LITTLE ROCK Sixty years ago, segregation was the common practice of the South as blacks and whites had different water fountains, sections of restaurants and school systems.
Fifty years ago, black families traveling in the South more than likely packed food to take on long car trips so they didn’t have to encounter segregationists or stop to find a restaurant that would serve them.
Then 40 years ago, integration arrived across much of the small-town South. In August 1970, my new fourth grade teacher was Frances Scott, a stout and powerful African American woman who instructed the 26 students-20 white and six black-in Jesup, Ga., a town of 10,000 notable for its pulp mill, farming and forestry.
My, how things have changed.
These days, students across the South attend integrated classes with white, brown and black students. Although some schools may be more white or black than others, integration is accepted and has become part of our culture-so much so that news stories of racism are considered abnormal.
Today, a black family or professional can travel-even at night-without worrying about being refused a hotel room or a place at a restaurant’s table. A Charleston friend who arrived in Birmingham at 3 a.m. recently had trouble finding a hotel not because of his skin color but because so many rooms were occupied by tornado survivors.
The other day, former Congressman Bob Inglis of Greenville and I discussed the enormous changes made in the South over the last 40 years. He recalled moving from a white elementary school in Bluffton in the fifth grade to an integrated one the following year where he was one of three white kids in a class of 25.
These days, Inglis, who lost a reelection bid last year in the GOP primary, is teaching an energy policy class at the Institute of Politics at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, where he has a fellowship for the spring semester.
In talking for more than an hour, we marveled at things like how our children will be adults in a South not obsessed with race.
“I think my kids and their kids won’t notice what race somebody is,” he said. “Part of that comes with their learning experiences.”
But just because today’s young Southerners have a more color-blind childhood than people of 50 or 100 years ago, we should not ignore challenges that still exist.
Inglis recalled being with a black House staffer several years ago waiting to catch a taxi. The staffer said, “Boy, am I glad I’m with you.” When Inglis asked why, the staffer said some cabbies wouldn’t stop for a black person-even near the Capitol.
Talking about race with Inglis in Boston, it seemed that not just other parts of the country still need to work to eradicate racial prejudice. Cambridge, smack dab in the middle of where some of the smartest people in the country work, is where one of the nation’s biggest recent racial clashes occurred. Remember when a prominent black Harvard professor clashed with a white Cambridge police officer in a racial misunderstanding that took a president to quell over a “beer summit?”
In the South, we seem to have come far relatively quickly in dealing with race. Perhaps that’s because we had a long way to go. And yes, racism still exists here as elsewhere. But also recall that in the South, whites and blacks have been living with each other for generations. When the rules changed with integration, we started seeing something more in each other than skin color. We started checking some preconceived notions at the door.
Today as a people who have been dealing with race, we also need others to check their preconceptions about the South at the door. Outsiders need to understand how the South has grown over the last two generations. Everyone here is not a hackneyed version of a character in The Dukes of Hazzard.
While we need to keep working to accept everyone for who they are instead of what skin color they have, we should be thankful the virulent racism that once characterized our region is no longer accepted or acceptable. A large part of the reason is because we integrated our schools. Let’s keep what we learned alive.
Andy Brack, publisher of StatehouseReport.com, is president and chairman of the Center for a Better South, a regional think tank based in Charleston, S..C. Reprinted with permission from Like the Dew: A Journal of Southern Culture and Politics (likethedew.com)