Since this subject seems to be on the news constantly, I wanted to share my experiences.
|This is a personal essay based on sixty-seven years of observing life and people around me. I've heard a lot about ”white guilt” or “white privilege”, mostly on media, in the last year or two. Privilege is something a lot of us have without even thinking about it. If I thought about privilege, I related it to having money and people that would open doors for a better position at work or getting someone into a country club or Ivy League school. It was about who you knew. I never thought about it related to my skin color but now I do.
I was born in Michigan when Gen. Dwight Eisenhower was President. My dad was a carpenter that installed fixtures at a grocery store chain. He was born in 1922 to a couple, that share cropped someone else’s land, and had eight other children. He knew what it was like to live a hard life. He quit school in the 6th grade to work on the farm. Marrying my Mom, serving three years in World War Two shaped his world. By the time I came along, my parents had a brick home of their own (thanks to the GI bill) and I had an older brother. My Mom came from a different kind of family from my Dad. Her dad was a small grocery store owner and her Mom didn’t work outside the home. She had one sister and two brothers. They all completed high school and one brother achieved medical school with working and grant money.
In Michigan, where I lived until I was five, I only remember seeing white people. I am quite sure black Americans lived near us but they didn’t go to our church, school or grocery stores. It just never entered my personal universe. My memories at that age were my brother’s great attic room, our parakeet and dog, my parents always being around, enjoying kindergarten and playing in the snow. I was a happy child so I have been told. My youngest brother came along when I was three but I didn’t notice him very much at that point.
If you are a southern and reading this, do not be offended. The following were my observations as a white child new to Georgia from the age of of five. I do remember moving to Georgia in 1959, mainly because my Mom was very unhappy about the whole situation. There was a difference in life between being north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line. It really was a different world. On our way to GA, as we reached Appalachia, I actually saw extreme poverty for the first time. Homes were made of slats of wood with front porches that looked crooked to me. The roofs looked like aluminum foil. White children were running around in dirt yards with chickens and dogs whose ribs were visible through thin skin. There were rusty washing machines and crippled chairs on porches. The boys and girls were dressed in clothes that looked dirty. They didn’t appear unhappy as they played around broken down trucks and tire rope swings. I saw a lot of homes like that and house trailers that were “shabby”. That was Mom’s word.
I remember her saying, “Carl, what were you thinking when you agreed to this job?”
Dad, “A paycheck, dear, we need one to live on.”
I have to say that my Dad probably recognized the poverty he was seeing since his childhood was one of similar poverty. My Dad was a man of a few words but when he spoke, we listened. He was a believer in hard work, family, fairness, honesty and God. My Mom was more vocal and complicated. Dad was easy to understand. I am more like my Mom.
The other thing I noticed after the Mason/Dixon Line was small wooden stalls along the side of the road. They sold many things like fresh vegetables and fruits. They also had beautiful quilts, Confederate flags, towels and chenille bedspreads that were hanging on clotheslines. There were signs on the roadside that said “The South will Rise Again!” When we stopped at a gas station so I could go to the bathroom. I got a look at segregation for the first time, both the water fountains and the restrooms. Both colored women and men had to use the same outdoor free standing toilet. It didn’t look too clean, or sturdy. This was also the 1st time I noticed a black person, a man was sweeping the garage area of the gas station. He kept his head down unlike the friendly gas station man that filled up our tank, checked the oil, and washed the windows. He was southern hospitality at its best, asking where we were from and going to,
At first, we lived in a rented house for less than a year and I just remember there was a mosquito invested creek. I do know the house was very different than the one we had lived in and I discovered awful cockroaches. I don’t remember meeting anyone my age but we were only there about six months while Mom and Dad looked for a home to buy.
They found a brick one level home, not far from an elementary school and neighbors up and down the road. People were friendly, wanting to know where we came from and curious about the North. My parents lived there for about twenty years and when they moved, that house had grown and undergone several major renovations. My father was a talented carpenter. In between working out of town ,doing fixture installation in drug stores, my Mom always had a running list of major things for dad to accomplish when he got home. Sunday was off limits, it meant church, eating out and Sunday night TV. Ed Sulllivan was a family favorite since there was something for everyone. Also I loved watching my Dad stretch out on our picnic table listening to WSB playing the Atlanta Braves live. Dad said the table helped his aching back.
We moved there in the summer and I climbed on the bus for first grade. I was terrified and didn’t know anyone. Of course, all of these kids were starting school for the first time but they lived close and had played together. I had every reason to be scared because after school, two of the boys pushed me down from behind. I landed In a Georgia red clay puddle. I didn’t know what I had done wrong.
“You ain’t nothing but a nigger loving yankee. Go on home!”
I cried, my feelings hurt and I didn’t understand why they didn’t like me. Mom would be mad about my dress. Two girls came along and asked if I was ok? That was nice.
One of the teachers was assisting us to climb on the right buses. She asked me what had happened and I said I fell. I was five but knew it was better kept to myself. Just like with my Mom, if I had told her, she would have called the school so I said the same thing to her.
Battle lines were drawn that day and I learned something, the Civil War was alive and well in Georgia and I was on the wrong side.
Still I remember my childhood as a happy life. My parents were good to me and we had a comfortable routine around home. Highlights of growing up in the early 1960’s were riding your bike to friend’s houses, catching lightening bugs, sleepovers, drive-in movies in my pjs and trips in the summer to many different places. Since my Dad traveled, we would go with him and stay at a Holiday Inn or Howard Johnson’s, swim in the pool and leave Dad at the drug store while we explored the town. My Mom was one that always researched before we traveled and she loved to learn and stay busy. When we picked Dad up we had already found a restaurant then we came back to swim with Dad. It was a nice life and I have good memories. I don’t remember seeing black people very often, certainly not where we ate, stayed or even at tourist attractions. If they worked in restaurants, it must have been in the kitchen. Even the ladies that cleaned rooms seemed to be white as the sheets on their rolling carts.
My Dad, on the other hand, would tell my Mom about picking up local black men to help him with fixture installation. Some pharmacists, who usually were the store managers, would give my Dad a hard time about paying equal wages to black men. Dad stood firm on hiring the help he chose.
We were considered middle class. Most of the women in our neighborhood didn’t work. Almost every one of them had a black maid. It was like the movie “The Help”. These neighbors were friends with my Mom, often coming over and having coffee , cigarettes and swapping gossip.
“Dot, I just don’t understand why you don’t hire a maid. They’re so good with the children, cook, and clean. You don’t have to pay very much and as long as you keep an eye on them, most won’t steal.”
Peggy took a drag off her ever present cigarette and continued in her soft southern drawl.
“Our Bessie even takes the laundry home and irons it. They are the best cooks. I give their children nice hand me downs. I really appreciate Bessie, couldn’t get along without her.”
My Mom said she would rather do her own housework because she couldn’t afford to pay someone what they should make.
These women would just shake their heads at Mom.
I loved the maids that I knew, they would hug you and made the best cookies. I didn’t understand my Mom until l was much older.
I still remember riding through Buckhead, where the wealthy of Atlanta lived, and the maids were dressed in very formal starched black uniforms waiting for the buses.
One time I went along to drive our neighbor’s maid, Bessie, home. I was about 7 and so shocked at where she lived. It was a tiny whitewashed house with a small yard. It was the size of the freestanding garage and workshop my Dad had built by our home. It was neat but had a dirt yard and when we pulled up, 4 kids poured out of the screen door. They stood close to the door rather than come to the car. They cried out “Mama” and pulled her into a giant hug. I don’t know who took care of them, some were too young to go to school. I wondered where they even went to school because our school was 100% white, teachers and students.
I even asked Donna, our neighbor’s daughter and now a close friend, and she didn’t seem to know much about this nice lady who did everything for her. I finally learned there was a place in society for them and us and we didn’t meet except under certain circumstances.
We went to the local public pools and it was solid white as was the library and the public health center. The only times you saw the “colored” and “white” signs were at the mall on the bathrooms and water fountains. I don’t really remember even seeing black families at the big new mall, Lenox Square.
I do remember seeing them when we would go to downtown Atlanta. Mom and I used to make a trip to the downtown Rich’s store right before school started. It was a treat to dress up, ride the bus,, eat in The Magnolia Room while watching a fashion show and then shop in the girls or juniors department and buy Bobbie Brooks or Laura Ashley clothes.
The blacks lived in certain areas of the city and you would see them in the downtown drugstores and in the bargain basement of Rich’s. Of course, they also rode the bus and sat in the back. They would come in the front door, pay, get off and then enter the back door and sit behind a barrier that separated the races like they carried a plague. I thought it was strange but was always told that is “just the way it is”.
The wonderful FOX theater had a ceiling that was the night sky with stars and Egyptian furniture. It was a wonderful combination of Arabian nights, Egyptology and Disney movies. It was a magical place for everyone. We saw plays like “The King and I” there and on Saturdays, there were cartoons and then a Disney movie. First run movies also ran there. As a child, we parked in back and walked along the side of the building. There was a colored entrance that opened into the top balcony section so the races didn’t mix. I guess they couldn’t buy popcorn or drinks either. I don’t remember a colored bathroom. It was two worlds.
The FOX is where I first saw “Gone with the Wind”. That movie starts:
"There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South... Here in this pretty world Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave... Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered. A Civilization gone with the wind..."
I don’t think many black people have watched that movie or read the book. Black people are very much like the furniture in the film, they are there but not a part of the story. They are caricatures of what white people think of them; silly Prissy, Mammy who takes care of everyone but appears to have no life of her own and needs her white folks etc. Good black people that know their place and stay there. “Bad black folks”have been influenced by Yankees. If they had thoughts of their own, you don’t know it.
I remember watching TV and seeing the sit-ins at drugstores, the Freedom Rides and the firehoses aimed at black children in Alabama and Mississippi. It was horrifying.
I was fifteen when the icon, Rev.Martin L. King Jr. ,was shot down at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis (April 4, 1968) I cried for him as much as I did for President Kennedy in 1963. By then my parents had shown me the area of Sweet Auburn in Atlanta where many black businesses where and people were just like me just a different skin tone. I had also seen Cabbage Town where poor blacks lived in substandard public housing. I was beginning to understand. It was engineered this way by mostly white powerful men.
My parents knew people that belonged to the John Birch Society, The White Citizen’s Council but also a couple that worked with the NAACP. I noticed how they walked the line and tried to get along with everyone. It was a trap for both worlds in many ways. White people always had the advantage though.
When we went back to Michigan to visit, everything was integrated but there were still two separate communities that didn’t mix or trust each other. People were racist there also. I noticed my own Grandfather’s verbal distaste for “coloreds”. He spoke of the stereotype of “gangs, drugs, public assistance, abortions for birth control, dirty homes, taking plenty and not giving back”. Most of these racial stereotypes aren’t true or related to poverty and inequality. At home my parents spoke about the problems as they watched the news and I knew how they voted. They believed in equality for everyone but didn't actively participate in civil rights marches or protests.
I have seen changes over the years but I find it very sad that we still tend to live mostly separate lives. It is still a charade in many ways just not as blatant. George Floyd’s murder showed that the root of racism still exists. We need to dig very deep into our own souls and own our prejudice. It is never too late to change. The older I get, the more clearly I can see. I am a white woman that has never experienced any of the following situations.
Privilege is not being followed by security when I walk into a store.
Privilege is walking outside without having to wonder if I’m behaving well enough to not feel threatening to others around me, even though I’m just walking.
Privilege is being able to carry an AR-15 into a state capitol building and have a friendly chat with the guards while doing so.
Privilege is being able to call the police in an emergency and not be afraid.
And privilege is not having my throat tighten and my chest feel like someone is squeezing my heart every time my child leaves the house, wondering if today is the day they become a death statistic because of their color.
By Kathie Stehr
July 7, 2021
I wanted to share the following song because I remember when Medgar Evers was killed and his three children and wife heard the shooting and then found his riddled body. Bob Dylan wrote a vivid and heart wrenching ballad about it.
"Only A Pawn In Their Game"
A bullet from the back of a bush took Medgar Evers' blood
A finger fired the trigger to his name
A handle hid out in the dark
A hand set the spark
Two eyes took the aim
Behind a man's brain
But he can't be blamed
He's only a pawn in their game
A South politician preaches to the poor white man
"You got more than blacks, don't complain
You're better than them, you been born with white skin" they explain
And the Negro's name
Is used it is plain
For the politician's gain
As he rises to fame
And the poor white remains
On the caboose of the train
But it ain't him to blame
He's only a pawn in their game
The deputy sheriffs, the soldiers, the governors get paid
And the marshals and cops get the same
But the poor white man's used in the hands of them all like a tool
He's taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
'Bout the shape that he's in
But it ain't him to blame
He's only a pawn in their game
From the poverty shacks, he looks from the cracks to the tracks
And the hoof beats pound in his brain
And he's taught how to walk in a pack
Shoot in the back
With his fist in a clinch
To hang and to lynch
To hide 'neath the hood
To kill with no pain
Like a dog on a chain
He ain't got no name
But it ain't him to blame
He's only a pawn in their game
Today, Medgar Evers was buried from the bullet he caught
They lowered him down as a king
But when the shadowy sun sets on the one
That fired the gun
He'll see by his grave
On the stone that remains
Carved next to his name
His epitaph plain
Only a pawn in their game
Writer(s): Bob Dylan
This song was written as an answer to the assassination of US civil rights leader Medgar Evers, who was killed in the driveway of his Mississippi home. But Bob Dylan's song speaks about the bigger problem of racism and injustice in America, pointing out that Evers' murder was just a link in a chain that leads to those which manipulate people.
This track tells about how the poor white people in the USA are driven by the white elite to hate the black in order to put their mind off their low-level life conditions, described as living in "the caboose of the train".
Bob Dylan performed "Only a Pawn in Their Game" at a voter registration rally in Greenwood, Mississippi, for the first time. Medgar Evers, whom the song is dedicated to, was the Mississippi leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Civil rights activist Bernice Johnson told critic Robert Shelton that "'Pawn' was the very first song that showed the poor white was as victimized by discrimination as the poor black".