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The Guy Who Took Down the Signs

Jan 23, 2009 — Categories:

Like millions of other Americans on January 20, I was flooded with memories and emotions as I watched Barack Obama be sworn in as our President.

Like millions of other Americans on January 20, I was flooded with memories and emotions as I watched Barack Obama be sworn in as our President.

I grew up in the segregated South and breathed in the air of racism just like every other child, black or white. I didn’t even realize how polluted the air was because it was “normal.” But now I know that it sickened us all and diminished all our lives.

I watched my parents grow and change. I remember stories about their best friend in college, a Japanese man. Their friendship did not change even as the racism of World War II emerged. When years later the city schools were desegregated, I watched my mother, an elementary teacher, be the first to welcome and befriend the new African American teachers assigned to her school. I listened as my father taught me to always address any older person, black or white, as Mr. or Mrs. And I watched him treat every customer in his hardware store with the same respect.

But there was also the dinner table talk of anxiety. My parents were good people but they were not vocal activists. They did not speak up when they saw injustice; they just tried to teach us a different way. Too often bigots counted on the silence of decent white people to protect their violence.

This was the '60s and things were changing which probably meant that we would all need to change too. I was in high school when integration came. The African American high school and the white high school combined into one. It wasn’t always easy, but we did it. I remember clearly how rude some of the white boys were to one of our black teachers. I would glare at them but I never took them on. And of course there was still neosegregation: the black kids weren’t in the advanced placement classes.

One of my in-laws, who is now in his nineties, worked his whole life for the railroad in the South. He tells a story about the day his supervisor called him in and told him to go to every train station on the line and remove the signs. In each station, there were two ticket offices and water fountains, one for “coloreds” and one for “whites.” He reluctantly implemented this directive and took down the signs that divided us.

When I went away to university, my real education began. Black students were pushing the university to deal with its institutional racism. I joined the Student YWCA which, as part of the National YWCA, was committed to the "One Imperative to Eliminate Racism, Wherever It Exists and By Any Means Necessary." I began to learn about the burden and responsibility of being a white woman in America.

So as I watched the guests arriving at the Inauguration and saw Dr. Dorothy Height, now 95 years old and wearing the flowered hat, being ushered to her seat, I thought about how she led the YWCA in the '60s and '70s to implement the One Imperative, how much she taught us young and naïve students, and how long and distinguished has been her journey of leadership. She is but one of thousands of brave Americans who made January 20 possible, and January 20 removed the rest of the signs.

As I listen to my African American friends reflect on how much they wish their grandparents were alive to see this time, I realize that my grandparents would not be celebrating but are probably turning in their graves. That was then.

And this is now. In the crowd on Tuesday, there were groups of young people gathered around various elders who were holding court and telling them stories about segregation. The young people hung on every word. Slavery, the Holocaust, segregation, discrimination in every form: these should be the things our children and grandchildren learn about in history books or oral histories--lest we forget--rather than things they experience first-hand.

My faith in my country has been battered and beaten most of my adult life. The vision of what America could mean has been sorely tarnished and its ideals shredded. The work of democracy is unfinished; some of us still do not enjoy the guarantees of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But because of the determination of all those who have gone before us, who refused to lose faith even in death, we have now come to a fork in the road, the way less traveled, and we have chosen to make a way out of no way.

We finally have the leadership we deserve but it is our task to clear the brambles, roll away the stones, raise our voices, fill the potholes and drain the swamp so that our children and grandchildren can walk into their futures, remembering the past but not repeating it.

“. . . keep us forever in this path we pray, lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee, lest our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee.”

Rev. Dr. Marie M. Fortune
FaithTrust Institute

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