My daddy was a George Wallace man. He cast the last vote of his life for a racist.
I feel a sense of shame to admit that, but it is the truth. Daddy was a Southern man who grew up in a time when being white was a privilege he could claim like a birthright (not to say there aren’t some who still feel that way). It was something I don’t think he ever gave much thought to. I know that sounds like an excuse and it is. I am talking about the daddy I adored, who died when I was just 10, so please forgive me if I look for a way to understand and forgive him for his shortcomings.
He may have been dirt poor, he may have been disabled, but he believed in the privilege of being white, especially a white man.
And it hurts me to admit it, but he probably would have been a Trump supporter as well; something about Trump’s braggadocio, bigotry and innate cruelty would have spoken to that white privilege in him, unless….
But first let me tell you a story.
Daddy didn’t really know any black folks. To my knowledge, he never had any black friends or any real conversations with a black person that I ever knew of, except for one.
I was just a young kid when I would sometimes go with my daddy to his pulmonology appointments in the old 1010 Prince Avenue medical complex in Athens. Daddy had what is now known as COPD, but at the time, it was just referred to as “bad lungs.” He’d had pneumonia and typhoid fever several times as a boy growing up in a poor home. When he was orphaned at 15, he went to work for the state, grading roads and laying some of the first pavement in Georgia. It was a rough life for a young boy/man, and he rolled and smoked unfiltered tobacco with the rest of the crew, drank moonshine and breathed in all the dust, tar and chemicals, also unfiltered, all through the long hot days of the Georgia summers. It’s no wonder that by 30 or so his lungs were infected with TB and later emphysema. Asthma attacks were frequent. He’d cough so hard he’d almost pass out. And before I was born he spent many months bedridden at home or in the TB hospital in Rome, Georgia.
Anyway, I said all that to say this. Someway, somehow, Daddy made the acquaintance of a black janitor who worked at the medical complex also suffered from “bad lungs.” I don’t know the gentleman’s name (I sure wish I did), but maybe he heard him in a coughing fit, I don’t know. Maybe the man heard daddy having one of his spells and offered to help. But, however it happened, the two struck up a conversation. I can remember standing beside Daddy while the two spoke, first about their ailments and then about their families. I remember it so well because it was so out of the ordinary.
I went to Danielsville Elementary and there were very few black students in attendance at the time, but I had gotten to know some of them. And I knew somehow not to tell my daddy about this.
But here he was asking about this man’s health, talking with him about everyday things.
I was fascinated.
On his last trip to the doctor, Daddy stopped to speak to this man on the steps outside the building before he left to go to the hospital where he died a couple of days later. I saw them talking from a distance, but I have often wondered what was said. I doubt it was a goodbye; they were both men of the same generation, after all, and feelings weren’t that easily discussed.
Now all these years later I realize that this friendship taught me a valuable lesson. The reason my daddy was racist was that he was fearful of anyone different from who he’d always known.
That brief friendship with the black janitor was the beginning of a shell cracking. It was an opportunity to learn that he and this man from a different race, a different culture, were more alike than they were different. Too bad that opportunity came so late in my daddy’s life, because he had a good heart. He was always quick to help a neighbor, and it is from him that I got my love of animals and nature. I like to think that if he’d lived he would have had a new understanding and a new perspective.
So much of the world’s ills could be solved if we all just took the time to get to know each other.
In my part-time job I work with people of all ethnicities, backgrounds, orientations and cultures. I have come to love so many people who are different from me, people I might not otherwise have met.
And what a shame that would have been because they have enriched my life so much, opened my eyes to so much and given me so many new perspectives. I have listened with a broken heart to things they have told me that they have faced; things I have never encountered. These are good kind people, people with families and lives and dignity and grace. I love them and they are my friends.
I watched in horror as Mr. George Floyd died on that pavement with that officer’s knee on his neck. And I could not believe the behavior of the redneck vigilantes who followed and killed a young black man jogging through a neighborhood in Brunswick, a city I love.
I worried about my son as he grew up in this often rough world and I think about how much more I would have worried if his skin had been a different color. He could be a smart aleck, he still can be, but I never had to worry that just the color of his skin could get him killed.
I understand the pain and the outrage. I feel it too. The peaceful protests are an exercise of our rights as a free people.
The riots, however, instigated by hate and evil, only undermine and counteract the message and grief of those who seek to be heard.
I also worry for the timing, because all of this is taking place during a worldwide pandemic. The coronavirus is opportunistic and doesn’t care what race, creed or political beliefs we hold. It is stalking all of us.
And I have to say that I have the greatest admiration for Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. Her speech on Friday night brought me to tears. She spoke from the heart with conviction, compassion and justifiable anger. She spoke as a parent and as a member of the community. She spoke like a true leader should speak.
I don’t think I am alone in saying that I am hungry for that kind of grace, for that kind of leadership. It is sorely missing in this country today and it is destroying us from the inside out.
Margie Richards is a reporter and office manager for The Madison County Journal. She can be reached at email@example.com.