EVOLUTION OF RACIAL ATTITUDES OF A WHITE SOUTHERNER
Don C. Marler
The purpose of this piece is to review some of the elementary ways in which racial prejudice was expressed in the mid 20th century and how some white and black people dealt with it. I wish to show that not every white person in the south agreed with or supported the majority. Writing in the first person is not something I am comfortable with, but this seemed the best way to make the case.
Born in 1933 I grew up in Sieper Swamp about 3 miles from Hineston, La. Racial prejudice was rampart there. Most people in the area, including my extended family, were Baptist or Pentecostal. Churches and schools supported and promoted racial segregation and the discrimination that accompanied it.
No black people lived at Hineston; there were two small black communities about ten miles away, which was a considerable distance in those days. People of mixed blood known locally as mulattoes inhabited another community about five miles away. The residents were a mixture of white, black and Indian. Following the old “one drop” rule anyone with any history of black heritage, no matter how small or remote were referred to as black by some whites and by some as mulatto. Redbones had their own community about five miles away, but many were integrated into the white community. Indeed, many of those who claimed to be white were intermarried with Redbones.
In Louisiana as throughout the south every social, educational, religious, recreational or military function except work was segregated. Social and legal pressure and sanctions designed to maintain that status were as pervasive as they were explicit. My parents along with most everyone else succumbed to those pressures. My father was less prejudiced than most others in the community, but he adhered to the social conventions of the day even using the “N” word. He expressed his more tolerant ethic through the only open channel—work. Being foreman of a crew of timber workers he hired both black and white men.
My first exposure to and close association with blacks was as a teenage member of his crew. My earliest and most extensive association on the job was with a black man. Earnest Green, was a friendly man who was a pleasure to work with. We had some discussions about race.
Working in the woods was a hot job in the summer. We had drinking water in a small keg (wooden barrel) that kept the water slightly cool; ice was not available. Since several would drink from this vessel we left it at the truck. The keg had a hole in its side called a bunghole. The hole was closed by a peg or cork. If Earnest got to the truck before me he always waited until I got there and drank first. When we returned to work this was repeated. I was 15 and he was about 45-50 years old. I suspected that in his mind there was more than age involved—to me race had to be involved. It did not make sense as we were, after all, drinking after each other. He was never comfortable with my reassurance that it made no difference to me.
Mr. Green was my work partner; that meant that we used a two man crosscut saw to fell trees. Our task was to peel the bark from pine trees that were to be used for power line poles. We usually cut about 40 trees and he and I peeled 20 each. He was overweight and was much stronger than he knew. If he had to lift something that was heavy he would call me to help; then he would tell everyone how strong I was. At 15 I liked that and Earnest knew it. He used that knowledge very effectively. We were bonded–not by race, but in spite of it. I enjoyed the difference between us, enjoyed his tales. His character impressed me. There were other black workers that came and went, but Earnest stayed. He liked working for my father. Sometimes when dad was going to look at new timber he would invite Earnest to come along. Earnest was not needed on such trips; so now I believe it was a chance for them to socialize. I doubt either of them was consciously aware of this—perhaps they were.
From my earliest memory of all the racial talk, I never understood it. Why did skin color matter? If a person appeared white but gossip said there was some black heritage in his family why did that matter?
As a young person I was influenced by the adults and more importantly by my peers to tell racial jokes and, yes, to use the “N” word. The church taught that God approved of slavery and to us that meant black slavery; it was much later that I found that slavery in biblical times was mostly white slavery; the biblical story of Noah’s son, Ham, notwithstanding.
In 1950, on my 17th birthday, I joined the U.S. Navy where I found many who held the prejudices I had left in Central Louisiana and many who did not hold such poisonous views. I was somewhere in the middle holding more prejudice than I was aware of, but not as much as I had left behind. I was glad to have friends who held more advanced views and with whom I could have a reasonable conversation on the subject of race. Though I was not laden with overwhelming prejudice I had work to do; I was evolving.
Upon discharge from the Navy I immediately enrolled at Louisiana College, a Baptist institution, where I was again in a mixture of people who were mixed in their racial views. Once there was a rumor that the college might become integrated. This was about 1956 and was perhaps a trial balloon. In one of my classes the professor, after a brief discussion of the subject, asked for a show of hands of all that would approve such a move. Almost all the class approved. The professor expressed his surprise.
Simultaneously, with college attendance I worked at a nearby large state institution for care of the mentally retarded where I met Irwin Jones, a black social worker. He had a MSW degree from LSU, he was among the first blacks to graduate from the LSU Graduate School of Social Welfare. I needed to move my evolution along; he had the knowledge and openness to help me make that happen and we became good friends.
My first major confrontation that may be called a civil rights issue came because of him. My boss made Irwin my supervisor. I needed someone with his knowledge and skills to supervise my work– placing residents on jobs in the institution and in the community. He was the perfect person to provide the supervision I needed. I looked forward to working with him.
In less than a month after being assigned to him a female employee said he was her supervisor. Whether she was complaining or made that statement in the course of casual conversation I do not remember. The upshot was that a Grand Jury investigation was launched. I was summoned to appear also.
During the meeting to which I was summoned, I was asked if anyone had ever told me that Mr. Jones was to be my supervisor. I said yes and he was the best supervisor I ever had. The relationship had been withdrawn when the investigation started. At that point the institution’s business manager, Mr. Lee Brown, called for a recess during which he suggested to me that I should think carefully about the previous question. When we resumed the question was asked again as though for the first time. I gave the same answer as before, whereupon members of the investigator group began asking questions such as where I was born and raised. No doubt these Rapides Parish Grand Jury investigators knew the reputation of Hineston, which was also in Rapides Parish, for racial intolerance. Perhaps my comments had some impact on them as Mr. Jones did not lose his job, nor did anyone else.
I came close to losing my job when the superintendent, Dr. William Sloan, a Jewish psychologist from Illinois, called me to his office the next day. He told me that if I wanted to keep my job I was not to make any comments about race either at work or in the community. I told him that I did not think he had the right to prohibit my participation in the community, but since I did need my job I would abide by his demand. As I was leaving his office he said ”like it or not that is the way it is.” This unnecessary comment as much as anything else that transpired in this investigation, brought to my consciousness the vicious nature of the racial beast.
I had not involved my family much in my views since my discharge from military service, but upon hearing about the Grand Jury episode my mother asked why I was speaking out. When I told her it was because I believed racial prejudice was unjust and destructive, she said “yes, but why not just keep it to yourself.” Knowing she was one to speak her mind on many of her strong beliefs, I asked her “Is that the way I was reared”? She never asked again that I be quiet; eventually her views and attitudes mellowed.
In 1958, I enrolled in the Graduate School of Social Work at LSU in Baton Rouge. There were a few black students in the class and, of course, most of the white students were beyond the overt racism stage still prevalent in the population at large. At this time the social taboos had been codified into laws. There were separate drinking fountains and restroom facilities for the different races; except often there were none for blacks. It was illegal to attend social events that were integrated. Some of these laws were quite complicated; for example, one could attend a wedding or funeral where both races were present, but could not participate in the reception where there was eating or drinking.
As fate would have it a student in the social work class was getting married and she invited some blacks who planned to attend. The dean of the school was invited. He explained the law and said he could attend the ceremony but not the social activities and so he did. The classmates ignored the law and attended all functions; nothing untoward happened.
Looking back on this absurdity it is almost humorous; except that we know that law was passed because the majority of people supported or demanded it. The picture was clear; if enough people demanded it this nonsense could be stopped. It was time for civil rights advocates to make their demands.
Upon graduation with a MSW degree I accepted employment with the VA Mental Hygiene Clinic in Wichita, Kansas that had a satellite clinic in Topeka on the grounds of the VA Hospital there. My job was to travel the entire state providing follow-up services to veterans who had been discharged from the VA psychiatric hospital in Topeka. I eventually transferred to Topeka and worked out of the satellite clinic there. Topeka, being the capitol city, provided many more opportunities for social action of a civil rights nature.
In my travels I began to learn about race relations in Kansas and was surprised at what I found. Redlining was widely practiced. This was the practice of banks and finance companies drawing a red line around certain black communities and declining to make loans to the people who lived there. Therefore, if a black applied for a housing loan in or near a white community he was denied. Housing was much more segregated there than it was in my home state—Louisiana. Effigy burning was a fairly common form of intimidation and harassment when a black person did move into a Kansas white neighborhood. In the entire banking system in the state of Kansas there was not one black person working in a position of visibility to the public.
I began calling attention to these and other absurdities along with the hypocrisy of criticizing the south for its racial attitude while ignoring the beam in their own eye.
My colleagues in Kansas began calling me the ”Flaming Liberal From The South”.
My wife, Sybil, and I invited a black international student from Kenya who was attending a local college, to spend a weekend with us. Edith Gitau was a delightful person who said she wanted to experience more discrimination. We took her to a restaurant known for its prejudice and nothing happened. Then we took her to church and again nothing happened. Later the pastor preached a sermon in which he said something to the effect that” God did not intend blackbirds and redbirds to mix.” I have red hair.
The National Association of Social Workers–Topeka Chapter was active and I was involved. We planned a statewide meeting to be held at the local Holiday Inn. A black social worker at the VA Hospital, Adolph Neal, handled all arrangements with the conference motel. Mr. Neal was a model professional and his work with the Holiday Inn was as thorough as could be expected. The hitch came when guest arrived and everyone went to the motel club—blacks were excluded. Mr. Neal had done his work by telephone and apparently the motel staff had not surmised that he was black or they deliberately did not mention that blacks were barred. At the NASW meeting I brought the issue before the members and asked that we take action. The president dismissed this suggestion out of hand without putting it up for discussion or vote. I announced my resignation from the Chapter and walked out followed by a couple of black social workers.
Amid the turmoil that followed I was appointed to serve as chair of the social action committee of the Kansas Conference on Social Welfare—a statewide committee. The committee held meetings across the state, many of which were related to civil rights issues. I held this position for two years; leaving to attend the doctoral program at Tulane University in New Orleans, La. I finished one year of this two-year program.
About the time I was appointed to chair that committee, I was appointed to serve on the governor’s advisory committee for civil rights; it never met.
I never marched for a civil rights cause; not because I was opposed to them. The main reason was that most of that activity was going on in a different part of the country and my work and lack of finances kept me closer to home. Going long distances, financing several days expenses and missing work is likely not contemplated by those who have not seriously considered such activities. The sacrifices are great unless one has the backing of an organization or group—not to mention the personal safety issues involved.
Many of us underestimate the sacrifice made by those who do march for causes.
I eventually lessened and then stopped all formal civil rights roles and activities. Two things led me to withdraw. First, I read reports and heard from several black civil rights workers that blacks no longer welcomed white participation. The second reason grew out of the first. Being in the psychiatric field I was well aware of the patterns of behavior and needs of human beings; therefore, I drew analogy between the civil rights movement and a child. The movement was only a few years old and needed to be independent; needed to be their own rebellious self–they were right. The most mature and constructive thing I could do was to live and treat all people as equal.
I believe I have always had at least an acceptable ability to be honest with myself. One thing I learned in my civil rights experience is that it is not easy to rid one’s self of prejudice of any kind but especially racial and religious prejudice. It is especially difficult to overcome racial prejudice that is rooted in and supported by religion.
Have I conquered all my racial prejudice? I think so, but one must always be vigilant should it show up.