Sometime in the 1940s my great-grandfather, who fought for the Confederacy and spoke only French, told my aunts and uncles that their kids would go to school with black children. Naturally, everyone thought he had either had too much bourbon or was just plain balmy. Jim Crowe and the Dixiecrats didn’t seem to be going anywhere soon. And who would have guessed that President Lyndon Johnson, a white Southerner, would use all of his considerable political skill to push the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through both houses of congress and sign it into law?
A decade or so after LBJ’s slight-of-hand, the courts finally brought to fruition what Brown v. The Board of Education started in 1954. My friends and I were going to attend the “new” Ascension Parish Junior High, which was gonna be integrated. I put quotation marks around “new” because the physical plant was Kennedy Junior High, an all- black school until we invaded it and changed the name.
That previous summer was rife with civil unrest when whites learned that the schools would be desegregated. Fortunately, only one person was shot and killed during that steamy summer in our parish, a white guy brandishing a tire iron with deadly intent.Accounts of the incident varied wildly, but no one went to jail.
The bus schedules hadn’t been worked out so my mother drove me to school for the first month or so. The entrance to the campus was teeming with red-faced, chanting, white protestors. Most of them were keeping their children home from school. Many were brandishing signs condemning the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. For reasons too complicated to go into here, they held H.U.D. accountable for school desegregation. My mom had unprintably choice words for these folks, whom she considered “goddam idiots.”
Every day when the recess bell rang, it was like a lieutenant blowing a whistle to go “over the top” at the Battle of Verdun. The cops were called in a few times to try to contain gang fights. The violence was so rampant we were subject to dress codes and arbitrary rules like so many prisoners. For example, western style belt buckles were forbidden because we could employ them as brass knuckles. Certain Afro combs could be used as daggers. If any faculty member even suspected a student was hiding some-thing in his locker, out would come the cable cutters. So much for any sense of a right to privacy.
I was suspended more than once for fighting. Those who know me know that I’m a lover, not a fighter. I could go on about raging hormones or being caught up in the moment, but there’s really no excuse. The times were turbulent. We behaved badly. By the end of the first semester some child welfare agency had convinced the segregationists to send their children to school-or else.
By midterm things had cooled down and Ascension Junior High started to look like any other normal school full of profoundly disturbed adolescents. There were sports. There was the Band Club, BETA, FFA, 4-H, and several other organizations and activities I was too stoned to bother with.
A few years after my friends and I were old enough to explore the local watering holes, I wandered into Joe Jackson’s Bar. This juke joint was a stone’s throw from Ascension Junior High and many of my former black classmates were regular patrons. Isn’t it crazy how people who fought like cats and dogs can end up being drinking buddies?
I went to their house parties and they came to mine. I was a regular at the club until Joe died and the joint closed. What started out as a pretty noisy song ended on a grace note.
Would that we could say the same about what passes for political discourse in this country today. Being a child of the sixties I could never have foreseen the race baiting and fear mongering we see daily on TV, radio and social media. We overcame so much suspicion and hatred back then, even here in the Deep South. Maybe especially here in the Deep South.
I guess the best we can do is just hope and pray that someone or something comes along to appeal to the better angels of our nature* again. In the meantime let’s just try to be decent to each other.
* From Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address, March 4, 1861.