Monday, October 1, 2012


Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the day and night of riots on the Ol' Miss campus because of the federal government, under JFK, enforcing the federal law that said segregation was illegal. That night I was in Greenville, South Carolina, stationed at nearby Donaldson Air Force Base. Though James Meredith was the focal point of national and international news stories about his "successful" attempt to integrate The University of Mississippi, and that deep South state seemed like the last bastion of segregation, in Greenville, and the rest of South Carolina, Strom Thurmond and his fellow segregationists held the reigns of power so tightly, any attempt at integration didn't even get mentioned in the local or state or national or international news.

I was doing my own personal integration and getting lots of trouble for it, so much so the sheriff eventually told the base commander to get this low ranked (the result of a court martial) enlisted man out of South Carolina and they did. But the reality was, African-Americans could not go to the movie theaters (which had been segregated with black folks having to watch from the balcony) or restaurants or the public park (they closed it down to make sure no one was tempted to try and integrate it) or the drive-in movie in their own cars!

There was a "colored" resort outside Greenville called The Ghana, a main attraction on The Chitlin Circuit, where they had a tiny bar off to the side of the main room in the night club (the resort also had a motel, golf course, picnic grove and pool) for the "white" managers of the black acts that played there, like Little Willy John and Bettye Lavette etc. I had black friend get me in as a very young supposed white manager and eventually I was playing piano back up for some acts claiming, as I always did then, that I had black African ancestry 'cause I figured we all must (and was eventually proven correct).

But as the battle at Ol' Miss raged on and was eventually won, after a high price was paid (several deaths, many beatings and death threats for those opposed to segregation) and it looked like "the Old South" was changing, things in South Carolina remained segregationist for a while, and in some areas of the state (and others) still do. But more importantly, the segregationists, including the most racist among them, switched their allegiance to The Republican Party and continued to fight for their "way of life" (i.e. divisive, unequal, unfair, violently racist and undemocratic) until the present day.

This is the same state that presidential candidates court by sidestepping that history and its present day manifestations. I have never returned to South Carolina after my own nasty experience that only youth and luck and whatever else saved me and others from the danger my actions put us all in. I watch a lot of old movies on TV, and too many Hollywood classics, especially Westerns, continued the myth of the "noble cause" of "the Old South" where the rebels were always honorable and respectful and brave and the Yankees were either exploitative carpetbaggers or dishonorable, disrespectful, cowardly evildoers, with the occasional righteously decent Yankee heroes, but they always had to acknowledge some Confederate rebel's bravery or nobility to ensure the movies would be shown and make money in the South.

When I arrived in Hollywood in 1982, only thirty years ago, I was pitching a screenplay about my adventures in the segregated South as someone who in 1962 was engaged to a black woman—which meant we could only legally marry in I think it was thirteen states at the time. The head of Universal told me they couldn't make the movie because it wouldn't be shown in parts of the South, like Mississippi and South Carolina. I told him he was wrong and was proved right within a few years, but that was the mentality that shaped this culture that wants to pretend that confederate flags are innocent of any negative associations but rather represent some noble lost cause etc. or that disenfranchising African-Americans has somehow ended just because our president is partly African-American.

Look at the prisons for proof we still live with a racist legacy that continues to oppress.


Jane DeLynnquent said...

It's not just the south. In the early 50s, maybe when I was 7 or 8, my uncle left me and the son of my aunt's maid alone on a street in New Rochelle while he went off to do some business. What business he could have been doing I don't know, it was a sleepy summer day, probably Sunday, because nobody was around. I think he told us not to tell anybody, so maybe we weren't really old enough to be left alone, but people didn't worry so much about their kids then. Don't get into cars with strangers was about te gist of it, & not take candy from them either.
Anyway, I found myself alone on the street with Marshall. He was black, a few years older than me, very well-groomed, as his mother worked hard and had big aspirations for him. I must have been given money, for I suggested we go into the drugstore and get some ice cream sodas. They still had fountains in those days. Marshall was reluctant, but I said there was no problem, he was with me.
The "soda jerk"--& he really was a jerk-- was a heavyish middle-aged guy, maybe 55 or 60. Probably he was the owner of the store. He said I could have my soda at the fountain, but Marshall would have to drink his outside.
I said if he didn't serve Marshall I would leave, so he did, though not happily. I felt rather too proud of myself for doing the right thing & being a little bit brave. But Marshall was uncomfortable, so it wasn't a very good experience. We drank our sodas quickly, then went outside.
My uncle was looking for us, a bit worried because he had no idea where we could be. When I told him we'd been in the drugstore drinking sodas, he seemed a bit upset and went into the drugstore to talk to the proprietor.
Later that day when Marshall had gone off with his mother, my uncle told me that although I'd done what I did for good reasons, and in a way it was right, it was not the kind of thing I should do.
New York. 1953, 1954. A liberal suburb I think, as those things go.
Was what I did the right thing to do? Knowing Marhsall was uncomfortable, I probably did it more for myself than him. On the other hand, maybe it was good for Marshall to know some white people were in his corner, however clumsily. And it was certainly good for the ice cream guy to hear it. I ddn't see Marshall until many years later, when he had finished his first year at college, and drove to my aunt's house to pick up his mother. we just nodded hello, I doubt he remembered me. He became a doctor, like his mother had hoped, no doubt earning lot more than the little white girl at the counter.

Lally said...

Great story, or maybe I mean really glad you shared it. And a wise perspective too. No doubt there was racial discrimination everywhere back then, including relatively liberal suburbs. There was a town in North jersey that had a sign for awhile saying don't let the sun set on you in this town if you're, whatever word they used, possibly "Negro" possibly worse, I don't remember anymore. But in Miami even in the early 1960s if you were black and going to work at night as a musician, like the young Otis Redding, you had to carry a special photo i.d. card the city issued to get into Miami Beach. Like apartheid. And of course the sight of a non-white in some places still can create police harassment etc. As I was trying to clarify in the post, things are better but a long way from "post-racial"...