By Keith McDowell
That’s right! I’m beyond PO-ed! I’m fuming. I’ve had enough. And I’ve once again taken out my marching shoes.
The reason? Fifty years after James Meredith became the first African-American to enroll at the University of Mississippi on the first of October 1962, and fifty years after I enrolled as a freshman at Wake Forest University in September of 1962, nearly 400 students at Ole Miss erupted in a race riot following the election of President Obama on Tuesday night. Yes, it was a race riot despite some protestations to the contrary.
Twitters have tweeted the most disgusting of racial and gay-bashing invective. And not to be outdone, right-wing pundits have evoked the image of a “traditional America,” typically using the 1950s as a benchmark. Are they nuts? Well yes, they are.
Let’s talk about the good ole times of the 1950s and early 1960s. Let’s talk about my time as a sixteen-year-old usher at the Paramount Theatre in High Point, North Carolina, 313 South Wrenn Street. It was a good part-time job for a teenager and my first job. Of course, we snookered the public into believing that the popcorn was freshly popped, but actually it came in large metal cans that we surreptitiously poured into the popcorn machine when no one was looking. I lived on that free popcorn.
And then there came the day that the local civil rights movement decided to assert their rights at the Paramount. The theatre had two well-lit entrances on both sides of the ticket booth. Inside the glass doors were the lobby and a concession stand with the infamous faux popcorn machine backed by the theatre itself and a balcony. But that wasn’t all. There was a second balcony reached by a dimly-lit outside door down the street from the ticket booth. [See image at the end.] It was the “separate, but equal” facility for blacks.
I got the job of standing outside the glass door and telling each black person with a ticket in their hand as they cycled past that they could not enter, but must take the back stairs to the second balcony. It was a helluva thing for a teenager to experience. I resigned soon thereafter and have never forgotten the pain I felt at treating my fellow human beings like that. It defied everything that I had come to believe in from my Christian upbringing.
I wish I could tell you that the Paramount experience was a singular event. Not even close! There was the effigy of a person hanging from a tree at the entrance to my high school as I got off the bus on the day that we were integrated. There was the day that my father took me to some office in Archdale, North Carolina, for me to register to vote for the first time. I was required to answer several of those “questions” designed to suppress the black vote. It didn’t matter that I was white.
Then there was the evening that I went to hear Martin Luther King speak in the Wake Forest University Chapel under the threat of violence to any white who dared to show up. And how about the regular and unrelenting use of the N-word by many people in my youth, much like the modern use of the F-word? Even one of my own grandmothers thought and told me that blacks should not be allowed to swim at the municipal pool because they would turn the water brown. Or how about some of my relatives who were offended in 1975 because blacks attended my wedding?
One of the most transformative events in my life occurred in 1963. The pastor of the Green Street Baptist Church, a good friend of mine, invited me to present the Sunday night “sermon” in his absence. I worked for a week on that speech and on Friday evening, caught the bus from Winston-Salem to High Point with the intention of walking home from the bus terminal. To my surprise, there was a civil rights group marching down Main Street past an angry mob of whites. Some tomatoes and eggs were being thrown from those in the crowd with no effort being made by the police to stop them. And yes, front and center were members of my church.
I was furious. I went home, wrote a new speech, and gave it that Sunday night to a stunned congregation. As I reread my old copy of that speech today, it’s a pretty straightforward speech and not inflammatory by modern standards. Some church members praised what I said, but I also got some hate mail. Hate mail was serious business in 1963. Three civil rights workers were gunned down and killed in High Point only a mile or so from my parents’ home during that time period. Furthermore, the Ku Klux Klan rode around with guns hidden in their cars just in case they happened to meet a N-lover.
But let’s change the topic and talk about bus terminals. I spent a lot of time in them as a college student waiting to catch a bus. I never had the money to buy a car. And guess what? Yep. I was approached several times by gay men – pejoratively known as “queers” in those days – trying to hustle me. Why else would a young man like me be sitting in a bus terminal? It was disgusting to me and, in retrospect, probably the same for them. I must confess that several decades passed before I learned to accept that being gay could be an alternative lifestyle for anyone. It took friendships with several gay couples to make that transition. Now it seems perfectly natural to me. Being gay, or being a transvestite, or being a “whatever” is not the same as engaging in harassment or being a predator, a pedophile, or a rapist.
So, in case you haven’t gotten my message, let me spell it out for you. Hate speech and rape are crimes, not some accidental act or the will of God. Racism in all its many forms is an odious abomination, not to be tolerated by a progressive modern society. And “traditional America” really wasn’t all that nice a time and place unless, of course, you were a member of the privileged few.
My story is no different from that of anyone else who grew up in the 1950s and reflects the real “traditional America” that the right wing and their pundits want us to return to. Don’t believe a word of their dissembling rationalization or their mouthing of the word “values” as something that they own. It’s underpinnings represent the worst of America, not the best. And I’m damned angry about that.
I refuse to remain silent. I refuse to allow those who spew hate speech to get away with it unchallenged. I refuse to put another 16-year in front of an American citizen telling them that they can’t enjoy the full rights and privileges of being a citizen, whether it’s civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, or simply the right to be Happy as guaranteed by our founding fathers. I refuse to allow bigots and political con artists to co-opt true conservatism with the trash talk polluting our airwaves. Their appeal to and their version of what the Constitution is about is total crap.
Folks, this is not about being a conservative or a liberal. It’s not about being a Christian or a member of any other religion. And it’s not about traditional values, however one interprets them. It’s about stupidity and the use of code words by hucksters and political hacks to stir up the extreme right wing and to drag or bully those of a more normal conservative persuasion into their cauldron of hate while fleecing their wallets.
Don’t believe the poisonous rhetoric! Join with me! Speak out against this nuttiness. Boycott companies who support Rush Limbaugh and his venom. Tune out Fox News. Get out the vote in our next election. Do your part. Redefine what it means to be a conservative if that’s your persuasion. If you don’t, you’re going to deserve what you get when we return to the “traditional America” of the 1950s. I know what that really means. I’ve already been there.
The photograph of the Paramount Theatre presented at the beginning can be found at the website Historic High Point. Also available at the same website is a photograph for the old Broadhurst Theatre located at 309 North Main Street in High Point showing the same architecture as the Paramount Theatre. Note to the right the sign above a door with the message “Entrance, Colored Balcony. “ The same arrangement was present at the Paramount, but is not clearly visible in the old photograph.
Note to my blog readers
Innovation, technology commercialization, entrepreneurship, and university research are extremely important to America’s future in the world of global competition and they are topics that I intend to continue to discuss in my weekly articles. But these issues are currently trumped by the important ongoing debate as to what America is, or was, or will be. If we don’t get that part right, the rest won’t matter. I don’t apologize for taking a stand.