When I was 16, in late summer 1968, my father refused to rent one of his apartments to a Black man. My parents owned about a dozen apartments in Rutland, most low-end rentals with just one bedroom, some with two, and one had three bedrooms, if my memory is accurate.
I remember when the man came to our house. He had a copy of the classified section of the Rutland Herald in his right hand. Before he said anything, my father told him the apartment had been rented. The man wasn’t stupid, he knew the truth, but he was polite, thanked us and left.
I immediately confronted my father, not because I was on the moral high ground but because I was 16 and had an affinity toward arguing with him. He told me he would have rented to the man, but if he had, the other two tenants would have left. He couldn’t afford to have two vacant apartments.
Was he a racist? Yes. Was he a bad man? No, he was a good man. How can that be? How can someone be both a racist and a decent person? There is no rational answer except that life is complicated, and the world was much different then than it is now. And no, this is not the same as the fools who stormed Charlottesville with their Tiki torches and white power salutes.
My father’s attitude toward Black people was convoluted. He bought into all the stereotypes, but at the same time every Black man he knew in Rutland was a good and decent man.
I remember one night when my brother Howard, who was home on leave from the Navy, told a racist anecdote to my parents and a few others. He was 15 years older than I was, and he was more comfortable talking to them than to me. The joke was about Bear Bryant, the head coach for the University of Alabama football team. It was 1968, possibly 1969, and Bryant still was refusing to integrate his team even though it was painfully obvious to him that he couldn’t win without the best players — many of whom were Black. Alabama didn’t integrate its varsity until 1971 the year after the Crimson Tide, which had been a football superpower in the early ‘60s, suffered a humiliating 42-21 defeat to the integrated team from the University of Southern California. In Bryant’s defense, he wanted to integrate years earlier but was prohibited from doing so by Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who famously said in his 1963 inaugural address, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Bryant had scheduled the USC game so that his team would lose big, and Wallace would see what had to be done.
The anecdote wasn’t particularly funny, but the adults laughed anyway. Racists jokes were told nearly as often as jokes about a priest, a rabbi and a minister who walk into a bar. My friends and I told them, but then we told inappropriate jokes about every race and ethnic group. Most of the jokes were pretty much the same regardless of the target of our humor, basically they were about stupid men doing stupid things.
I am sure some of you reading this who are my age are thinking: “I never told a racist joke. I was never a racist.” Not everyone was, of course, but many of us were whether we realized it or not. If I could go back in time in the Wayback machine with Mr. Peabody and his boy Sherman (if you’re under 50, you might have to Google this) I’d act differently. But I can’t.
I am a different person now from what I was then, but so is just about everybody I know. What changed me? Several things. The bold Supreme Court decisions (I wonder how the current court would have ruled in Brown vs. Topeka) exposed “separate and equal” for what it was — an ugly sham: separate was not equal. (I had a wonderful teacher, Lincoln Fenn, who let me do an independent study my junior year with a focus on the Warren Court.) The courage, grace and dignity of civil rights leaders and their followers had great impact. Equally important was visual evidence of cruelty. The defining video now is Minneapolis Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd and killing him. When I was a kid it was Bull Connor, the Commissioner of Public Safety for the city of Birmingham, Alabama, and his killer dogs and his viscous deputies. If there is any lesson here, keep the cameras going.
Clearly the world now is much different from the 1950s and 1960s. Most people agree Black lives matter; some disagree but they appear to be a dwindling minority. Better doesn’t mean good enough, however, not by a long shot. Where we need to be is in a world where no one needs to say Black Lives Matter because that is taken for granted. Unfortunately, we’re not there yet.
In honor of Rep. John Lewis’ life, I’ll quote him: “We’re one people, and we all live in the same house. Not the American house, but the world house.”
Peter Cobb is a freelance journalist who lives in Barre.