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Clueless in the Nonfiction Aisle

Why we need Black History Month


Two or three weeks ago I was in a bookstore, standing a few feet from two clean-cut white guys who looked to be in their mid-20s. One of them pointed to a book about Martin Luther King and started griping about Black History Month.

"I'm serious, I'm so tired of it," he said. "I mean, slavery was banned, people; what else have they had to gripe about?"

Other guy: "No shit -- give me a White History Month."

Then they walked away together.

My first thought was, "I didn't know people that ignorant went to bookstores." But the more I thought about those guys -- twentysomethings raised in the 1980s and 1990s in a culture that thrives on historical amnesia -- I realized they probably have no idea why Black History Month was started. How millions of black Americans' stories were once routinely, and officially, ignored. How every month was nothing but White History Month. And judging from the "what else have they had to gripe about?" quip, I'd say our duo doesn't know much about Southern life before the Civil Rights Movement -- which is pitiful considering that from a historical viewpoint, those days were just a blink of an eye ago. So in case one of those guys is reading, let this Southern-bred baby boomer or, to use a term coined by a friend, "pre-geezer," tell you:

My hometown of Gaffney, SC, where I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, was like thousands of other sleepy Southern burgs at the time. I remember all the things associated with the region during that era: homemade ice cream on a summer afternoon, wisteria's perfume wafting into the living room, the dammed-up creek near our house that was just right for swimming. But I also remember an old black man downtown who once confused me when he stepped into the street to get out of my way as I walked toward him. I was 6 years old.

And I remember the Ku Klux Klan. They had a mysterious but palpable presence in our town, and now and then you'd hear family members or neighbors speak of them. The group's membership was supposed to be top secret, although everybody seemed to know that certain policemen and firemen were Klansmen, and it was even rumored a town councilman or two had joined. I remember my father and me walking into the Small Fry, a takeout place that served wonderful hotdogs, and seeing pamphlets with "KKK" emblazoned on the front in a stack on the counter.

When grown-ups talked about the Klan, they were careful not to let the kids hear exactly what the group had done. Or to whom. But sometimes I heard. "Found him down at the river ..." "... burned slap to the ground," "... left him bleeding in the ditch."

The Klan's latest target would most often be treated by one of the town's white doctors, who provided separate entrances, waiting rooms and examination rooms for black patients. One of the white physicians, Dr. James Sanders, was a favorite of Gaffney's black community and many whites refused to go to him because of it. Some people actually hated him for it.

In 1957, the year of violence-plagued school integration in Little Rock, AR, a group of South Carolina pastors published a small book of essays titled South Carolinians Speak: A Moderate Approach to Race Relations. One of the essays was by Dr. Sanders' wife, Claudia, chair of the county library board and member of a venerable Charleston family. Not too long after the book was published, a Klan bomb blew up one side of the Sanders' house, located in a "nice" residential area. Luckily, no one was home at the time. People drove by the house for days, gazing through the pines to survey the damage. I remember a toilet sitting in the middle of their front yard next to some singed bushes. No one was ever convicted of bombing the Sanders' home.

Cut to decades later, 1998. In a used bookstore in the mountains, I ran across an old copy of South Carolinians Speak, the first and only copy I've ever seen, and my childhood memory of the bombing was rekindled. I had never read Claudia Sanders' essay, so I eagerly flipped through the pages, searching for the hotheaded tirade by our hometown rabble-rouser. She must have been pretty inflammatory to rile some people enough to make them want to kill her.

Then I read it, and the depressing realities of life in the "good old days" came rushing back. Mrs. Sanders' essay made a heartfelt but mild case for a gradual integration of schools, argued from a Christian viewpoint that "all men are my brothers." She chastised Southerners for ignoring the "scandalously inadequate" schools for black children, but also suggested that each community find its own way to integration, without federal interference.

So, for those two bookstore twentysomethings, and for anyone who somehow doesn't already know it, that is what the pre-Civil Rights movement South was like. So repressive that even a respected, prosperous white Christian woman risked being killed for publicly suggesting that segregation should be gradually phased out.

Feel free to cut out this story and keep it for White History Month.

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