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Growing up in the rural South during the Civil Rights struggle of the ‘60s I really didn’t know much about it or Dr. King until I moved North and found the local library.
We went to segregated schools. Blacks were generally poor but loved White folks, while Whites were generally well to do, but hated Black folks. I always wondered why, what did we do to them? They had everything we had nothing but love.
The odd thing about this whole thing was that even though we attended a segregated all Black school I thought the Confederates were the good guys in the Civil War, because the books we learned from were supplied, required and regulated reading by White folks. And the older people, the ones who could read and write knew little of history, other than their own lives.
I still remember how surprised I was when I read about the Civil War and who caused it and what it was all about. I was surprised when I read about the Jim Crow system in the South and the fight to rid the South of the separate but nowhere close to being equal system. We took it for granted.
All I knew growing up was that Blacks went to one school and Whites went to another. They had classrooms and we had one big building with all grades being taught by one or two teachers. Blacks sat in the balcony when we went to the movies and White people always had and Blacks had very little. In other words we didn’t mingle, and most of us didn’t care.
Another thing that stuck out was that no matter how old a Black man or woman was the White folks no matter how young called them by their first names even though Blacks addressed Whites no matter how young mostly by Mr., Mrs., or Miss.
I remember seeing White policemen, firemen, lawyers, doctors, bankers, businessmen, big time farmers, in basically all walks of life I saw White people, but practically all the people I saw in the cotton fields with us were Blacks. The only Black professionals we saw were teachers, and we didn’t see many of them until Brown vs. Board of Education was passed and the White folks built us a nice school to try to slow down the Yanks by showing them how nice they were treating their Negras. It was too little too late, integration was coming, but it didn’t get there before I left for the North.
It was so odd how the lowest and the poorest Whites felt they were superior to Blacks. And those that didn’t hate us still treated us like you would a pet. We like you but you are not equal.
I didn’t know a lot growing up in the South during the ‘60s, but I did know that there had to be something better than the cotton fields. If hard work qualified you for heaven or riches we along with just about every Black person in the hills of Tennessee and throughout the South should have been millionaires. Maybe even billionaires. Blacks worked sun up to sun down, six days a week in the fields under the hot sun.
Even though I didn’t know it then, moving to the North, was the best thing that could have happened to me, even though conditions weren’t really that much different.
Even though Blacks and Whites went to the same schools, Blacks were generally grouped in one section of the city called the Inner City whereas Whites lived in the outlining areas and suburbs. Blacks were generally poor or low income, whereas Whites were middle to upper income. And even though Blacks were dirt poor in the South, most owned their land, whereas in the North we made more money but owned practically nothing, not even the houses we lived in. But at least we weren’t humiliated on a daily basis by Whites, and Whites didn’t show their disrespect and hatred the way they did in the South.
I remember the differences in how we looked at leaders. Even though many older Black people were afraid of the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. King, they still respected him as the one man who may be able to change things. Whereas in the North I remember getting into several arguments with young Blacks who called Dr. King an Uncle Tom. And even though many in the North didn’t see themselves as being segregated because there weren’t any laws, and most didn’t want to live with White folks anyway, plus there were a few token Blacks in the professional ranks, so they were OK.
They didn’t understand why Blacks were fighting so hard for Equal Rights in the South, and why non-violence was the only way to fight in the South. Any form of self-defense would have given Whites a license to kill. Practically all had guns, and killing a nigger didn’t faze many, and since we were outgunned, and outnumbered, non-violence was the only way. And even then many were killed and even more were beaten or hurt. And since practically all worked for Whites, many lost their jobs.
Even though most in the North were impoverished, or were living from paycheck to pay check, even with two jobs, they felt they had it better than in the South, that’s why the migration continued.
During the ‘60s Black people put their lives on the line for a better future for their kids, and kids put their lives on the line because they saw no future if things didn’t change. King got most of the publicity, but there were hundreds of men and women, boys and girls who made the ‘60s what it was. These people were simply tired of being treated worse than animals. They were tired of being told and treated as if they were dumb, stupid people who didn’t have the capacity to lead, learn or to hold any kind of professional position.
I guess that’s what really upsets me so much about our young people today, especially our young men, who just give up and drop out of school despite all the doors Blacks sacrificed to open during the 60s.
We are celebrating 50 years since the March on Washington, the Civil Rights Bill, and the great King speech. Looking back at the conditions of Blacks during this era in the rural South, urban South and the North, we have come a long, long way, but we have a long, long way to go. And if we don’t find a way to wake up our young brothers, we may be headed back into conditions worse than we were in during the Jim Crow era or even Slavery. But that’s another column.
(Ulish Carter is managing editor of the New Pittsburgh Courier.)
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