Ever since I left the US at age twenty-one to study my “junior year abroad” in Germany, I’ve considered myself to be a “citizen of the world,” as opposed to loving my country, “right or wrong.” I have a deep and active interest in international politics and in the quality of social discourse. I love to travel…I love international cuisine…I love the music of many cultures. My roots are Southern-American culture, a special subset of general American culture. It’s a strong enough culture that there’s a saying: You can take the boy out of the South but you can’t take the South out of the boy.
I write these words on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, which featured Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream…” speech. I was fourteen years old, a high school sophomore in Columbus, Georgia, at the time of the march. There is no doubt that, in the ensuing fifty years, conditions have improved immensely in terms of civil rights for blacks, and by extension for all citizens. But as was said by all speakers at the recent commemoration, there is still much work to be done.
Having grown up in the segregated South of the 1950’s and ’60’s, I think it will be worthwhile for my blog readers to be reminded of what pre-civil rights era Southern society was like. My parents were not racists. However, in the generational context, my father, like the majority of Southerners of his generation, was a defender of racial segregation. He believed that segregation was innate to human nature and that it was an improper application of government authority to “force” integration. He was also a strong believer in the constitution, including the tenth amendment, which states that powers not specifically given to the federal government were retained by the states. (This is the amendment cited by opponents of Obamacare.)
My grandfather, Oscar Dallas Smith, Sr., secured the right to vote for blacks in the state of Georgia in the 1940’s. Primus King was an African-American who wanted to vote in the Democratic Party primary. In those days, the Democratic primary was tantamount to the general election because Republicans were the party of Lincoln, who had freed the slaves and humiliated the South in the Civil War. Not only was Primus King denied the right to cast his vote at the local precinct; he was beat up by Democratic Party thugs for having made the attempt to integrate the vote. In court, the Democratic Party claimed that it was a “private club” that had the right to restrict its “members” to whites only. After winning the case, my grandfather had a Ku Klux Klan cross burned in his yard.
My father, as an attorney before he became a judge, was the only white attorney in Columbus willing to sign the required recommendation to enable the first black attorney to become a member of the local bar association and thus have the right to practice law in Georgia. That black attorney went on to become a distinguished judge himself in the same Superior Court where my father served. He ultimately delivered one of the eulogies at my father’s funeral.
In contrast to the “liberal” acts by my father and grandfather, racism was pervasive growing up in Columbus, Georgia. Everything was segregated: schools, churches, businesses, public accommodations, neighborhoods, etc. The only blacks I met were those in service professions. I never met a black man my age in any kind of social setting. It was the American version of South African apartheid.
Martin Luther King Jr. was hated by many Southerners. (He is still hated by some “unreconstructed” Southerners.) He was called a communist, fascist, or any dirty name anybody could think of. I think Southerners of that time were so afraid of King because they recognized the power of his oratory. They also feared blacks in general, because they feared retribution and revenge for the centuries of white oppressors who at that time still sought to preserve white privilege. I remember being told, “Martin Luther King can spout his high and mighty rhetoric, but when the race war comes…and you know it’s coming…they won’t care what you think of Martin Luther King…They’ll kill you because you’re white!”
The fact is that there had been an ongoing race war against the blacks by the whites. There were no lynchings of blacks by white mobs during my years growing up in the South. But there were plenty of race-based murders of civil rights workers and leaders. Racial prejudice remained after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Prejudice is so deep-seated in so many groups, that it takes generations and decades for mindsets to change. Yes, things are better now than fifty years ago. But it might take another fifty to get over the vestiges of slavery, segregation, and racial animus.
The best comments I heard during the fifty-year commemoration concerned questions of what Martin Luther King would be saying today, if he could see what has happened in the decades since his assassination. Besides being a spokesman for racial equality and the abolition of laws perpetuating racial segregation, King was an advocate for workers in general. He would be appalled to see the decline of the ability of labor unions to protect workers wages and conditions. King would be appalled to observe the exploitation of Latino immigrant laborers similar to what happened to blacks.
In the late sixties, after the passage of the civil rights laws, Martin Luther King began to turn his attention to the Vietnam War. He was against it. He was a spokesman for peace as rooted in background as a preacher. His foundation was his understanding of the teachings of Jesus and the values associated with the bible. Thus, there is little doubt that as a devout Christian, Martin Luther King would have been against the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. King waged his “wars” in the pacifist mode of Gandhi. Like Mandela in South Africa, King defused the potential for uncontrolled racial violence and retribution through his sterling role model and moral example.
America’s racial history would have been different if Martin Luther King had never lived. He was killed at age thirty-nine. What would he have accomplished had he not been murdered at the prime of life? We’ll never know. It’s up to us, the survivors, to act to fulfill his vision of a world free of racism.