As we observe this weekend, the second anniversary of Charlottesville and the “Unite the Right” rally that triggered violence, hate and even death! I felt that this reflective piece needed to be re-introduced!
Growing up “Southern” is not only dealing with a geographical place, but also a cultural mindset. In the 1950s, Virginia remained a centerpiece of the South’s resistance in giving up its 19th century way of life. This would be the world in which I would grow up, shaping my childhood experiences and memories.
Some may need to be reminded that Richmond Virginia was the capital of the Confederacy. You can take away the legal and historical trappings of the past, but it is more complicated to separate the artifacts of racism and social mores that defined “the old South” and that would continue for nearly six decades into the 20th century to seep into the lifestyle of this Commonwealth.
At a time when Americans are experiencing a White House that is playing to racial politics and during a week dedicated to the civil rights movement and to the legacy of Martin Luther King, then this may be an appropriate moment to recall one’s roots, and more directly, the pain of segregation and the massive resistance movement which was Virginia’s legal legacy. Unlike other southern states, Virginia’s political establishment introduced this strategy in order to push back against school integration and the granting of equal rights and access to African Americans. As school districts closed and as state funds were diverted to support voucher programs for private “white” schools, Virginia lawmakers and educators attempted to circumvent the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education ruling. These events would be occurring around me as I grew up in this transformative period.
Personally, I can remember as a very young kid riding on public transportation with Estelle, the woman who, outside of my folks, would be the most significant player in my early life. As a black person, she would be prohibited by law from sitting in the front section of the bus, but as a kid, I loved riding up front. I still can hear her calming voice, reminding me, “Now, Steven, we need to sit back here!” When you are with a person of color, you become part of their reality. Estelle’s story is important here, as she was born into a sharecropper’s family in South Carolina; she never had the opportunity to experience any formal education, but without a doubt, she was in my mind the smartest person I had ever met. She had mastered the essence of life, raising highly successful and well-educated kids of her own, working actively in her church, and being a role model to many in her community and beyond.
Many of my friends find it difficult to believe but I can vividly recall “colored only” bathrooms, water fountains, and public entrances that dotted Richmond’s landscape. I recall public schools denied to black kids, even as these facilities were within blocks of their homes and public parks that remained segregated, forbidding for example a young Arthur Ashe the opportunity to play on the tennis courts that I would be permitted to use. Professional sports teams coming to our city would have to make special provisions for their Negro players, who were prohibited from using the same hotel facilities as their white-counterparts.
The story here is more about the heroes of that moment in time, businessmen and lawyers, teachers and professors, and clergy persons and civic professionals who resisted the efforts by the “old guard” to preserve this past. Many of these folks were Jewish, they became my heroes! Their actions have rarely, if ever, been documented. Individuals would risk their personal safety to quietly assist civil rights efforts and to support promising black students to gain entrance to top-flight universities, along with rabbis who opened their synagogues so that both white and black kids could learn together, just as school districts were shutting down to prevent such educational options. Sadly, it was not possible during the period of the 1950’s and 60’s to publicly recognize these essential actors, in part to protect these individuals and their families.
The Richmond News Leader through its high profile editor, James J. Kirkpatrick, made it quite clear in an a 1950s editorial directed toward the Jewish community in general and to the ADL in particular, cynically warning that “lox and bagels were not welcomed in the South.” The message was clear: Southern Jews ought to know their place!
One of the most memorable moments in my young life took place during the summer of 1962 as I dragged a high school friend along to be present for a Southern Christian Leadership Conference gathering that featured among others, Senators Jacob Javits of New York and Paul Douglas of Illinois. They would be joined by African American clergy and community organizers who had come to mobilize Virginians. It was spellbinding as it was transformative, listening not only to the powerful messages of these public figures but also to the music of the civil rights movement.
I sometimes wonder when the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of Leonard Bernstein, made its Richmond appearance in the late 1950’s opened the evening concert with “Dixie” whether Bernstein was appealing to the cultural sensitivities and loyalties of his audience or if he was in fact making a political statement that the only place one could now hear this 19th Century celebratory piece of the “old South” would be in a concert hall, directed by this liberal, Jewish New York cultural icon.
In telling this story, one retreats to another point in time, but sadly some of the vestiges of racism and the language of bigotry seem to be very much present. As we mark this civil rights journey, the retelling of this history will remind those who seek to push back against racial equality, religious liberty and social justice, that this is America we celebrate and honor.