ONE COMMUNITY & THE BASKETBALL BRAWL

ONE COMMUNITY & THE BASKETBALL BRAWL

High School basketball season, 1974, a mild winter’s evening in DeKalb County, Georgia, part of Atlanta’s burgeoning suburbs. My buddies, Randy, Paul, and I left the game and crossed Columbia Drive at the light in front of the high school and began walking up Irish Street toward my house, half a mile away. It was dark, but not too dark to see a group of black kids on the corner, fifty yards ahead, their bicycles laying in the grass either side of the sidewalk.

Randy murmured, “Maybe we should go the other way.” Racial violence was everywhere then, but especially in our school where integration had reached about fifty percent. Scrawny eighth and ninth graders like us paused before entering the school restrooms, hand on the door, listening for who was inside before risking a beating.

“Nah,” I said, “It’ll be alright,” and kept walking, right between the bikes.

“Don’t you touch my bicycle white boy!” I began to reply when WHAP! Something, a belt maybe, hit me and it was on. Outnumbered and scared spitless, the three of us broke and ran in different directions. Three black kids chased me across the street and into someone’s front yard.

I call it the basketball brawl, but it was not much of a fight. I managed to dodge most of the blows and skedaddle to the back door and banged on it asking for help. The porch light flicked on, the door opened slowly, and a large African American man looked down at me and said, “Yes?”

I am a dead man! I thought. But he turned out to be a very nice fellow and let me use his phone to call my folks.

That happened a very long time ago yet, every time I walk down a street and see a group of black kids my gut still does a double clutch.

Fast-forward to Georgia State University in the 1980’s. Atlanta’s races had reached an uneasy peace, with the city’s first black mayor, Maynard Jackson. Racial violence had declined, but the tensions and many of the attitudes remained. Still, Atlanta was harmony city compared to Memphis, Tennessee, where I went to seminary later in the decade. We could feel the tension and see the hatred in the stares the first week we were there when my wife and I drove into a predominantly black neighborhood looking for apartments. Memphis felt like it was twenty years behind Atlanta.

It’s cliché, but my best friend in seminary, Robert, was a black guy from Augusta, Georgia. We had auto-mechanics in common. He had made the unusual choice—enabled by minority to majority transfer rules of the day—of attending a predominantly white high school. His stories of discrimination and abuse by white law enforcement in Georgia shocked me, but not as much as the fact that his fellow African-Americans treated him like an Uncle Tom for attending our mostly white seminary. Race relations are complicated, I learned. In Memphis, and through my friend, I began to understand what MLK Jr. meant when he talked about the content of our character versus the color of our skin.

Why am I telling you all this? I attended an event titled One Community last week, at the Prizery, our local community arts center. One Community’s mission is: To provide relevant enrichment opportunities and experiences for our community to address racism and diversity issues. My fear, frankly, was that it would be a politically motivated white-bashing party for people full of resentments who wanted to buttress a sense of entitlement. I was pleasantly surprised, met some very nice people, and heard some stories of what it was like to grow up black in segregated schools here in south-side Virginia in the fifties and sixties; stories told with grace, humor, and without animosity. I sensed a longing in that evenly mixed gathering of about 100 people, for understanding and harmony, not hate. Notably, the organizers of the event had invited white people who grew up at the same time to share their stories, but none volunteered. I wish they had.

Why did I attend? As a son of the South I feel no responsibility whatever for the “sins of my fathers.”  Besides my own experiences, I’ve had relatives who were denied career paths because they were, “the wrong color in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Reverse racism is a thing. But I am also heartily sick of the chaos groups like Antifa are creating in our culture and committed to doing what I can to unravel it. Further, the gospel of Jesus Christ is the most powerful antidote to racism that was ever given to mankind. We are called to be ministers of reconciliation, of men to God and of men to each other. We can’t do that by sitting at home and stewing in our own juices. I do not want to stand before God one day and answer, “I had an opportunity to move our community forward and missed it because I wasn’t willing to listen and build relationships.”

At lunch recently with a good friend who is also African American—but prefers to be called plain old Frank—I heard the counterpoint to my basketball brawl, stories of white violence toward blacks that outraged me. And I finally realized, those kids are just as scared of me as I was of them. Isn’t it time we stopped our guts from double clutching and sat down at the table to talk?

What THE BUTLER Did For Me

Not long ago my neighbor, Ralph, an African American man for whom I have deep respect, and I were chatting in our back yard. We usually talk about our kids or joke with each other about our geriatric joints and other ailments with him always having the last laugh. “Just wait till you’re seventy. You ain’t seen nuthin yet!” But that day I had more on my mind. Something in the news, or in my reading, made me want to understand more about his life as a black man in America. At seventy-odd, his is a longer experience than mine.

“Ralph, one day I want you to tell me what it was like for you as a black man in the American south in the twentieth century,” I said.

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“Atlanta.”

Ralph’s face clouded a bit, something I’d never seen before, and he said, “Well then, you know … you know.” And that’s all he would say.

But I didn’t know, not from the inside, the way I wanted to know.

I was four years old when the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which desegregated the schools, passed. I grew up in the turmoil it precipitated among the races; especially in the schools I attended in the Atlanta suburbs. I’m sure my family would have been considered racist by the standards of today, but we didn’t consider ourselves so. We didn’t march with Dr. King or anything like that. But my father had stood up for the right of a black man to join his Southern Baptist Church in 1957, and my mother was always kind to the black people we met.

Desegregation didn’t affect me until I reached middle-school age, in 1973. From then until I graduated high school my experience of desegregation was one of upheaval, disorder, disruption, and danger. Knowing what I do now, I can’t say I blame the black kids of that generation for the anger and aggression they displayed toward us white kids, but it wasn’t conducive to the development of a sympathetic attitude either.

Time moved on and so did I. I became a follower of Christ and became committed to racial reconciliation. But I still couldn’t say that I understood the African-American experience with any depth. I knew my story, but I didn’t know theirs, not with empathy.

Then, via Netflix, I watched the bio-picture LEE DANIEL’S THE BUTLER (2013), starring Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, a man who rose from the cotton fields of Georgia to become butler to eight presidents in the White House. THE BUTLER is loosely based on real-life White House butler, Eugene Allen, who retired in 1986 after thirty-four years of service. It is to the racial turmoil of the time what FOREST GUMP was to the Viet Nam War, a comprehensive narrative of one powerless man’s journey through a world fraught with legalized oppression, naked cruelty, and blind hypocrisy. I saw through Cecil’s eyes, the bitter brutality of racist southern farmers and the lordly arrogance of hypocritical politicians and business men. I’ve known men like that, I thought. I winced too at the quiet carnage of condescension, remembering women with saccharine smiles, as dismissive of black personhood as they would be a soiled napkin.

I’ve also known men and women like Gaines, servants with such self-mastery that they could be “invisible in the room,” even when the people they were serving tossed off thoughtless insults that would have enraged me. That was the films greatest impact, Gaines’ ability to rise above the bigotry of his employers with a dignity that revealed his inner nobility, and their shabbiness. His commitment, even his joy, in performing with excellence the most menial tasks brought honor to everything he did. (1 Peter 2:12).

Through his relationship with his oldest son, who became a freedom rider and later a congressman, I also learned the inner conflict many older black men and women had with the civil rights movement. They knew in their bones that the cause was just, but they hated the disorder it brought and feared the predictable backlash.

Finally, the film helped me understand on a visceral level, why the majority of African-American men and women felt obligated, if not compelled, to vote for Barak Obama to serve as president. It just makes me wish Ben Carson had been running against him instead of McCain or Romney.

LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER, is not a bio-pic in the strict definition of the word. “While the movie The Butler is set against historical events, the title character and his family are fictionalized,” states director Lee Daniels. “We were able to borrow some extraordinary moments from Eugene’s real life to weave into the movie.” I hope everyone, black and white, who did not live in that era, will watch the film and share what they learned. It will go a long way toward building reconciliation.

If you want to know the real history of Eugene’s life, visit http://www.historyvshollywood.com/reelfaces/the-butler.php.