"BUT WHY WOULD THEY WANT TO?"
This week (September 27, 2013) an occurrence happened that profoundly disturbed me. After lengthy contemplation, it dawned on me that a response of feelings of anger, or even sadness or disbelief would not help or change the situation in any way. Perhaps by writing this essay, a difference could be made, however slight. Just one small flicker in one person’s conscience might help and might in some small way nurture a change of attitude that might grow and be passed on.
In recent weeks Birmingham, Alabama has once again come to the world’s attention after the revelation of an appalling continuation of blatant racial prejudice condoned, it would seem, at nearly all levels of society, including educational and government officials. This embarrassing revelation and focus on The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama comes nearly fifty years to the day of the horrific church bombing that killed four innocent little black girls. (Condoleeza Rice, herself a small girl at the time, heard the blast from her home in a nearby neighborhood. Her father had once taught one of the victims in his Sunday School class). Fifty years ago, Governor George Wallace stood on the steps of this same University in an attempt to block the first black students who tried to enter the college. The National Guard had to be called in to escort these students to class and begin the long, and painful process of desegregation. Throughout the Sixties and Seventies Jim Crow laws remained in effect in the Deep South. Jim Crow laws were a way of life in Alabama and surrounding States. They were followed without question, as to not do so was not an option for black people. Force and worse were used as enforcement. These “laws” kept black people firmly in check as lower than second class citizens. Racism remained alive and well, only slowly being whittled away at in the coming decades. Progress was slowly, but definitely being made by the 80’s. Finally, it seems, Jim Crow laws were largely discarded.
We see the pictures of the local authorities and officials blasting blacks, young and old, with fire hoses fifty years ago. The news clips people were seeing on their televisions were a shock to most of the country as it was evident, that in Birmingham, Alabama, blacks were treated far worse than dogs. It looked as if the whites there had declared open warfare on the blacks. Finally, the country realized that something very, very bad was going on there. That realization started the wheels of change in progress, excruciatingly slowly, but yet positive changes were made nonetheless.
And so we have plodded along for these past fifty years, moving forward, hoping to put that awful period and those horrifying images behind us for good. There are certainly bumps in the road, such as the revelation that a high school in a town near Atlanta, Georgia still held separate proms for whites and blacks. Students themselves came forward with social media such as Face Book and received donations from around the world. With those funds, they were able to hold the first ever desegregated prom JUST THIS LAST YEAR.
Then, a few weeks ago, a University of Alabama publication, The Crimson White, (is this publication’s name itself not a racial statement?), broke a story on the campus’ sororities and the fact that they deny admittance of black applicants based SOLELY on their race. The straw that broke the camel’s back and caused enough ripples to get this story out was when the niece of a prominent local man was rejected by a sorority based solely on her race. The reason for her rejection was obvious. Her credentials were impeccable and there could be no other basis for her rejection. The fact of the matter is there are simply White Sororities and that is that. This fact has been known and accepted by everyone on campus for all these years. There is a strict policy within the sororities forbidding members to discuss the subject. New students arriving from out of state are often shocked to discover the situation and appalled that there are no blacks in their sorority. A white sorority member from Oregon recently moved out of the sorority house because she spoke to the media after this became a scandal and the other members of the sorority made her life such a hell after that, that she felt it was in her best interest to move. The realization that complete segregation was still in effect on the campus of the University of Alabama understandably raised an outcry by the outside world. The response from the President of the University was weak and ineffective. The State itself could swiftly correct the situation as they own the land the sorority houses are located on, but neither the Administration or any level of the Government chose to take matters in hand. Across the country, sororities are punished and sometimes even disbanded for infractions such as abuse of alcohol and hazing. To my way of thinking, the blatant racial discrimination being practiced by these sororities should bring about a punishment as severe as those incurred for drinking or hazing.
This past week my husband was having a conversation with a good friend of ours from Tuscaloosa, Alabama. This person was born and raised in the area, they are white and they attended the University of Alabama. My husband mentioned the appalling news regarding the sorority racial discrimination and the fact that he was horrified that this was still going on, fifty years after the Civil Rights battles that took place in that exact spot. Our friend’s response (which floored both my husband and myself) was, “But why would they (the black students) want to join the white sororities? Or fraternities for that matter? Why would they want to? I never wanted to join a black fraternity, etc., etc. The high school where I volunteer doesn’t have a single white student in it. Why would they want to?” My husband who has a Ph.D. and was a professor for a number of years tried to instill some realities and sense into the person on the other end of the line, but got nowhere. The response was the same: “But why would they want to?” I cannot tell you how disheartened this response made me. Not only did it show that we were back to exactly the same point we had started fifty years ago, it showed a complete ignorance of a MAJOR problem. They didn’t even realize that the statement they were making was full of blatant prejudice! They truly didn’t even see or understand this. They honestly didn’t see a problem: either with the situation or with their viewpoint and what that amounted to. It literally made me sick at heart.
Today, as my husband and I were driving around town doing errands, it struck me. The light went on, so to speak.
Rosa Parks became one of the symbols of the Civil Rights Movement. On December 1, 1955 she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. “BUT WHY WOULD SHE WANT TO?” Why would she want to stay seated and allow a white passenger to have to stand on the bus instead of herself, a black person? Why would she want to?
Nat King Cole could not get a room at the Hotel Utah in the 1960’s because he was black. “BUT WHY WOULD HE WANT TO?” For God’s sake, why would he want a nice place to stay after a performance? Why would he want to?
Jackie Robinson, was born into a family of sharecroppers (this status was very little different from the prior form of slavery) in Cairo, Georgia in 1919. On April 15, 1947 he became the first African American to play major league baseball, thereby breaking the color barrier in the sport. “BUT WHY WOULD HE WANT TO?” Why on Earth would he have wanted to play with whites when he was supposed to play in the black leagues? Why would he want to?
In 1988, Barack Obama entered Harvard Law School. (According to a good friend of ours who was in the same class as Obama, Obama ran circles around everyone in the class, including the instructors). At any rate, after a series of successes and accomplishments, Barack Obama became our first African American president. “BUT WHY WOULD HE WANT TO?” Why would he have wanted to get in the overwhelmingly white Harvard Law School, and why on Earth would he have wanted to join the previously all white cast of the American Presidency? Why would he want to?
Where would we be, if none of these heroes had wanted to break the color barrier? What if their attitude had been that of our friend’s—“WHY WOULD I WANT TO?” I am thankful that for many, there has been an obvious need and reason to want to. I hope there will come a time when everyone can see “WHY WE WOULD WANT TO” . That there will come a time when everyone can see that there is no place for racial discrimination or segregation. That there will come a time when it is natural for everyone, no matter what part of the country you were born and raised in, to see that all schools, all groups, all organizations, all units of any kind are made up of all nationalities, all religions—that this is just right. We cannot divide up each individual ethnic group or religion into their own separate unit! There must come a time when not one person in the South will see things in black or white anymore, when they will see all as one! Surely that is WHY THEY WANTED TO, those groundbreaking heroes who paved the way.
1) Slavery by Another Name: http://www.amazon.com/Slavery-Another-Name-Re-Enslavement-Americans/dp/03857227022) Extraordinary, Ordinary People: http://www.amazon.com/Extraordinary-Ordinary-People-ebook/dp/B003F3PKZO/ref=sr_1_sc_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1380343931&sr=1-3-spell&keywords=conoleeza+rice