I was entering active duty in the Army in June 1969. King was assassinated in 1968. I was going to the deep South for the first time in my life. It took me a couple of days to get to Fort Benning, Ga., from Sparks, which meant I would be staying in a motel or two along the way. When I travel I don’t require the Ritz, but I do like to know that I won’t be flea bitten, so I chose to stay at a reputable chain motel.
Each motel had a restaurant, pool and a bar — all niceties I didn’t need as long as I got a decent night’s sleep. I didn’t pay attention to it, other than to think it rather strange, but in order to get into each of the bars you had to either be a member, which amounted to paying a $1 fee, or have a room key. None of the bars struck me as being the kind of place either the traveling public or the local populace would be knocking down the door to get into. So why require membership? I was in the South. Everything was different in the South.
Mudflaps on the pickup trucks had a caricature of a cartoon Confederate rebel saying “Forget Hell” — a little redneck, I thought, until I realized it was meant to be for real, not in humor.
I completed my stint at Fort Benning, went to flight school, got married and halfway through flight school moved to Savannah, Ga., and Hunter Army Airfield to finish flight school en route to beautiful downtown Vietnam. I had spent the better part of the year in the South. I had gotten used to grits for breakfast instead of hash browns and okra was still a vegetarian mystery to me as I had heard horror stories about this mainstay of Southern cuisine.
Our first morning in Savannah, we had to find a place to live for four or five months so I bought a newspaper and looked for an apartment. My wife and I picked out a few of the available advertised units and started making phone calls. Everyone I called said they were full, nothing available at the time. We both thought this was strange so we decided to go out and look for ourselves. Each place we saw said there were apartments available. When questioned as to why they said they were full when we called they each said the people who were ahead of us had cancelled at the last minute.
That wasn’t the case at all. The managers said they wanted to see the whites of our eyes with emphasis on the “whites.”
I found the South somewhat tense but at least civil toward everyone, at least more so than what news reports a few years earlier had indicated.Years later, I heard a story from one of the girls who had been among the first students to desegregate the schools in Little Rock, Ark., in the mid-1950s. When she got home the first night from her first day in a desegregated school she said she could wring the spit out of her new dress like it was a soaked washcloth. After hearing that account I was so angry. If that were my daughter I don’t know what I would have done, but I sure wouldn’t have done nothing. Whatever I had done would not have been pretty. How degrading and especially to a young girl. How low had people sunk to do something like that?
I was ashamed to admit my own skin color after hearing that story. From then on, whenever I fill out a form desiring race, I put down “human.” I find that question racist in and of itself.
When I was enrolled at the University of Nevada, Reno, I attended a talk given by John Howard Griffin. Griffin had written the book “Black Like Me” about what he experienced passing as a black man in the South after he had chemically altered his skin color. James Whitmore stars in the B movie by the same title that sort of depicts the horrible treatment blacks had to endure before and during the civil rights movement in the 1960s led by Rev. King.
Though he might not have been perfect — none of us are — King gave his life trying. His effort and sacrifice made considerable change not only in the way people act toward one another, but also changed our whole society.
Larry Wilson is a 50-year resident of Sparks and a retired elementary school teacher. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.