I never had a schoolmate of color until I got to college in 1957. Reg Lindsay, my law partner and friend years later, did me one better. Born and raised in segregated Birmingham, he never had a white schoolmate until he got to Harvard Law School in the late 1960s.
What did it mean to grow up in an all-white town in a mostly all-white state? The truth is that during those formative years, when black people were known as “colored” or “Negro,” I never thought about it. In grade school we were taught a song with the words “You can get good milk from a brown-skinned cow, the color of the skin doesn’t matter anyhow.” Whoever decided we should sing that song probably thought it would teach us about racial tolerance.
I had another experience which is deeply embedded in my memory. At a young age, I attended the annual minstrel show at the town hall auditorium, now the Claremont Opera House. The local judge, a pillar of the community, was an “end man,” face blackened with burnt cork. No one in the all-white audience seemed to consider this offensive, much less as racist stereotype. We just thought it was funny.
In fairness, I should point out that Claremont did have black residents before I was born. A woman from Barbados named Louisa Parris married a man named Edwards and settled in Claremont, where he worked for Sullivan Machinery. One of the eight Edwards children was in the Stevens High Class of 1938, along with my Uncle Eddie. And one of Louisa Edwards’s grandchildren, Katherine McCray, born in Claremont, was the mother of the writer Chirlane McCray, who happens to be married to New York Mayor Bill deBlasio.
I have always believed that attending Claremont public school was good for me. But, as I look back, I realize that my high school years lacked some important pieces. In 1954, the Supreme Court decided that “separate but equal” education is inherently unequal and therefore unconstitutional. In December 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery for refusing to give up her seat to a white person and sit in the rear of the bus. The Montgomery Bus Boycott began a few days later and continued for over a year. And by the middle of my senior year in 1957, Martin Luther King., Jr. had become an important national figure. Maybe a teacher mentioned some of this, but I have no memory of it.
I do remember the segregationists of the era, the mostly southern governors and senators who held out for so long for what they euphemistically called “states’ rights.” In September 1963, when I was in law school and Reg Lindsay was just leaving Birmingham to attend Morehouse College in Atlanta, white supremacists bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing four young girls. One of them was his grade school friend.
We know from recent events that Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence words, “all men are created equal” have yet to become a reality. But hope is hard to quench, and the words “No justice, no peace” are heard today not just in places with large black populations but everywhere. Claremont’s minstrel shows are a distant memory, and I am sure the school curriculum has changed for the better. While confederacy monuments are being taken down elsewhere, the statue commemorating Claremont men who died in the Civil War still stands in Broad Street Park. And, like citizens in cities and towns across the country, people recently gathered near that statue to protest racism.
Martin Luther King, Jr., like my friend Reg a Morehouse graduate, said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Time will tell, but what we are seeing now gives us reason to believe he was right.