Nevertheless, this became the context for six-plus years.
Our neighbors and co-workers still had vivid memories of their experiences in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas. I listened to Evelyn share with me her waking up at 8 years old to see a cross burning in her backyard. Dawson would drive hundreds of miles to be with his family in Mississippi on holidays, but drove straight through because no motel would have a room for him and Edith. While stopping for gas, locked out of the bathroom, they had to go behind the station in the wooded area.
Evelyn and Dawson were two of dozens of our new friends with similar accounts. When moving to Chicago, they were limited in where they could live, school their children, and find work that matched their education and skills. Yet, I do not remember an instance where my race was used against me.
It was in Woodlawn where the daily presence of the Blackstone Rangers, a youth “gang” that controlled the streets and faced off with the police, who used extreme “law and order” techniques to keep control. When I asked the young people I knew about joining the gangs, they would say they had little choice because the gang would protect them from the police. Many were kids with at least one caring parent, doing pretty well in school, and having no interest in the gang activities. But little choice.
It was in Woodlawn where Annie J. headed the Social Welfare Committee of The Woodlawn Organization (T.W.O.), the first Saul Alinsky-inspired community organization in the black community. I would pick her up at her home in the projects, work with her committee to bring fairness to our neighbors, and spend hours of reflection learning about her, the neighborhood and the future of Woodlawn.
Dixie taught in the neighborhood schools, gave birth to our two children and actively participated in a church committed to deepening its spiritual/civic responsibility.
We crowded a Baptist church in Englewood to hear Dr. King and attended marches. We were driving three teenagers to present the Woodlawn story in a Chicago suburb, when the radio voiced his assassination. The teens insisted we continue to the meeting, now more important than ever.
This is the foundational story of race in my life. Few people in my Milwaukee circles know much about that background. However that is my reality, my truth and how that has shaped me. At best I hope that parts of my story will resonate with people who have their own experiences to share.
I grew up in Cheyenne, Wyoming. My church taught general concepts of compassion and tolerance. Those teachings guided me the summers I worked alongside laborers from Mexico. It convinced me to be liberal in my relationship with the Latinos and African-Americans who played on my basketball teams. I remember telling my mother I was dating the “Chase” girl, when her name was Chavez. I became aware that some of my friends and teammates were considered at best second-class citizens.
My high school history teacher, accused of being a Communist, sent me to the library to check out Richard Wright’s “Native Son” and “Black Boy.” My American Problems teacher gave time to have us consider the Little Rock Nine. At a junior college in New Mexico in 1960, I had white classmates from the South who told stories of standing on the corner for entertainment on Saturday nights with 2 by 4s to hit “niggers” who were standing on a public corner. I stared at the water fountains in the Amarillo, Texas, bus station labeled “white” and “colored.” I did not publicly protest.
This is the skeleton of who I am as I figure out how to live with our current racially divided truth. How I participate with that question in Milwaukee includes how my life has been adjusted through those encounters. How I live today, how I am within my family, city, nation and world is framed by that history.
And today? I continue to reflect on how being satisfied with doing good may not be the best path. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was aware that not just the segregationists but also the “choir,” his audience, had not faced the reality of our own complicity in denying his dream.
As Dr. King wrote in 1963 as he sat in a cell in a Birmingham jail, “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”
The current environment is so poisoned with unreflective hateful behavior that many see nothing new on the horizon. But for some us perhaps, the “new day has come,” as Oprah proclaimed recently. She continued:
“… as we try to navigate these complicated times … what I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have.”