Monday, June 02, 2014

If White Kids Die : Dick J. Reavis

If White Kids Die
By Dick J. Reavis

I met an older Caucasian gentleman in a bar, who to my utter surprise told me that he had participated in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960's.  He ended up recommending this short memoir, written by another Caucasian volunteer in the movement.

From the get-go, Reavis gives a disclaimer that he was simply a foot-soldier in the movement, so while he has some interactions with the more well-known people of the movement, he solely had limited view into what was going on locally.  I actually found this view really refreshing and much more accessible. 

I loved his a first-person perspective on the atmosphere...
On two or three streets, in blocks just east of Strawberry [street], an oddly interracial pattern had evolved. Blacks lived on one side of these blocks, north or south, and whites lived on the other. Late in the afternoons, they'd gaze at each other from their front porches, never crossing the pavements to exchange neighborly news. Those blocks were, I always thought, slices from divided Berlin: wary encampments, living cheek by jowl.
... and the context he's able to provide:
 In the South from Reconstruction until 1964 - and in some places, afterwards - all social arrangements reflected a caste system based on color. Under penalty of law, whites and blacks used separate bathrooms, eateries, water fountains, etc. Blacks weren't permitted to try on clothing at department stores, nor to be on the streets of white residential districts after sundown. The regime was so thorough that the Southern Building Code called for racially separate waiting rooms in bus stations, hospital offices, and the like. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 supposedly removed these barriers, but it couldn't always reach into behaviors governed by custom: blacks weren't customarily permitted to enter the front doors of white people's houses, for example, and no law could give them entry there.
From how other documentaries and history books are written, I don't think one would ever get the sense of how loosely structured the movement was and that were tensions between local and national efforts:

  Then he explained.
  "You see, SCLC has a strategy. SNCC and sometimes some of us call it, 'Local failure, national success.' What that means is that SCLC goes into a place, gets the existing leadership to back its plan, and then creates a crisis that will bring in TV and the press. When they do that, see it puts pressure on the politicians up in Washington to pass the kind of bills that we need."
  I was at last learning the basics, but I didn't like what I heard.
  "Dr. King comes in," he said, "at the point of the crisis, to bring it to a head or to dramatize it. He doesn't stay there afterwards, he doesn't go beforehand. That's not his role."
  "Now, the trouble with the strategy," he continued, "is that it's just what it says, 'local failure, national success.'  People lose their jobs, get evicted, things like that.
  "If you go back there [to Selma] now, you'll find that a lot of people are disgusted with the Movement. They'll feel like that they've been left holding the bag. They'll say, 'Where is Dr. King now? He's run out on us,' because they don't understand.
I think with all the accusations of racism today over people publicly saying inappropriate words, folks may have forgotten that racism isn't solely words.  As described in this memoir, it's a truly awful sense of powerlessness, simply because of your race.
A few days later, Charlie, still a prisoner, was brought to a Linden courtroom for trial. The sheriff, the judge, and his assistants began furtively paging through law books, apparently perplexed. This went on for twenty minutes before Charlie was called to the bench. "Charlie," the judge said, following  the Southern custom of addressing blacks by first names only. "You were brought here on a charge of Peeping Tom. But we can't find any law against being a Peeping Tom. So we're going to change the charge to Public Disturbance. We'll bring you back for trial in two weeks." The bailiffs took Charlie away.
Lastly, there are subtleties and shades of racism (that still exist today). That they had to split hairs when it comes to terrible conditions is pretty gut-wrenching.  
These incidents showed me Cooper's understanding of his role. He saw himself as being the man in charge of stopping or slowing the Movement. That's why he'd ordered the arressts on the driver's license charges, and that's why he had bent the truth in his testimony at my vagrancy trial. He felt that persecuting us was the duty of lawmen - but that it was not a job for uncertified racists, for Klansmen and the like. He was a by-the-book racist. Not all Southern police chiefs were so restrained and the Marengo sheriff's office was not so restrained. I concluded that under the prevailing political conditions, we were lucky to have Cooper as Chief.
All in all, this was really eye-opening to read and I whole-hardheartedly recommend it.

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