Thursday, June 26, 2008

A Beacon of Hope

In the summer of 1964 I took a road trip to New Orleans that shattered my idealistic views of the world around me.

I grew up in the northern Chicago suburb of Deerfield, a placid but growing commuter community. Little league baseball games, or the occasional weekend sock hop, provided most of the excitement for citizens of this upwardly mobile, white color community.
By all appearances Deerfield was a delightful and crime-free community with a "be good to your neighbor" mentality.

I bought my records at the Deerfield Record Shop, my hamburgers at Harry's Grill and my dad got gasoline at Midge's Texaco. Midge was an interesting character because he was loud, but not in an annoying way. He shouted at you as you arrived, he shouted at you as he filled your gas tank and he shouted at you as you drove away. Sometimes I could still hear him for a couple blocks. He didn't ever have anything important to say, he just liked to talk, and he spoke in volumes. Every one of his customers just went with the flow because Midge was a good guy.

I went to Deerfield's public schools and after school I spent an enormous amount of time playing baseball or touch football in a nearby school yard. We didn't have gangs, fights or violence. It seemed my friends and I were more focused on athletics than academics. But, despite our positive attitude and school spirit, we had trouble competing with the inner city schools.

In the August leading into my junior year of high school I passed my driver's test, a truly liberating event for any teenager. I had come of age. I was mature (I thought). I no longer needed any help from my parents. My mother let me drive her beautiful new Pontiac station wagon to and from school. I would drive by the school entrance every day before parking in the lot to make sure I was seen by all my peers. I was really cool.

But one rainy day Mr. Big Shot (me) pushed the gas pedal to the floor as I turned to the left exiting the school onto the main road. The rear of the station wagon swerved to the far right, then back again to the left. I slammed the brake petal as hard as I could and the car plowed into a ditch. I was not hurt but I was stunned. The damage was minimal but the lesson was great.

The following summer I managed to convince may parents to allow me to drive their station wagon from Deerfield to New Orleans with my close friend Jim. My father was from New Orleans and I had visited family several times there in my early childhood. I had very fond memories of the city.

We hopped on Highway 41 in Chicago and headed south through the farmland and rolling hills of western Indiana. Our first stop was in Evansville, which straddled the Mississippi River that provided the snaky border between Indiana and Kentucky. My Uncle moved from New Orleans to this river town after World War II and started his own construction company and family. One memorable but noisy highlight of our brief visit was when we purchased hundreds of firecrackers in Kentucky, where they were legal, and set them off near my Uncle's home. My young cousins were very impressed.

The next day we took to the road again, alternating turns at the wheel as we drove through Kentucky and the Tennessee toward Mississippi. It was very hot so we kept the windows of our station wide open. Route 41 was dotted with barns and silos, many bearing signs for chewing tobacco or cigarettes. We passed through a stream of small towns, some barely more than a wide spot in the road with a stop light. When we would occasionally stop for food and gas folks
were generally indifferent. But I noticed the pace of life was slow, the people were lethargic and most of the communities were very poor.

Along the way I began to notice a profound physical as well as economic separation between blacks and whites. I saw two separate societies living side by side with very little in common. While I was aware of the nascent but growing civil rights movement, this separation was particularly striking because I was being raised in an all white Chicago suburb.

Somewhere near the Mississippi border we jumped over to Route 45 and drove south through Corinth, Tupelo and on to Meridian. As we pulled into the gas station we figured we were a tank of gas and a few hours from New Orleans. It wasn't too long before a state policeman pulled up next to our car. He got out of his squad car and slowly ambled on over toward us.

"Where you boys headed?" he asked in a not so friendly tone. He was very big and very intimidating. He had a pistol, a badge and he was wearing pair of very large Rayban sunglasses.

"New Orleans," I remember saying, "to visit my family."

"Well you boys best get fueled up and get straight out of town," he impatiently warned.

"Yes sir." There was no argument from either of us.

As we headed down U.S. Highway 11 toward New Orleans, we talked about the gas station encounter. We concluded that the policeman had mistaken us for student demonstrators who had come from up north to protest for the rights of blacks. It was an unsettling encounter for both of us.

We arrived later that day at my aunt's New Orleans home. We unpacked and went out for a wonderful dinner of boiled crabs, jambalaya and gumbo. We later walked along tree lined St. Charles Avenue, under the Spanish moss, and hopped on the trolley.

The next morning we teed off at the City Park Golf Course. The weather was already unbearable. Summer in New Orleans combines intense heat from the sun with heavy humidity. The conditions can be especially perilous in the afternoon. But on this morning in August I already found myself soaked and thirsty after just two holes. I went over to a nearby shelter and drank from a water fountain. The fountain was disgustingly dirty and the water was warm. I continued on with my game but neither of us was having much fun.

We passed near the same shelter on the ninth hole. This time I noticed an electric fountain. As I walked up to get a drink I spotted a sign on the wall. "WHITES ONLY," it boldly read. I walked around to the other side and above the fountain I had earlier used a sign read, "COLORED." I was stunned for a moment. I then went back and took a long cool drink from the electric fountain. I expressed amazement to Jim and we both just shook it off.

We called it quits after 9 holes and went back to my aunt's house. Later that day, as dinner was being served, I told her what had happened.

"You drank from a colored fountain!" she responded firmly.

"Yes, and it was filthy," I said.

"You should never do that," she admonished me, "you can get sick."

She explained why there were two fountains. She announced that "the colored" knew there place. She said most were good people but some carried diseases and others were criminals. We had to be careful. Besides, she observed, this is the way life has been in the south forever. Then she pointed out that "Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the country." She noted that whites live along scenic Lake Michigan while most of the blacks live in housing projects in the inner city.

I had a hard time accepting her comments and pushed back. But it was clear that she was not happy. And I realized she was correct in her observations about segregation and Chicago.

We never discussed the incident again, avoiding the subject for the remainder of our visit. But as I visited the French Quarter, the Garden District and other sites, I saw other "WHITES ONLY" signs. I also saw that blacks were barred from many restaurants and clubs. New Orleans was a two class society.

When we returned to Deerfield, I clearly recognized I lived in a homogeneous society sheltered from racial divisions. I had failed to pay sufficient attention to how our communities, our cities and our country were divided along racial and economic lines. Millions of Americans who dreamed could not fulfill their hopes because of pervasive prejudice and discrimination. The words of Emma Lazarus were not reality: "give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

The trip to New Orleans in 1964 made me a better person. Sadly much blood would be spilled over the next decade in an effort to put in place the legal framework necessary to eliminate most racial barriers. This nation has since made major strides to achieve racial equality as well as gender equality.

Not all the wounds are healed, and racial discrimination is not fully eradicated. But today, forty-four years after my trip to New Orleans, most anyone can fulfill their dreams. Today America lifts its lamp for all.

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