When I was in grade school at St. Anne’s in Beaumont, Texas, I rode the bus, alone, way across town from the neighborhood we lived in, through downtown, to a better one, and back again. The bus route went through neighborhoods of different racial composition. If you are about 60 or older you will remember a device then on busses to keep the races separate. It was a sign with ‘white’ on one side and ‘colored’ on the other and which was moved by hand by the driver along a flat bar that ran the length of the ceiling. As the relative numbers of white and non-white riders changed, the driver had to move the sign forward or back to make available different numbers of seats for the composition of the riders from stop to stop. And he (the drivers were all white men) had to get people to move too. Whites could not sit behind the sign any more than non-whites could sit in front of it. I’ve thought about those drivers a lot. Other people s could go through their entire day or week or maybe even month and not have direct confrontation with segregation, but the bus drivers were on the front line, enforcing segregation up close and personal, minute by minute, day in and day out. I imagine that I recall their attitudes, which spanned the full spectrum from sympathetic to impassive to to arrogant and gruff. Having grown up in the South I’m sure I was infected with racism and have just erased it from my active memory, but some time after the revolution in race relations wrought by Dr. King and others I realized that he freed me too – freed me from having to participate, like those bus drivers, in a degrading and oppressive system. I’ve wondered how many of those drivers welcomed their own liberation from their role as oppressors.
When Senator Mathias retired from the Senate, there was a packed-house reception for him in the Caucus Room of the Russell Senate Office Building. After a few pleasantries and well wishes he took some questions. Someone asked him of which accomplishment he was most proud. He thought a bit and didn’t reply with any bill that he had sponsored, but said that when he came to the Senate there was in America a comprehensive structure of laws that established and enforced racial segregation; that it was now all gone; and that he was most proud of having helped sweep it away.
The laws have been swept away, but racism seems to me to still be our country’s besetting sin. When I reflect on our social, educational, and political problems, I can see racism at their root. We have come so far, but we still have so far to go.
“O God,…take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts;…through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.” BCP, pg 815.
Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Parish, Washington DC