Like most white Americans, I have a limited understanding of my ancestry. An “original, first-generation German-speaking Eppley”, we think, immigrated from Europe into the “Pennsylvania German” area sometime before the War for Independence.
By 1948 my part of the Eppley clan lived in the Carolinas where I was born, 16 years before the Civil Rights Act – 20 years before the Fair Housing legislation of 1968.
Please understand that I grew up in a time and place in which our version of “white apartheid” was in full effect. So these reflections are not abstract, symbolic or metaphorical. They are all too real.
I presume to be Caucasian, although I really have no idea what my “ancestral DNA” might show. Because of my appearance, I was never prevented from eating at any restaurant or lunch counter, swimming in any public pool. I was never forced to attend a substandard school, relegated to the back doors of any home, told that I could not marry outside my race, or prevented from living in any neighborhood that I could afford.
I grew into adulthood in a white-centric, fully segregated southern society. The dividing-line was all about appearance. We clearly distinguished between ourselves, and those others – those people of color. We even called them colored, when in polite company. We laughed at our racial jokes made at their expense – which, by the way, we did not call colored jokes (if you get my drift).
Yet our thinking was clearly colored – colored with racism. We were white and they were … well whatever we chose to call them. It was all about appearance. It was either white entitlement, or no privilege at all.
I am just a few years shy of 70 years. 70 years. Do you realize that 1870 plus 70 is 1940? And that the 15th Amendment of 1870 essentially had been nullified long before I was born in 1948, and would continue to be for another 22 years? As a result, there were few “colored” folk voting in the South when I was born.
Quite often I hear some of my white contemporaries speak of the Civil Rights Movement as if it were some sort of benevolence given by the white folk on behalf of the others. If you are too young to know better, don’t you believe it. Or if you are so old that you have some sort of selective amnesia – well, that’s why we have historians.
We kind, white, Christian people did not wake up one day and say, “You know, God has just put on our collective heart to extend social justice to all mankind.”
The truth is that the southern white church was often the bastion of segregation – a meeting place where people of like appearance spoke in serious tones regarding those people who just would not keep their place. Advocacy for social justice was called Social Gospel. We were having none of that, thank you kindly!
I was raised in white Churches of Christ – was a Church of Christ preacher until the 1980’s. During that time, neither in the particular Church of Christ college nor the congregations I attended, was I ever told that I had an older, African-American Church of Christ counterpart – a “colored” preacher but with a law degree.
This Church of Christ brother was none other than Fred Gray – Rosa Parks’ and Martin Luther King Jr’s Alabama lawyer, who helped to desegregate the state as well as to lay the legal foundation for national civil rights legislation. That I would not even know that until relatively recently speaks volumes of the “white church disconnect” to social justice.
In that time our black Civil Rights activists were really not ours at all. Every movement toward racial equality was an effort to claw one’s way toward the light of freedom and dignity. It was slow, and painful, and dangerous, and it was not pretty. We good white church folk were virtually no help at all! We just watched, bless our sweet hearts. We just watched and shook our heads.
During the 1960’s I was attending two worship services and two Bible classes each week. My black counterparts were attending church sponsored workshops which literally taught young adults how to assume a fetal position to protect against violence during their non-violent demonstrations. They were black Christians literally turning the other cheek, while trying to keep their teeth!
We white church folk, secure in our white superiority, dared to flaunt it before our God. We bragged about being a Christian nation, a nation of laws, as we pressed a sanctified white foot on the necks of those whose appearance was different than ours.
Yet, I celebrate Black History Month. I celebrate it with humility and reverence. With a profound and renewed sense of the “greater we”, I dare to embrace it as our national history, but hopefully not like some white politico who seeks to appropriate it for his own perverted purpose.
I dare to celebrate it as one who is not worthy. I esteem those determined, dark-skinned, faith-filled advocates of equality to be “those of whom my world was not worthy” — not unlike the faithful of Hebrews 11:38!
I celebrate it as truly our nation’s story – one in which people of my appearance played our part. And I openly confess that the gains made on behalf of the “colored others” were, generally speaking, made in spite of people who looked like me. Which is why people of my appearance have reason for some reflection.
So here I am in 2017, almost 70 years since my birth, contemplating our future. I spend a lot of my time with people of brown complexion, Hispanics who understand that their very appearance makes them suspect. If they are not Mexican, they are suspected to be Mexican.
If they are of Mexican ancestry, then they are suspected to be “illegals”. And should they be undocumented residents, then they are suddenly suspect as dangerous drug-dealers and rapists on the loose in our society, our white society.
Even U.S. born Hispanics are included in the stereotype, and are subject to taunting by their white peers. The walls that they see being constructed are not at the southern border, but rather are built in the heart, along the lines of appearance.
As long as we keep building walls into our laws, it will take far more than a trip to a Black History museum to keep us from Taking America Back there again.