“Crash,” a 2004 academy award winning movie, is a provocative film that reveals the intricacies and complexities of racial intolerance. Set in Los Angeles, “Crash” is composed of vignettes of seemingly unrelated events. During one 36 hour period, the cast of characters careen in and out of each others lives, intersecting at “crash“ moments. Watching the movie, one begins to see that race issues in a multi-ethnic society are not so clear cut, rather many nuances of gray on ALL sides of the issue. These moments, these crashes and the revelations of the stories leading up to the crashes, challenge us to be more understanding and tolerant as we navigate oftentimes turbulent waters toward mutual understanding, accountability and responsibility.
After watching the movie, I was challenged to take a look at “crash” moments in my life. Growing up white in the civil rights south of the 50’s and 60’s, I realized that there were many such moments. My crashes seem like fender benders by comparison to those in the movie, but they were crashes non the less. Prior to the movie, I had not taken the time to consider the importance or impact of my personal “crash” experiences in making me who I am. As I began to look beyond the moments of impact, and ponder their ramifications, I realized that the crashes did not end with our family’s move “north” but that to this day, there are crash moments, moments to be reflected upon and learned from. The following scenarios are crashes that for whatever reason stand out in my memory, and in one sense, tell an important part of my story.
Location: Doyline, Louisiana
Time: cc 1956
My dad was the minister of the Methodist Church in Doyline, a sleepy little village in northeast Louisiana. The parsonage, our home, was small, only four or five rooms, and sat across the street from the church. I was four years old, so my earliest memories, few as they are, begin in Doyline. I remember sunny days, playing outside in the yard, and sometimes walking across the street to the church to visit my dad as he worked in his office. My brothers and I had friends with whom to play, and Doyline is where we began taking our annual family vacations. I remember long but adventuresome train rides to Kentucky to see our grandparents. (Mom made us special traveling outfits; at that time folks dressed up to travel by train.) Camping in Tennessee in the old baker tent comes to mind, too. Yet, not everything was rosy! I remember my twin brother and I “running away from home,” to the train depot at the end of our block. At some point on our way to the depot, though, we dropped the suitcase we lugged behind us (which Mom so diligently helped us pack), and ran home to the safety of our parents’ love and protection. The reason we were running away is long forgotten. More cheerily, I learned the song “Pickin’ up pawpaws and puttin’ em in our pockets” while in Doyline. Doyline is where we got our first T.V. At first, I was frightened of this big, dark brown box that was carried in to our living room and placed in front of the window. Hiding behind the couch, I lay down and pressed my cheeks against the floor. At just the right angle, I could peer under the furniture to watch magical pictures dance across the television screen. Of course, it didn’t take long for me to conquer that fear! Gary, my youngest brother, only four years younger than me, was born while we lived in Doyline. Gary was a cutie, but not much fun to play with, not like my dolls! (Although, I’m told that I tried to make him one of my dolls.)
The “crash” in Doyline is a “little” memory that only took on significance later in my life. I had a friend who lived just down the short block and around the corner from us. I was invited to her birthday party, and also to regular play times with her. However, at some point I noticed that it had been a while since we had played together, my friend and I. I asked Mom if I could go to my friend‘s house, that it had been a long time since I had seen her. Mom simply said “No.” That was it. There was no explanation. When Mom gave an answer, the answer stuck; no pleading or cajoling would “encourage” her to change her mind. “No” meant “no.“ Occasionally I would ask again in the event that things had changed and what was originally not allowed might now be allowed. Mom’s answer never wavered, though. My friend and I just couldn’t play together anymore.
When I became an adult, my parents would sometimes talk about their early years in ministry, including our two years in Doyline. Throughout the country, especially in the deep south, the church was a segregated entity (and in most instances, remains so today.) I can hear my dad telling of being appointed to the charge in Doyline, Louisiana. The Methodist Church operates on an episcopal system in which the bishop appoints ministers to a “charge” consisting of one to four churches. If memory serves me correctly, there were two churches on the Doyline charge. I only remember Doyline. Almost immediately upon arriving there, Dad began expressing his “dis-ease” with the policies regarding segregation, which were prominently posted on the bulletin board in the vestibule of the church. This was common practice in most white churches throughout the south. Listed was the procedure to follow should a “colored” person enter the sanctuary during a worship service. First, the person of color would be asked by an usher to leave the premises. If the intruder did not vacate the church immediately, the service would be stopped and the congregation would disperse without further adieu. Dad, who happened to have been part of the group who labored to integrate Duke Divinity School, found this post extremely disturbing. Dad removed the post. Soon thereafter, the policy came up for discussion at a regularly scheduled church board meeting. Dad informed the board that he had no intention of following the edict; he was there to preach and provide pastoral direction to any person who entered the church regardless of race. End of discussion, or so he thought.
After that meeting, we were essentially shunned by the congregation. Invitations to birthday parties and play dates dried up; children were not allowed to associate with us. But that is not the worst of what happened. Dad began to receive threatening phone calls. The threats were directed against my father, but also targeted Mom and us kids. Additionally, the church began to withhold Dad’s pay check. Paying bills, putting food on the table, and keeping the family safe from harm became a hardship for my parents, a hardship to which my three brothers and I were oblivious. The threat became so serious that Dad made a complaint to the Bishop of the Louisiana Conference. Even though it was divided on the issue of segregation, the conference supported Dad and threatened to sanction the church in Doyline in some fashion if it did not fulfill its obligation to pay my father’s salary. The church agreed to pay Dad, however, now they would conveniently “forget” it was pay day, or they would say there was no money in the coffers and he would have to wait for his check. It became an humiliating game in which my dad was forced to beg for his pay that would come in small increments a little bit here and there, until they were finally caught up.
Needless to say, when the conference year ended, even though we had only lived in this town for two years, we were ready for a move. However, Doyline was not finished with us just yet. Certain people within the congregation made a point of calling other Methodist churches in the conference to alert them to Dad‘s stance on race issues. Those churches would then refuse to accept Dad as their minister. This happened repeatedly, to the point that some wondered if Dad was “appointable” in the Louisiana Conference of the Methodist Church.
Eventually a church did accept Dad: Marion, LA. In fact the three years we were in Marion were a respite after Doyline. The Marion Methodist Church had no policy of segregation, and in fact they expressed to Dad that anyone and everyone regardless of race was welcome. As far as I know, though, that was never tested while we were there. But I was young and “color consciousness” was not on my radar screen, yet. For me, our time in Marion was filled with wonderful experiences for which I have cherished memories.
***As I prepared to post this blog, I was reminded that 50 years ago today, Monday, Feb. 1, 1960, Franklin McCain and three friends “integrated” the lunch counter at the “Five and Dime” (Woolworths) in Greensboro, NC, that created a firestorm which, along with other bold acts of defiance, changed the face of this country forever. My crash happened at the “Five and Dime” in Monroe, Louisiana. At the time, I did not know about the Civil Rights Movement or any of its movers and shakers.
Location: Monroe, Louisiana
Time: cc late 1960
When we lived in Marion, we were about an hour drive from the nearest city, Monroe. Going to Monroe happened only once or twice a year, and while we were there we would always make a point of stopping at the “Five & Dime.” (Woolworths) Always. With a nickel burning our pockets, my brothers and I were allowed to buy anything we wanted! As we got older, our nickel was increased to a quarter.
Shopping in the “city” was special, but looking back, there were things we took for granted, things we never questioned, assumptions and accepted “norms” of the Jim Crow south. Every public building had separate entrances for “colored” and “whites.” Every restroom was segregated, or if there was only one restroom, it was a “whites only” restroom. Food counters served whites only, “coloreds” couldn’t even order to carry out. As strange as it sounds today, this is the south I grew up in and did not question. It just was.
My crash occurred at the segregated water fountain. We were on our big trip to the city, and our exciting foray to the “five and dime.” While we were there shopping, and as we passed the water fountain, I stopped to get a drink. After I quenched my thirst, and as I walked away from the fountain, I saw the sign screaming at me: “Colored.“ I had inadvertently drunk from the colored water fountain. My heart skipped a beat, the palms of my hand went clammy, and for a moment I felt dizzy. I dared not tell any one what I had done. I quickly caught up with my parents two aisles over from the fountain. Dad looked down and asked if something was wrong. “No, I just got a drink,“ I replied, trying to sound nonchalant. But I was trembling. What was going to happen to me? Was I going to get sick? Was my skin going to change color? For days I walked around keeping this dreaded secret, constantly studying my skin and paying attention to how I felt. I had drunk from the wrong water fountain. Something dreadful was bound to happen. The water tasted the same as it did from the “whites” water fountain. It was just as cold and refreshing. The water was sparkling clear in both fountains. I knew in my heart, though, that there had to be a valid reason for separate water fountains because separate fountains were ubiquitous in my world. I was truly afraid that I had done something terribly wrong. But nothing happened. To be honest, I think I was a bit disappointed. Surely there had to be some consequence for having broken a staunch taboo such as drinking from the wrong water fountain. I had put myself through a lot of drama over this and nothing inside me or out was changing. After a few months of angst, (yes, months) I concluded that separate water fountains was an absolute waste. Wouldn’t it be simpler to just have one fountain for everybody? That way no one would inadvertently drink from the “wrong” water fountain.
My water fountain “crash” was a catalytic moment as I began to get an inkling for myself just how ludicrous the “Jim Crow” system was. Although only eight years old at the time, the intervening fifty years have not fogged the vividness of this memory. I did not know the terminology, nor did I have the ability to articulate what I was feeling and thinking, but I knew something was stupidly wrong . The crash at the water fountain was the beginning of my awakening with regard to racism Many years later, I also began to see how growing up a white girl in the deep south during the 50’s and 60’s had indoctrinated me in many subtle ways that I did not want to own.
Location: Greenwood, Louisiana
Time: cc early 1960’s
After three blissful years in Marion, we moved to the small town of Greenwood, just outside Shreveport, Louisiana, and six or seven miles from the small town of Waskom, Texas. I would end up living in Greenwood longer than any other place in my life as of this writing: 5 years.
We moved to Greenwood the summer before my ninth birthday. We lived half a block from the church, and across the street from the elementary school my brothers and I attended. Greenwood was another small town with many friends living within walking distance. It was nice to be of an age, location, and time in history when we never gave a moment’s thought to locking the door unless we were leaving the house for an extended period of time. My twin brother, Steve, and I began our fourth year of school in Greenwood. Mrs. Forsythe was our teacher. The school property was our playground. Mr. Garner, the school principal lived within sight of our house. When Mr. Garner retired, he was followed by Mr. Cranston. The Cranstons were good family friends, and also lived within sight of our home. The Cranston boys became our playmates, and now 50+ years later we still hear from each other now and then. I began piano lessons while still in Marion, but didn’t get serious about it until we reached Greenwood. Mrs. Billie Dunn was my beloved piano teacher, and under her tutelage I became quite proficient, to the point that at times I would be asked to play the piano for church services.
One memory that stands out is the year that Mom and Dad took us to Annual Conference to witness a somewhat historic event, at least in the annals of the Louisiana Methodist Conference. A raging debate was being waged before our eyes regarding integrating the Louisiana Conference of the Methodist Church with the Louisiana African Methodist Conference. We family members sat in the balcony of the sanctuary (Centenary College in Shreveport, Louisiana) and watched the proceedings taking place below. Ministers lined up behind one of two podiums, depending on which side of the issue they stood, each awaiting the opportunity to contend his point. The argument bounced back and forth endlessly, the lines for both sides stretching down the side aisles all the way to the entrance of the sanctuary and beyond. Each debater was given 45 seconds to make his case, the argument going from side to side. Mesmerized by the proceedings, I was reluctant to leave when Dad motioned up to us to meet him outside. Dad did not show anger very often, but this time I sensed his outrage and frustration with the conference.
The two conferences were combined into one at some point, but I don’t remember if that happened the year we were there to witness the debate or not.
(However, this was not my crash moment. Witnessing the above reveals the prescient attitudes of the south at the time of my crash. My crash moment was a simple, instantaneous moment, quickly here then gone.)
It was a hot, humid, summer day. Growing bored playing in our front yard, I decided to venture over to the church to play. To get to the church, I had to cross the street, cut through our neighbor’s yard along a line of shrubbery, and finally squeeze through an opening between two bushes. I came out at the side door of the educational wing of the church, which was elevated, enough so that my brothers, our friends and I could actually play under the church building in the cool dirt. We were totally oblivious to the dangers (rattle snakes, big bad spiders, etc., all of which were plentiful in our warm climate.) To us, it was a perfect place to play “house,” or marbles, or to just daydream. We could go there to get away from siblings…..and parents. That is where I was headed. As I prepared to cross the street we lived on, I had to wait for an approaching pick-up truck to pass. It was an old, worn, rusted, blue dented truck with a high wooden “fence” attached to the flat bed. This being a time before safety concerns were such an issue (we didn’t even know anyone who had seatbelts in their cars) there were several young black kids standing in the flatbed, holding on to the raised rail as they passed by. The boys looked to be about my age, the oldest no more than eleven or twelve years old. As they passed, one of the boys spit at me. The look on his face was of fury, pure rage. I remember it: set jaw, knitted, frowning eyebrows, squinted eyes glaring at me. The spittle missed its mark but I still felt the sting of being the object of his rage. My first thought was “If only you knew who my dad was! If only you knew that we are on your side!” I wanted to defend myself, to tell him that we whites are not all alike, we don‘t all wear robes and burn crosses. However, those thoughts dissipated as quickly as they arose because I knew. I do not recall feeling anger or fear. To the contrary. I understood why he was angry, and furthermore, I felt he had every right to be angry. But we were the good guys, the good white folk, the ones who spoke out against segregation and violence and oppression et al.
That was it. In an instant I experienced a moment that would stay with me the rest of my life, even though the truck never slowed down, no one else knew what had transpired, words were never spoken. In an instant he was gone and I continued on my way to find someone to play with, or possibly stop in the office to say “hi” to my dad. But even at that young age, I knew in the moment that it happened, that he had every right to be angry.
Location: Valley Station, KY
Time: August, 1967
In June, 1967, my dad resigned from the Louisiana United Methodist Conference, surrendered his ministerial credentials and left the ministry for good. I don’t know all the reasons, just that our lives changed drastically. Up until that time no matter where we lived, we always had a ready made community waiting for us. We always had a house to live in, provided by the church, and every home was furnished — oftentimes the furnishings were drab and ugly, other people’s castaways — but we had a bed to sleep in, a table to eat at, etc. When Dad resigned, we left all of that behind us. We had no home to go to, no furniture to our name, no welcoming committee to greet us. Since we had no place to land, we took that summer to travel out west and camp in the Rocky Mountains. There will be another large chapter to write about that magical, scary summer. When the summer was drawing to an end, we packed up and headed back east, not to Louisiana, the only home I had known, but to Kentucky, my mother’s childhood home, and where we still had relatives. Mom and Dad wanted to get us settled somewhere before school began. We stayed at my grandparents tobacco farm for a little while, while Dad looked for work. When he couldn’t find work, Uncle Norman and Aunt Helga invited us to live with them temporarily so that we could enroll in school. They had a small three-bedroom house with an unfinished basement. At the time we lived with them, they had three children (a fourth surprised them later.) We slept in the unfinished basement on cots with hanging sheets in strategic places to provide some privacy. All eleven of us shared one bathroom. This is how we lived for a few months until Dad got a janitorial job and we were able to rent a small house down the street. Mom got a job as a substitute teacher. This is how we got our start in Kentucky. I went to Valley High School, my brothers all went to Stuart, a new high school being built. (If they had had all the grades completed, that is where I would have been enrolled.)
My freshman year in high school, our last year in Louisiana, I had been the class president–for a class of 15 students. As I walked up to Valley High, I was entering a school of thousands, 550 in my class alone. And I didn’t know a soul, and no one knew me. No one. I had no idea where to go. I didn’t even know what “home room” was. The bustle and excitement of the first day of school terrified me. EVERY ONE else seemed to know what was going on, was excited to see friends after a summer apart. Teachers who were stationed everywhere were busy directing students here and there, chatting, pointing, not seeing me. I timidly approached one teacher asking what I was supposed to do. She seemed irritated to have to deal with me, grabbed another student and instructed him to take me to my home room class. I was hastily guided through crowded hallways and deposited at my room without a word to me…the student had his own friends to see and class to get to. I entered the room, no hellos from anyone, and took the first available seat. Once class started the teacher rearranged us according to alphabet. Home room was where we started our days: 15 minutes for roll call, announcements, any administrative paperwork, whatever. When the bell rang, we had five minutes to get to our first class of the day. My crash moment happened in the first class of my first day in my new life.
As I entered the classroom, the teacher was greeting each of us and directing us to our assigned seats. As I sat down, I noticed that the seat one row over and two seats behind mine was occupied by a black student. This was the first time in my life I had ever been in a racially integrated school. Not only was I shocked, I was scared. And, more strongly than the fear was my feeling of shame for harboring the fear. I nervously kept looking over my shoulder so that I would always know what he was doing. I was overly curious and cautious. I doubted myself. How could I have these feelings having grown up in my family of all families. However, like it or not, filled with shame even at that time, I was fearful. I pretty much went through the year “acting” like everything was normal, and I was cool, but always being very aware of the differences. This was my first conscious awareness that even growing up with the sensibilities that I did, I had been acculturated in the segregated south and I would have a lot of internal work ahead of me for years to come to purge myself of this racism.
Location: Rochester, NY
Time: cc 1991
Years later, as a 40+ year old woman, mother of three, and grad student, I was still crashing. This one happened at the Divinity School where I was enrolled. Another student, I’ll call her Vicki, also in her 40s, had a son the same age as my son. Both our children were about 5’10”. Both were typical young men in high school. The seminary had a large cafeteria/hall with dark paneled walls, high ceilings, dark tables; it had the “look” of academia. Oftentimes between classes some of us would congregate there, have coffee, read, discuss some deep theological concept or problem, or just complain about classes and long commutes. One day while we were in the cafeteria, an alert was broadcast over the radio: a shooting had occurred in Rochester, someone had died, and the suspect was still at large. The announcer described the suspect as a black male, approx. 5’10”, in his late teens wearing a red hooded jacket, and was last seen leaving the scene of the crime. An address was given which was not far from the seminary. Vicki, upon hearing the report, immediately jumped up from her seat and ran from the room. Later I learned she rushed to call her son to inform him of what had happened and to caution him not to wear anything red. That seemed rather odd to me. It never would have occurred to me to call my son to warn him if the report had been of a white male with the same description. Upon reflection, I knew that Vicki was not overreacting, she was not being a drama queen. Racial incidents frequently erupted in Rochester. Prior to this incident, a conference was held at our school with a veritable “Who’s Who” of black church and academic leaders as invited speakers. Lectures, classes, and seminars were held for the paying participants from across the area, and free for us students…one of the perks of higher education. One evening, after a meal at a nice restaurant, these dignitaries decided to walk back to campus. It was a nice evening, and a nice neighborhood. Deep in some theological or academic discussion as they walked, they did not notice the patrol car slowly approaching them until the car pulled along side them and officers got out and began to question them. Identification was asked for. Eventually they were taken to the local police station to be more thoroughly questioned. No crime had been committed. No offense had occurred. No threatening behavior was observed, or indicated in any way. The officers eventually admitted that the reason the group was suspect was that they were “too well dressed” for black people and therefore were probably up to no good. This took place in the early ’90’s. These were visiting dignitaries from not only across this country, but from other parts of the world. And this is how they were treated simply because they were black.
Vicki’s history was a world away from my history. Both of us were born and raised in this country. Both of us came from a middle class background, from hard working parents. Both of us lived through the Civil Rights era. Both of us had good boys about the same age, similar in height and behavior. The difference was that they were black and we were white. Vicki knew the danger her son faced simply because he was black, which had nothing to do with his behavior. “Listen to the description, then change clothes…” to survive. I had been working on my own racism for decades, trying to eradicate the subtle and the not so subtle prejudices I, growing up a white girl in the segregated south, had absorbed. This one incident revealed to me yet again that no matter how hard I tried, the one thing I could never know was what it was like growing up a black girl in this country. In this instance, Vicki’s son was in danger because of race. My son was safe because of race. Neither son had done anything at all to merit danger or safety. Up until this incident, I believed that I could understand, that I could bridge the racial chasm. In that revelatory experience, I realized that would never be. I could walk up to the edge, I could peer across the gap, I could have friends, but I would never ever be able to fully understand a life from birth to death living with the vigilance that Vicki had been forced to cultivate from a very early age. It saddens me to think of the friendships lost, or never forged because of nothing more than skin color.
My children grew up in a very different world than I did. Many battles were fought, and are still being waged, to create an egalitarian world where all people are “judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin,” to use Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words. This is not the end. There is more work to be done. I intend to remain aware, to reflect, to learn, to grow, to forge new friendships based on principles and ethics rather than appearances and popularity. This writing is only the beginning. I am publishing this today, not because it is finished, rather I have been working on this for some time and want to put it out for your perusal, to hear your questions. How do you connect to any of this? Or do you? What insights have you gleaned? What emotions? I anxiously await your comments and critiques.