Five years ago, I wrote a column about a couple of young white guys I overheard in a bookstore as they smugly griped about Black History Month. One of the guys summed up their complaints this way: "I mean, slavery was banned, people! What else have they had to gripe about?" Other guy: "No shit — give me a White History Month."
As I wrote then, I was stunned, but I can almost understand where those 20-somethings were coming from: raised in the 1980s and '90s, in a culture that thrives on historical amnesia. I'm sure they have no idea why Black History Month was started, as a counter to how black Americans' millions of stories were once utterly ignored or suppressed by mainstream culture. Those were the days when every month was White History Month. Even more disturbing is how many 30-something, or younger, Americans know very little about Southern life before the civil rights movement. So, once again, let this Southern-bred baby boomer tell you what it was like.
My hometown of Gaffney, S.C., where I grew up in the 1950s and '60s, was like thousands of other 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 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 mention that a black person had been "found down at the river, beaten half to death," or other such horrors. The Klan's victims were often treated by one of the town's white doctors, most of whom provided separate entrances and examination rooms for black patients. One of the white physicians, Dr. James Sanders, was a favorite of Gaffney's black community and, because of that, many whites hated him.
In 1957, the year of widely publicized, violence-plagued school integration in Little Rock, Ark., a group of S.C. pastors decided to publish 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, a member of a venerable Charleston family and chairwoman of our county library board. Not long after her essay was published, a Klan bomb blew up one side of the Sanders' house, located on the town's nicest residential street. Luckily, no one was home at the time. Three local Klansmen were soon arrested. The evidence was indisputable, but charges were dismissed by a judge who hinted broadly that Mrs. Sanders had brought her troubles on herself.
Cut to decades later, 1998. In a used bookstore in the N.C. mountains, I ran across South Carolinians Speak, the first and only copy of the pastors' book I've ever seen, and it rekindled my childhood memory of the bombing. I had never read Claudia Sanders' essay, so I eagerly flipped through the pages, searching for it, assuming I'd find a hotheaded, pro-civil rights tirade. After all, she must have been pretty inflammatory to rile some people enough to make them want to kill her, right?
Then I read the "inflammatory" essay, and the depressing realities of life in the South's "good old days" came rushing back. I discovered that Mrs. Sanders had made a heartfelt, but very 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. For that, her house was bombed.
So, for those two bookstore 20-somethings, and anyone else who doesn't already know it, that is what the pre-civil rights movement South was like: so repressive that even a respected, prosperous, Christian white woman risked having her life taken for merely saying in public that perhaps racial segregation should be gradually phased out.
Feel free to cut out this story and keep it for White History Month.
A longer version of this essay is included in Deliver Us From Weasels, a collection of the writer's feature stories and columns, available at Park Road Books and Paper Skyscraper.