I am finding that this particular article is difficult for me to begin. I suppose because it remains such a delicate subject in so many ways, and even though I am strongly opposed to any sort of racism, I could easily be taken out of context. Therefore, I feel compelled to be so very careful in how I write this, that I am slow to get going.
I was born in 1961. So, by the time the Civil Rights Movement was gathering steam in the mid-60’s, I was still a small boy. A small white boy.
I was watching a History Channel story today about African-American history and to my surprise…well, maybe not surprise…perhaps chagrin…Muncie was mentioned in the context of the early 20th Century rise of the Ku Klux Klan. I am grateful to say that my family was never a party to that hatefulness and I never was aware of any active members, but I’d be willing to bet that some members lived in my neighborhood… nearby.
As a young white boy in Muncie in the 1960’s, life was simple to me. I had no understanding of the long and intense history of prejudice, racism, and bigotry that had plagued our society. My family didn’t promote racism, but they weren’t particularly outspoken about it either. And while there were many cuss words that were heard around our house, “Nigger” was never one of them. I might have heard it from a neighbor or an extended relative from time to time, but it just wasn’t in my family's regular vocabulary. Without any training that I recall, I just disliked the word from the earliest memory I have of it, and I could not understand why anyone would call someone else a hateful name simply because their skin was darker in color.
I have to admit, though, that as a young boy, I lived a life that was very isolated from other races. My entire neighborhood around the intersection of Hackley Street and 21st Street was completely made up of industrially supported, lower middle class families and were without exception white. All of the black families lived on the other side of Heekin Park. Even my school, Roosevelt Elementary was all white. I don’t recall ever seeing anyone there…teacher or student…who wasn’t white. Basically, the only time I saw African American folks was when they drove their cars down Hackley Street and passed by our house. So, my entire early cultural education on black folks was based on the TV and what the other people in my life said.
That provided a conflict in my mind. Most of the adults that spoke about race relations in my early life in Muncie were bigoted, but the TV news depicted a grand struggle for equal rights as well as the obvious mistreatment of innocent people for no good reason and that seemed unreasonable to my sensitive mind. I had no personal knowledge from which to build an opinion, however it seemed to me that it was inherently wrong to pre-judge someone based on what they looked like. It seemed to me that the hateful words that I heard spoken by folks around me were just that...hateful.
So, I rejected racism very early.
That doesn’t mean that my mind wasn’t tainted by it. Fear was imbedded. I saw the news on TV of the race riots in other cities. I can remember hearing the kids at Roosevelt talk about “another riot at Southside.” In the early days of Muncie South…the home of the Rebels…their mascot was a Confederate Rebel and I think they did make some use of the Confederate Battle Flag as well. When you consider that a large part of the student body was black, that didn’t sit too well.
It was also during this time that there was a good deal of unrest down the road near where Hackley Street intersected with Willard Street and the surrounding blocks. I can remember riding in the back seat of my dad’s new Chevy Nova as we went to pick him up from work at the Chevrolet plant late one night, when as we stopped at a stop sign to turn west on 8th Street, a large rock landed on our rear window. My mom sped off and I can remember the talk being that it was a race thing. The window didn’t break and everyone was okay, but it fed my fear.
That scary event was offset to a degree at Tuhey Pool. My dad used to take me swimming at the pool, and it was one of the few places (Heekin Park being the other) where I would have the opportunity to interact with black kids prior to middle school. I don’t remember much, but I do remember this one smiling black boy that was so friendly…I liked him a great deal and had fun playing in the water with him. It helped with the fear to a degree, but it couldn’t completely offset the feeling of anxiety that was developed inside me both by the news media and the gossip of the prejudiced people around me.
It was with this brew of fear swirling in the pit of my stomach that I approached the prospect of moving on from the entirely white Roosevelt Elementary to the fully integrated Wilson Middle School. Not helping the matter was a little tour our sixth grade class took the spring before I was to attend there. Here I am, with the irrational fear of other races testing my tentative courage as I walked down the strange hall in the strange school, when a large black boy…probably one of those huge 8th graders (All 8th graders looked huge to me back then.)…well, this boy menacingly lunged at me as he passed our group.
He scared the ‘stuff’ out of me.
So much for what little courage I had. After that, I had nothing but that encounter to think about as the summer before my 7th grade year whizzed by.
Fear led to anxiety. Anxiety led to worry. But there was no way out. I had to go.
Maybe it wouldn’t be as bad as I had heard. Maybe I wouldn’t get beat up by someone just because I was white. I’d never hurt them, and I couldn’t understand why they would want to hurt me for no reason. Today, I understand that the same fear was residing in the hearts of many of the black kids as they prepared for that same first day of school on the other side of Heekin Park, but back then I had not yet learned the full history of the way that black folks had so bitterly been mistreated. My innocence blinded me to the deeper plight held by my classmates.
When the start of school came, I entered in the morning with fear in my heart, but left in the afternoon with the joy of new friends! In the days that followed, that irrational fear subsided as I playfully bantered and goofed off with new friends like Marvin and James. They were funny. They were fun. I forgot they were black because in my inner being, I never really cared what color anyone was on the skin-side of their soul. I no longer feared the black kids because they were black. From then on, I was just afraid of mean kids… because they were mean…white or black.
But, there was another fear that hid itself in my heart…and one that I am still ashamed that I allowed it to control me. You see, I liked James and Marvin a lot. We had fun at school. So much so, that I often thought about having them come over after school. But, I was afraid to ask them. It seems weird to me now because my folks weren’t outwardly bigoted. I think it was more the influence of the neighbors. I was worried about how they would react if I had my black friends running around the neighborhood with me.
As I type this, shame is resting on me. Marvin or James, if you are reading this, I am sorry. Please accept my apology for ever letting that fear prevent me from being fully a friend to you. I don't know if you would have wanted to come over...I don't know if your folks would have allowed you to either...but, it sure would have been fun if you had.
After Wilson Middle School I headed on to the dreaded Muncie Southside High School…the home of the race confrontations of the late 60’s and early 70’s. By the time I had arrived there, the Confederate (and the flag) had been replaced by a cannon (Ole Reb), and the outward racial animosity between most of the kids was gone. In my four years there, I developed more friendships with guys like Donnell S., Dante S., Tyrone H. and Tyrone P. I wasn’t close with them, but I liked them a lot and I have many fond memories. Donnell has passed away, but I am pleased to say that I’m connected to Dante and Tyrone H. on Facebook. Another friendship that I started in high school was with a guy named John Benford. Great guy. Basketball star. He was cool and I was sort of nerdy, but we always talked some at school and had a class or two together. The last time I saw him was after he graduated, and we ran into each other in a parking lot near the old A&P Grocery on south Madison Street. He was in his car and I was in mine. We stopped, driver’s-side to driver’s-side, and talked for a few minutes. It is funny how sometimes you speak to someone and you don’t realize that you may never see them again. I think I heard he was in California now…I sure hope he’s doing well.
I suppose that if we couldn’t see the color of one another’s skin, we’d find some other reason to be hateful toward each other, but I must say that my idealistic nature wishes that we could put this one issue aside. I wish we could just stop considering it at all. I wish we didn’t have “White” Americans and “Black” Americans….or “Native” Americans…or “Latino” Americans. Maybe if we stopped with all the labels, we could just see each other for who we are…and start assessing people by the “content of their character” instead of the color of their skin. That is a dream that I share with a rather famous man…Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
So, I suppose this Muncie Boyhood story is simply one that describes the fact that even though a white boy is surrounded by racism as a child, he doesn’t have to grow up to be a racist. And, even though I may have been too innocent as a child to understand the full historical plight of my African American friends, simple compassion was enough to tell me that bigotry was wrong.
And, hopefully one day I can watch the History Channel and see some story of how racism was replaced by friendships in a small city in middle America called Muncie, Indiana.