Columnist’s note: A few years ago, I recorded some of my thoughts here about the evolution of my thinking on race and racism. As we once again grapple with that topic in this country, I’m re-running a portion of that piece. As recent events demonstrate, we still have much work to do. But I’m praying, as Americans from diverse races and backgrounds speak out and demand equal justice, we are closer to the dream of equality spoken of by Martin Luther King, Jr. 50-plus years ago.
Just as it is hard to fathom slavery as once being legal in this country, it is equally difficult to imagine that, during my lifetime, black and white people had separate water fountains and restrooms.
I can remember, as a young child, my doctor’s office having a “colored” waiting room. The local Boys’ Club refused to admit black members, meaning they could not play on the club-sponsored city sports teams.
Although some tried to justify such atrocities with the term “separate but equal,” there was nothing equal about any of it.
Unfortunately, I grew up around much prejudice and racism. I won’t go into the details, but suffice it to say I had to form a number of independent opinions to overcome some of the ideas and thoughts to which I was repeatedly exposed.
Some wonderful people helped me along the way, including black classmates, teachers and colleagues who demonstrated the strong character Dr. King referenced when he said people should be judged by such, rather than the color of their skin.
My enlightenment, if you will, started with Gregory, the brave little boy in my second-grade class, one of two black children who came to my elementary school in the fall of 1965.
My second-grade teacher, Mrs. Boone, also opened my eyes, showing Gregory unconditional love and acceptance. By the end of the year, none of us thought of him as any different from the rest of us. He was just Gregory.
He was bright and kind, and he and I were friends. Unfortunately, the friendship could only go so far at the time. There was an unspoken understanding that I would never ask him to come to my house or go places with him outside of school.
As time went on and schools in my hometown became fully integrated, black classmates helped me by showing their hopes and dreams were just the same as mine: to get an education, to go to college and to have a career and family.
By the time I graduated from high school, I gave little thought to the difference in skin color of classmates and teachers. Black and white people shared class office duties, played on teams together and stood beside each other on the homecoming court.
But the social lines were still distinct. I knew that, in many ways, life was harder for my black friends. Few of them had parents with great jobs. Neighborhoods were still segregated.
There were few, if any, non-school activities that brought us together. Sadly, this included church, an institution that should have been leading the way in bringing about reconciliation.
The black children I grew up with knew what it felt like to endure glares, to be unjustly accused because of their race and to have someone cross to the other side of the street to avoid them. Looking back, I wish I had made more of an effort to be their advocate, and I wish I had been a better friend.
I never saw Gregory again after second grade. I moved to a different elementary school after that year and by the time we would have been brought back together in junior high or high school, his family had moved to another city.
I doubt he fully appreciated what he was doing when he walked into an all-white classroom in 1965.
Today I hope he remembers, and I hope he’s proud.
Bob McKinney is a longtime Brentwood resident, happy husband and proud father, father-in-law and grandfather. Email him at [email protected].