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Welcoming our new social order

by DG Martin

How can you explain it?

Fifty years ago segregation, white superiority and racism were deeply ingrained in the culture of North Carolina. Schools, public facilities, eating establishments, and churches were almost altogether separate.

The large majority of whites wanted to keep it that way. They could not imagine that the races could ‘“mingle’” without a breakdown in social order. Their conversations, even among those who avoided using the ‘“N’” word, reflected their assumption of superiority.

What if someone living in those times were magically transported to the present? How would that person react to the new rules and different attitudes of their children and grandchildren?

I know that things are not perfect today. Racism continues to plague us, but it is not the same as the brutal and complete racism of 50 years ago.

The hard-won victories of the Civil Rights Movement have given today’s society an entirely different set of ground rules, and they are almost universally accepted.

Last week I talked to Taylor Branch and Tim Tyson, both important historians of the Civil Rights Movement. Branch is the author of At Canaan’s Edge the final volume of his trilogy, America in the King Years. Tyson’s Blood Done Sign My Name has been read by community groups across the state, beginning with its selection last year for the UNC-Chapel Hill summer reading program.

Branch and Tyson document the hard and painful struggle to overturn the established culture of 50 years ago. That culture was so deeply entrenched that I wondered why the dramatic change is now itself a ‘“deeply entrenched’” part of today’s culture.

Why?

Here are some important reasons that we do not often recognize.

1. The underlying ‘“goodness’” of so many Southerners even though they accepted and defended the culture of their times.

My grandmother, for instance. Born in the 1880s, she never questioned the correctness of racial separation, even though she worked closely with her black neighbors and gave them warm respect. I remember once hearing her disagreeing ‘— gently but firmly ‘— with my mother’s suggestion that there was no reason she should not share a hotel room with a black woman. But my grandmother was our teacher of the great Biblical values of love, consideration and respect for all others. And she lived those values beautifully. The values she taught are the ones that prepared me to welcome the changes she was not prepared to accept. Of course, I believe that, had she lived to see the changes, she would have come to welcome them as well.

2. The Army.

I was the product of a segregated secondary and college education. My first experience with an integrated work situation was in ROTC summer camp at Fort Bragg in 1961. Not only were there a large number of black cadets in my company, but also the regular army lieutenant colonel in charge of us was black. He was a wonderful leader. Many of the black cadets were superior future officers. They prepared me, as the Army of the 1950s and 1960s prepared hundreds of thousands of other Southern men, for the changes to come in civilian life in North Carolina.

3. The quality of the blacks who served in the old system.

It must have been painful for them. In today’s world, my parents’ housekeeper, Thelma White, would have become a highly paid business executive. An orderly, talented and patient perfectionist, she commanded respect, even in her capacity as a servant. She never complained about the unfairness of the system that prevented her from reaching her great potential. But her talents and her character prepared me to happily accept the changes that would have given her better opportunity and the equal status she demonstrated that she deserved.

These people who prepared me for change are not the civil rights heroes whose struggles Taylor Branch and Tim Tyson describe.

But, because they prepared me to welcome the changes the Civil Rights Movement brought about, they are my heroes.

And, for me, they help explain how the transformation of our region’s ‘“deeply entrenched’” social system came to be accepted and even welcomed by so many of us.

Maybe you do not agree. Then, how do you explain it?

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