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?