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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

"For the Love of All Mankind"

 My parents were from small, rural S. C. It was a farming community, mostly cotton and watermelons. Many of the field hands were black. Often growing up the hired help was also black. As a young freckled boy, I just figured black folks were poorer than even us and therefore fell to doing the labor that white folks didn’t want to do.

  I seldom heard any form of derision though yes at times someone would make a disparaging comment about the intelligence or motivation of black people. It strikes me now that even then I was conscious that because they were poor they lacked resources for education, nutrition, and cultural motivation. The climate was scorching hot, the work grueling, and the pay poor.  How would one not move slow … perceive a need to manage strength, harbor resentment towards the source of their suffering?

  There were no blacks in my grade schools. There were two in what we then called Junior High School. My last year of high school federal forced busing for integration was passed. We were the last graduating class that was not forced to bus to other schools.

  There were fights and riots. We managed to resolve them with a minimum of damage among ourselves thanks to a few peaceful “hippies” that set an example of tolerance.

  When he first appeared on the scene, I did not care for Dr. Martin Luther King. Most in my circles felt the same.  He was “rocking the boat.” …. “Stirring up trouble.”
We had always got along with black folks. What was all the noise about?

  In Junior High School they passed out a mimeograph sheet of terms we were no longer supposed to use. “Negro” was out, “black” was the correct term. I found it ridiculous yet complied out of a sense of civic duty.

  Then came the television news. I, like so many, could not ignore the cruelty of white folks spitting and cursing at a lovely African American child in a light colored dress walking the gauntlet to school. I could not ignore German Shepards being set loose on black folks in suits and ties and Sunday best.

  Then I began to understand. The status quo had been fine with me because I experienced nothing negative from it. Now I did. Now I saw the injustice. Then I heard,

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.”

  Then they killed President John Fitzgerald Kennedy … and Dr. Martin Luther King …
 and Robert F. Kennedy … and I knew. We had ignored our prejudice and our fear. Those with the courage to expose it were destroyed.We had brushed it under the rug as an “inconvenient truth” while black folks were tortured and murdered and lynched from trees and worst of all while they were subjected to the worst indignity of all … denial of self worth.

  When I was a wee boy my Mom and Grandmother sent me down to Joyner’s grocery for a loaf of bread. It was a small town and Mama Laney lived across the street from the High School. Joyner’s was just a couple of blocks away but it seemed like a trek through the Sahara that day. Coming back I held the bread up one handed as long as I could. I didn’t want to cradle it for fear of their warning,

 “Don’t squish it like you did the last time, Honey.”

You see the loaf was so long that I had to hold it straight out. After exhausting both arms I was resting and an old black man came up.

“ Reckon I could help you out, young 'un?”

“Oh YES, please. You sure could. I gotta get this loaf of bread back to Mama Laney’s.”

“I just happen to know right where that is.” He grinned a gap toothed smile.

 So he took the loaf of bread, grasped my right hand and walked with me.  I was surprised at the rough, callused, leathery feel of his huge hand encircling my tiny white fingers. I noticed though that his palm was much the same color as mine though he was black as night.

  We stood in front of the house and he asked,

“You gonna be ok from here little fella?”

“Oh yes sir. Thank you. Thank you very much.”

 My mother tells the story of looking out of the window and seeing me standing there with the bread looking up into the face of that tall black, man talking as I was prone to non stop do. She has shared, that though startled at first, she quickly realized that the exchange was harmless. When I walked in I told her what happened. Her and Mama Laney just chuckled at my precociousness.

 I, on the other hand have never forgotten him.

Years later I sat at a desk and listened to a lesson on “the love of all mankind.”

The speaker concluded his lesson with a quote. It never ceases to echo at the core of my being  …

      “Free at last! Free at last!
                Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

I can only pray that we as a nation choose freedom ... rather than fear. 


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