Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Political Roots - Understanding Self

The following story Chronicles my early political life. The images contained in the story have followed me throughout my life.

Political Roots – Thoughts on Change

I was eleven years old. The year was 1961 and traveling through the south with Massachusetts license plates could, on rare occasions, be hazardous to your health. In my family’s case, we were lucky; my dad kept a level head and managed to find a small police station in rural South Carolina. The truck that tried to run us off the road and followed for over 100 miles disappeared in the dark southern night.

Our destination was Americus Georgia, the hometown of my father’s parents. My southern relatives were great people that clung tightly to southern traditions. This was not an easy time in the south during the first years of the Kennedy administration. My dad, having grown up in the south viewed life a little differently. Surviving the war in the South Pacific, marrying my mom from Boston and settling in the northeast probably changed him.

As children, my sister who was thirteen and I could not fully comprehend the turmoil. We would question and not understand why most stores downtown excluded blacks. In the stores that allowed blacks to enter, items on the floor had 2 separate prices; the lower price was always for the white customers.

My grandmother was dying of Parkinson’s disease and because of her deteriorating condition needed help daily. On this trip, the help was a young black girl that probably was not more than 14 years of age and that certainly seemed to belong in school. I can’t remember her name but I vividly remember the incidents that followed.

After this young black girl served dinner to the ten of us in the dining room, she went out to the kitchen to eat alone. My sister insisted that this girl be allowed to eat dinner with us at the dinning room table. It was politely explained to her this was not done in the south. My sister lifted her plate and walked into the kitchen, sat down and ate her dinner with this girl that was so near to her own age. I was very nervous and remained seated and ate my dinner. By the time desert was served, I mustered up the courage to join my sister in the kitchen with her new friend. Through this all, both my parents never said a negative word.

After dinner, I walked outside and found a young black boy who was about my age in the street by himself. I asked him if he wanted to play catch. He said he did not have a glove so we shared mine, taking turns catching ground balls and fly balls in the street. It just so happened that this boy was the brother of my sister’s new friend. He was sent by his family to walk his sister home. They lived down the street at the beginning of the black section and all of the houses along this side of West Church Street were in very poor condition. My sister and I walked our friends back to their house and they invited us in. I can remember a large kitchen table, but that is not the thing that stayed with me all of these years. Above the table on the kitchen wall was a framed color photograph of President John Kennedy. It seemed to be the only thing in color in a black and white world.

Through this all, my parents only offered positive support and my loving southern relatives never said a negative word. At least I can’t remember a negative word, but maybe there were some discussions when my sister and I were out of the house. While southern traditions would at times dictate behavior, it did not change the fact that I’m confident my very sick grandmother cared deeply, and yes, loved her care givers.

This brings me forward to today, November 4, 2008, some 47 years later. I’m proud to have a framed picture of President Barack Obama hanging in my den. To me it completes a journey of hope; the hope that all people can learn to love and respect one another. I’m as proud of hanging this picture in my den as that poor black family was proud of hanging their picture so long ago.



  1. I didn't have those experiences not having southern relatives and traveling South yearly but I can clearly visualize those situations. I am so happy with the new President and his family for many reasons--I think they are a breath of fresh air and idealism (after 8 years, the cloud has lifted! finally...), I feel an air of optimism for my country again finally, and I feel President Obama truly cares about the average people in the U.S. Thank goodness this has really helped also to lift the ideals of civil rights for all Americans as being a reality...

  2. I remember vividly that trip south with my parents and my brother. I remember waking up in the back of our station wagon with the Mass license plates. There were bright lights from headlights of the car following behind us. He was trying to get close enough to ram us from behind. My Dad yelled at me to lay back down and hang on. When we pulled into the next town and stopped in front of the sherrif's office, my mom wrote down the license plate number. Even though this number was turned in, there was no further investigation. Following our yankee car was justified in their eyes.
    I remember my brother's telling of the story where I insisted that the black maid and caretaker for my garndmother should be able to sit at the table in the diningroom with us. And I remember that when my request was denied, I ate in the kitchen with her.
    There is another story to share of that day. While my bother was playing catch with this girl's brother, I chose to walk to the neighborhood drug store with her. I was angry at prejudice and wanted to take a stand. I had intended to test the new intergration law and had planned to buy each of us an ice cream soda. When we got the drug store, they were in the process of removing the soda fountain. No longer would they sell ice cream because they would have to sell to both black and white.
    I watched my new friend pick up a can of powder and ask the price. She was told $2, way out of her reach. I went up to the counter and asked the price of that same can of powder, was told 50 cents. I bought that can and gave it to my friend in front of that pharmacist. I remember some young white men standing outside and they spit at me just for walking down the sidewalk with my friend because she was black.
    As that 13 year old girl, I could not understand why people judged and even hated others just because of the color of someone's skin. Even thought my dad grew up in the south, somehow he felt this was wrong. I remember him saying that in WWII, when lives were lost, the color of your skin didn't matter. It was RED blood, American blood, that was shed for our freedom.
    I am grateful to have witnessed our recent presendential election. But we still have a long way to go. There is so much emphasis today on the word "deversity". To me diversity has an almost negative connotation. It means different than me. As a society, we need to focus on what we all have "IN COMMON" before we can appreciate our differences.
    I'm glad that we are getting better. I pray the day will come when campaigns will not even mention the color of a persons skin; when we will vote for the PERSON, not the party, not the sex, not the race, and not the religion of the candidate. We need to focus on the qualifications and vision of the candidate. That's what really matters. Only then will prejudice truly be conquered. Only then will we finally get it right!

  3. While I was confident that my grandparent's home we traveled to in Americus, Georgia became the first headquarters of "Habitat for Humanity", I did not mention this until I had more references. My experience at such a young age, in the home of my grandparents, became the first home office for "Habitat for Humanity". I think that my grandmother that spent hours in that home trapped by her disease would be so proud of the positive energy that grew from that home. What a memory!!!