Showers for Whites Only
Opinion by James Bishop, Jr.
Sedona, AZ (Sept 2, 2011) – Poets say that life is a like a pond. When stirred with a stick or a pole, all sorts of old bits and pieces float to the surface. So it is with memories of disturbing days long gone that are not so gone after all. Such an experience unfolded after seeing the film version of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, the box office hit of the summer.
At least as memorable as the best-selling book, the screenplay neatly unfolds the touching but risky relationships between white middle-class women and their black maids in the perilous days of racial upheaval in Mississippi in the 1960s. The part of the aggressively racist social climber, always insisting that black help, mammies and cooks, must never use family bathrooms in the house, is classic, perhaps a bit mean. Shockingly, a few days after the film, a young black man was murdered by young white teenagers in Jackson, Mississippi, run over on purpose by a truck in the same area where The Help was based.
Have things between the races really changed?
Quicker than a Manhattan minute, my pond revealed memories of my time in Maryland and D.C., working for Newsweek. At a cocktail party in Chevy Chase, Maryland, buzzing with politicos, press types and lovely ladies, a woman came up and gave me a hateful look: “You one of them Yankee liberals? Why don’t you autograph the real book, the one which proves that Negroes have smaller brains than we do?” I walked away, missing California, where I had come from.
Later, in the days of President Johnson’s administration, columnist Carl Rowan was named to a top post at the Voice of America. His wife, meanwhile, had become a terrific tennis player. She belonged to a county league, she being the only black woman. When the day came for her team to play at the upper crust Chevy Chase Club, she was told that she has to change in her car. The showers were for whites only.
Years later, an aging couple with Old South attitudes returned to Maryland to see relatives after a long absence. Years ago, they’d left the area because of more and more blacks in schools, markets, and offices. On the day they were to go home, they stopped for a drink at their favorite club. Two hours later they wobbled out. On the street where they’d parked their vehicle, hundreds of blacks in white gowns were marching down the avenue. Unbeknownst to the couple, one of the mansions nearby had been purchased by an African nation and that day was a special holiday. Said the older lady to her old husband, “See Dick, I told you they’d take over, someday. I told you, so.”
Arizona’s history is busy with examples of segregation, not just with blacks, but tribal people, men and women with foreign accents, the Chinese for starters. Of course progress is being made. Gone are the days when superstar Jackie Robinson and pitcher Satchel Paige had to sleep in buses and cars, no hotel would have them. In the early days of Dr. King’s crusade for equal rights, he could not get a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.
Speaking of Dr. King, it so happens that a huge monument of him is being dedicated in D.C. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,” he wrote years ago. “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,”
King’s words came rushing back after seeing The Help. His words, the new monument and the film were not merely flashbacks to a racist past; neither are they a guide to how far we have advanced in tolerance. Together they are the path to a more dignified nation.