To speak or to suffer?

rosaParks I wish I had been born five or ten years earlier.  I’m a baby boomer, born not long after the end of the second World War.  I lived through some of the most turbulent times in American history:  the assassination of President John F Kennedy and of his brother Robert Kennedy, and that of Dr. Martin Luther King, the civil rights leader who forced America to end segregation of black skinned from white skinned people.  I was eleven when President Kennedy was killed, and sixteen when Dr. King was murdered.  Dr. King’s death rocked my world.  For the first time in my young life, I looked into the face of evil, the evil of white supremacy and racial hatred.

I grew up a white kid in a white town in western Pennsylvania.  Minorities for us were the two Jewish kids in town.  Three of the four elementary schools were Catholic, as was one of the two high schools.  I didn’t think we were prejudiced.  We just didn’t have any black families in town. It wasn’t our fault they didn’t want to live there, right?

When I was little we used to see “fresh air kids”, children from disadvantaged families in the mysterious big city that I had never seen.  The kids came to spend a summer in the fresh country air, staying with a host family.    We’d see them with their summer guardians, their eyes big with fear, and my mother would point at them, call them pickaninnies and make fun of their kinky hair.  Other people would point, too, and murmur.  Those poor kids must have felt like an exhibit in a zoo.


Speak no evil, see no evil, hear no evil

My high school sociology teacher decided that we needed to see more of the world than the view afforded by our small mountain town, so he invited a friend to come speak to us.  His friend was a very successful black businessman.  Two days before he was to come, someone burned a cross on a hill outside of town.  My mother lobbied to have the teacher removed from the school, and soon he was gone.  That’s why when Dr. King was murdered my young world was so shaken.  I had seen the face of evil, the face of bigotry, and it was living in our house.

Had I been born a few years earlier, would I have had the courage to join the Civil Rights movement and fight for equality for all people in my country?  Would I have been a freedom rider, or been part of the March on Washington?  Would I have had the courage to tell my mother how wrong she was?  I don’t know.  How can you ever know until you face the moment?  I was only sixteen and far removed from anywhere.

I’m an introvert.  I don’t like conflict.  I’m horrible at confrontations.  Yelling and fighting makes me shrink away and hide.  But I do know I’m really good at speaking up for and defending someone else.  Would I have done the same then?

I can think of two other introverts who changed the world just by sitting still and not fighting.  One was Gandhi, who freed an entire nation.  The other was Rosa Parks, a quiet little woman who was tired and didn’t want to walk all the way to the end of the bus where the “colored” people sat.  Her act of sitting got her arrested and fueled many other protests in America.  So introverts can be heard and bring about change just by sitting and being quiet.  I can only hope I would have been one of them.

Written in response to WordPress’ daily prompt:  Break the Silence.


21 thoughts on “To speak or to suffer?

  1. I grew up at around the same time and in a white, suburban enclave similar to yours. And my father held views similar to your mother’s. My father had a store in DC that was destroyed in the riots that followed the assassination of Dr. King. That made him even more bitter and bigoted. But like you, I somehow turned out to be a supporter for equality for all people, regardless of race, religion, or sexual orientation. I am a few years older than you (I was a junior in high school when JFK was shot), and I did end up participating in local protests and marches back in the day. But while I am sympathetic and can be outspoken, I am no longer what anyone would call an activist.

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  3. This is a beautifully written post. Having grown up in a town filled with people from all different walks of life, it is always so interesting to read about a different experience from my own. (My town was the first in the nation to voluntarily allow segregation of our schools in 1964.)

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  5. I again!… have not been blogging much. I thank you for your posts. They can be so encouraging, interesting and full of great stories and information. I often get around to reading some though I need to comment more. Thank you for keeping the torch lit up!

  6. Thanks Chris .. hard to reflect and note that members of your own family held racist views and I admire you for recognising that; that’s hard and honest.
    Living as I do in South Africa, I’ve seen racism in action. Reverse racism too .. om goodness, it’s so hopelessly complex. We must never forget … and speak out when we see bigotry and racism. Passive resistance is also an effective tool.
    Garden of Eden Blog

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  9. Fascinating to read another’s story of racism and how it was part of their life. So many people are affected by the way they were raised. it is what make it so important to make sure any children we raise today are given a better platform to understand and care for all races of people, and view them as their equals.

  10. My government is currently trying to repeal a section of our Racial Discrimination Act to no longer make it unlawful for someone to publicly “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” a person or a group of people. Our Attorney-General stood up in parliament and said, “People do have a right to be bigots you know.” Like you, I’m introvert who doesn’t like confrontation but I will be front and centre at any action to fight against legislated racism.

  11. Great post! Not an easy question to answer, though. We’re all the product of our upbringing until we’re old enough to know enough of the world to form our own opinions – and ‘old enough’ itself is a moveable feast.

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  14. Introverts versus conflict. Yes, I can identify with that. Whenever I encounter aggression it quite terrifies me, but it doesn’t stop me speaking up when necessary. I just lose a few more pounds in weight every time I’m forced out of my introversion to take the risks that often go with doing what’s right.

    That’s a really superb and thought-provoking post. Thanks, Chris.

  15. Very well written! We seem to be of the same generation. Here in Canada, I don’t think I ever saw a black family until I was an adult. I guess I lived in the wrong part of town? Knowing my parent’s prejudices against other races, I am almost positive there would have been racial slurs against blacks in my home too. Unfortunately, I know I would not have spoken out against it – to argue with THE PARENTS was simply not done! At 16, I tried to voice a different viewpoint than them in what I considered a reasonable conversation. The next thing I knew my father flew at me, threw me on the floor & proceeded to beat me mercilessly with his belt. My mother had to pull him off me before (in her words) “you’ll kill her!” I learned never to disagree out loud with my parents again.

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  17. This is an awesome, humbling post. Well done, and you were born in exactly the right time…to be defining your time for us so incisively.

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