Monday, October 1, 2012
THE INTEGRATION OF OL' MISS
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.