My summer job was running the concession stand at the Rod and Gun Club swimming pool. I had to go to the Guys Potato Chip warehouse down next to the Missouri River for stock, and was amazed to see hundreds of cardboard boxes stacked up on an old wooden basketball court. Mom told me that it had been the old Black High School which made sense because most of the black people lived across the train tracks by the river. The Catholics had their own school, too, where I went for piano lessons until Sr. Francis retired.
In the sixth grade, the Missouri State Board of Education closed all the one-room country schoolhouses, and I attended town school in Boonville. I would watch Douglas Edwards and the CBS Evening News on our old black and white television. The next year President Kennedy was assassinated. I was at school in the locker room cleaning basketballs when I heard the news.
I went to school with African American classmates like Leonard, Linda, and Lilburn. Leonard was on our tournament winning basketball team, Linda and I were drum majors in the marching band, and Lilburn would sometimes wear hot pants down Main Street and was teased a lot but he just laughed and kept on his way.
Mom drove us to State Baton Twirling Camp and Linda and I rode in the back seat. I was somewhat conscious that it might upset some people to see a white boy and a black girl in a car together, but, if anyone asked, we could say we were just going to Drum Major Camp.
I was also a "church" kid who sometimes taught his mother's Sunday school class of 1st Graders. Lots of Bible stories, coloring books, and singing.
"Jesus loves the little children,
All the children of the world.
Red and yellow, black and white,
All are precious in his sight.
Jesus loves all the children of the world."
When the Interstate Highway System was built it got much easier and faster to get to Kansas City or St. Louis for rock concerts. My sister would drive because she had turned 16, and, we got to see Cream, The Yardbirds, Blind Faith, the Who, Led Zeppelin, Melanie, the Lovin' Spoonful, and The Association. We were afraid to go to Black concerts because we were young and white and thought we might get stabbed.
St. Louis was a three-hour drive and another world away. To get to the Kiel Auditorium, you had to drive through the bad part of town, which we did with doors locked and prayers for safe passage and no car trouble or a flat tire. We passed large factories and burned out homes as the new Interstate cut a wide swatch through broken-down neighborhoods where mainly black people lived. In the ring of white suburbs, you could stop for gas and a McDonald's hamburger (only 18 cents). I was also amazed that some of the suburban high schools had over 4000 students. Boonville had 400. I heard that one high school was scandalized when the yearbook was printed without any captions...just pictures. It just blew minds and lots of parents were upset. But, this was also nearing the time when aircraft hi-jacking's were making headlines and one might get to go to Cuba for free.
One of the towns we drove through was Ferguson, which was still a safe, white suburb out near the airport. These schools also had huge marching bands and sometimes got to go to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade or the Orange Bowl. Everyone was proud because they were from Missouri. And, we certainly could live up to our State Motto, and "Show Them".
Jesus also had to show Thomas his wound after Crucifixion so he would believe it was Him. It was easy to make the link on being a Missourian and a Christian.
Urban renewal in St. Louis also created Pruitt-Igoe, a failed urban housing project which was imploded years later as it became the best example of what not to do for predominantly black, low income housing.
Meanwhile, back in Boonville, I was the high school American Legion Oratorical Champion, and, went on to the County Championships. I loved Mr. McGuire, our speech teacher, who also taught biology and would bring in road kill for the advanced biology class to dissect. Once the smell got so bad I thought we would have to evacuate the building.
We wrote our own speeches and mine was about Race Relations. It was 1968, and I had grown up watching the peace marches, efforts at desegregation, water hose riots and church bombings, Vietnam body counts. Every week it seemed like over 200 Americans died. Almost a third of those killed were black Americans.
I lost the County Oratorical contest to some girl from Bunceton who spoke about a less controversial topic. Of course, everyone told me I was a lot better, but I should have chosen a different topic. In rehearsed dialect, my speech built up to an emotional quote: "You talk about this freedom stuff, can't you see what you already got".
On a visit to Washington, DC, Richard Ichord, our Congressman, chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee, warned me to cut my hair because I might start looking like Bobby Kennedy. Hair over the collar and you could be sent home, or called a 'girl'. If you hung out with Blacks after school, you were called a "N----r Lover." So, why did we have so many missionaries in Africa?
The Missouri of today has been characterized as full of puppy mills and crystal meth factories and solidly Republican. Before landing in St. Louis, one flies over huge barren landscapes, streets without houses, and outlines of former neighborhoods, urban removal. Renting a car at the airport, a shuttle bus takes you to a remote lot walled in barbed wired that feels like entering old East Berlin. You drive by many boarded businesses, Chinese restaurants, discount gas stations, churches, and liquor stores.
You are in Ferguson. It is now a predominantly Black suburb. You understand. Past miles of demolished landscapes, newer superhighways, near runway expansion, and gambling casinos billboards. One can't imagine how a normal shooting of a black man for allegedly stealing a bag of potato chips by a decent young white police officer just doing his job could escalate to international news. After all, all black teens carry guns and therefore all white people need guns, too, to help the police. It's about welfare. It's about jobs. It's about keep on keepin' on, status quo, movin' on, and giving up. Welcome to pretzel logic. Welcome to 1954. Welcome to today.
"Everyone is not equal and being poor is your own fault. It's not complex or complicated, race relations, to some, can and must be simplified."
"Don't take discrimination personally. It's not about who you are, it's about what color you are. Or, what sex you are, or who shares your bed. It's just the way things are. It's about core differences. Things that can't be changed like skin color or sex. It's about an America that used to exist, but also exists today."
But, there is something in the genetic and emotional memory present here. Perhaps fueled by Fox News as well as Michael Sam, oppressed housewives given cars by Oprah, the National Guard coming home from Iraq listening to Jay-Z and Kenny Chesney, it's not the way things used to be. The spectacle of black men hanging in the town square, mob injustices, witnessed by one's grandparents and all their neighbors. Defiance to women ministers and vegetarians and minorities holding positions of leadership once the exclusive domain of whites.
I absorbed the dynamics of difference, because, I, too, was different. If rights were denied to others, my rights would be denied, someday, too. That's why we should care about Ferguson. Fearing our neighbor means losing our religion.
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