Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, who is black, told a story recently about a trip he made as a young man to Lookout Mountain, which straddles three southern states: Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama. Speaking to members of the Chicago Bar Association via zoom, he explained that while he was visiting the famous site, he got into a bit of trouble.
In those days, segregation was rampant in the south. At tourist attractions and public places, the restrooms and water fountains were clearly marked, “Colored Only” and “White Only.” And that’s just how it was.
White said he walked up to the white drinking fountain–and a policeman came and told him he belonged at the other one. White said, “No, I’m white.” And the cop, as one would imagine, gave him an argument. But White argued back and wouldn’t budge. He stayed there, at the white fountain. Maintaining he was white.
The cop didn’t know what to make of it. So White pulled out his ID. “You see,” he said, “I am ‘White.'” Perplexed, and gotten the better of—because no one could dispute that White was White–the cop walked away. Maybe even a little amused?
Jesse White went on to become a college graduate, a renowned athlete, a US army paratrooper, an Illinois State legislator, Cook County Recorder of Deeds and Illinois Secretary of State–for the last 22 years and counting, the first African American to hold the job. And the longest serving secretary of state in Illinois history.
And in 1959 he also started a kids’ tumbling team that’s helped thousands of kids who may never have had the chance to shine if not for him.
The cop? We don’t know whatever happened to him.
I remembered my own Stone Mountain story after I heard White tell his story, which I hadn’t thought of for years. It was the early 1960s, and one of my best friends had moved to Atlanta. We missed each other very much and my mom let me visit her over the summer. On my first full day there, her parents took us to Stone Mountain, the magnitude of which was quite impressive.
And something happened that was even more impressive.
Pam and I went to get a drink of water. And even though I’d never seen those signs, I knew about them. I knew about segregation. And institutional cruelty in the south. I studied it at school. And my mom, who spent a lot of time studying the history of everything (more on that in a minute) taught me a lot, too.
I read “Black Like Me,” a firsthand account of a journalist who darkened his skin temporarily with chemicals and found out what it was like to be a black man in the south firsthand. And all my friends read it, too.
“What the hell does this mean?” I asked Pam about the signs. I kept staring. And getting madder and madder.
“That’s just how it is down here,” said her mother.
And suddenly I got this very bright idea! “Let’s go drink out of the ‘colored’ one,” I said. That’s why Pam and I were best friends and why we missed each other so much—because we loved pushing envelopes that needed pushing. Even though we weren’t even teenagers yet.
Maybe it was because I was Jewish that I had a strong sense of justice—Jews do, according to Albert Einstein, no less. And maybe that’s why I so loved doing stuff like this.
We marched right over and drank a lot of water out of the colored fountain.
And a cop came. He told us we were doing the wrong thing. And to stop and go to the other fountain.
But we were steadfast, just like Jesse White was. And we ignored him. We were willing to be arrested if that’s what it took.
But that was pretty much it. We didn’t listen to him and he gave up and tsk-tsk-ed himself away.
While it was nothing like getting hit over the head with clubs or, God forbid, getting killed in some horrid way for standing up for the rights of humanity, we felt we did do something very important.
I was a kid from Chicago, a city of big shoulders with lots of black people. A lot of whom we knew. (My parents were jazz buffs and they really knew a lot of black people.) And in a city that’s known as the world’s melting pot, blacks were just another ethnic group with their own neighborhoods, who we had a lot in common with and with whom we had other things not in common with.
We knew and befriended people from every ethnic group in Chicago–which was fairly easy since we lived in Uptown. And from every walk of life. From the lowliest heroin addicts to the biggest real estate developers in town. And that was what life was like.
My mother interpreted everything for us through the eyes of history. She never stopped explaining why people were a certain way because of their history. She was the Guns, Germs and Steel of our household.
A couple of years after the Stone Mountain incident, we took a family vacation to Washington, DC, and Senator Paul Douglas invited us in to hear a Dixiecrat filibuster of the 1964 civil rights bill. My mom thinks it was Strom Thurmond we heard but I remember it being John Stennis. Maybe it was both. It was quite a show.
When my friend Elaine started a book club last year for the reading and discussion of all the new books about race that have come out recently, my fellow club members seemed surprised when I told them at one session that my mom talked about slavery a lot and its effects. And that we learned a lot about it at school, too.
My mom studied American history (and ancient Greek, philosophy and education, not too mention zither-playing and mosaics) and lectured the family constantly. When I was a little girl, she decided to go to college and take one class per semester. Until she graduated. She started at the University of Illinois at Navy Pier in the mid-50s. And she graduated in 1969, from Chicago’s Mundelein College, two years before I graduated from the University of Illinois in Champaign.
The nuns at Mundelein became her best friends. And invited her to parties. And she always took me.
No matter what was happening anywhere or at anytime, my mom had a book or an article, a footnote or she knew of a documentary that was based on real research and real history. And she’d supplement it all with her lectures if anyone said anything about anyone that was inaccurate or ill-advised.
And that was my basic home education: my mother learning, recommending and passing knowledge down with facts. Sometimes conflicting facts. At which time we were on our own. No judgment.
If she thought a good lecture or reference reading was in order because of a stupid crack my father or I made, we’d get it. My brother, whose life was nothing but a bat and a ball, supplemented with a pool stick and billiard ball, never got any of that. He and my mom were on pretty different wavelengths. But my mom could also lecture about her two favorite sports, ice skating—and in more recent years, NASCAR, of which she knows everything.
And so, this was my “racism” back then: Once I darkened a grammar school friend’s yearbook picture with a light lead pencil to see what she’d look like black.
Another time, when I was a prosecutor for the City of Chicago, I was upset with some of the young white male prosecutors who were overly nasty to older black men, who were jitney drivers, and who drove “cabs” on the south side where real cabs wouldn’t go. They were fined regularly by the City and added the fines into their cost of doing business. But I never told the young guys to change their tune. Which I regret.
One of my friends’ mothers took us on a vacation to Miami Beach and even took us to see the Supremes in one of the hotel nightclubs. This was the big time, as far as we were concerned. Until her mother got up and walked out in the middle, leaving us alone with the Supremes and the other nightclubbers.
We were thrilled. But never figured out if she didn’t feel good, or if the music was too loud, if she had a date she didn’t want to tell us about or if she was a racist and decided she didn’t like the Supremes. I should have asked.
Today, I probably couldn’t write stories, which I often did about the goings on in black churches on the South Side like this one.
I also can’t say some of my best friends are black and always were. My Goddaughter is half black. Can’t say that either. Nor could my best friend and college roommate and I develop crushes on the two black basketball stars at U of I, like we really did back then. In this crazy atmosphere today. we’d be asked to suspect ourselves of…. Of something.
Once, my mom’s best friend Rita, who never said anything to anyone she didn’t mean, said to me, ”You are the most objective person I have ever known.”
When times are tough intellectually and emotionally and I don’t know what to think about something, I remember her saying that and I realize that the reason I don’t know what to think is because I know an awful lot about it and I really can’t make up my mind because I’m too objective.
And then I call my 94-year-old mom to see how she is and ask her what she thinks. Anything strike her on the subject? What’s she thinking about whatever it is?
She’ll tell me. And all I know is…. I should listen.
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