I have a great memory, but fifty years ago is a long time. If some of the people mentioned have different memories, then that is to be expected. I also depended on the valuable memories of my old friend Dicky Strozier and my brother Charlie. Charlie’s differ a bit from mine, but not in any significant way.
At times I look back on the sixties in the deep south and see a foreign place. I think that sense of alienation may have been enhanced by the fact that I joined the Peace Corps in 1975, and except for a year or so living in DC and a few extended visits, I lived and worked in Africa until the early nineties, and only returned to live in the south in the mid-nineties. When change happens gradually you can adjust almost unnoticed, but after a twenty year absence, I experienced culture shock. In Columbus, Ga. the elderly husband of my neighbor had been rushed to the hospital, a very sweet couple. A few neighbors, including me, had gathered around her when we saw her outside to give her our best wishes. One of them said something about bearing witness for her husband. She started dancing around, flailing her arms and chanting, “He’s been bathed in the blood of the lamb! He’s been bathed in the blood of the lamb!” It reminded me of the time I had inadvertently stopped my truck in the middle of a female circumcision ceremony in Chad. This was alien to me, strange ritualistic stuff. Things had changed over the years. There has been a great deal of mythology and revisionist history written about the sixties. Perhaps one personalized account can reset reality for those who read it.
I was born in Charleston, but spent years 2-10 in the outer suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri being my father’s home state. Then we moved back to the Charleston area, to Johns Island, in 1959. Distance wise Johns Island is not far from Charleston, but in those days it was still mostly rural with a 70% black population, many of whom spoke Gullah. Blacks lived right down the road, any road, but there was no mingling of the races. Black kids and white kids never played together, or went to the same churches, or attended the same schools. Blacks and Mexicans harvested the produce, and white kids worked the sheds packing it. There was a palpable sense of arrogance bordering on animosity shown by all white people toward black people. The n-word was commonly used. The only pro civil rights whites were “northern agitators,” often Jews. There were no Jews on Johns Island that I ever heard of; they all lived in downtown Charleston; and I only knew of one Catholic family. As I would learn later, most of the Jews in Charleston shared the prevailing prejudices. In fact some had ancestors who had fought for the Confederacy. I don’t think there were any white liberals on Johns Island. If there were, they kept a very low profile. I remember asking my father why he had voted for Kennedy. He replied, “Because Lincoln was a Republican.”
I’m going to tell a little anecdote here that I have included in another story, because it provides some insight into the times. My mother grew up on a farm in St. George, SC. She had a limited education, sixth grade I think, but she was literate and enjoyed reading newspapers and such. She was ignorant of many things, but she wasn’t stupid. She had a bevy of strange beliefs and superstitions. Now the point of this is not so much the tale itself, but her absolute unawareness that there was any sexual component to it. Of course as a precocious teenage boy I saw the sexual connotations, but I never mentioned them. That was ground best not trod on.
You see there is an actual long, slender, nonpoisonous black snake in the SC low country called the coachwhip. My mother believed it would lie in wait for a young woman to walk by. Then it would rise up, head waving back and forth, and make a perfect wolf whistle, just like a brash construction worker might. When the woman looked toward the sound, the snake would stare into her eyes and hypnotize her. Then it would crawl up, wrap around her, and squeeze her to death.
The black culture on Johns Island and adjacent Wadmalaw Island was quite different from the white one. Many blacks spoke the Gullah dialect, although almost all of them could and would speak something much closer to regular English to white people. They had their own music and superstitions. I remember the shack like houses with blue panted doors, window trim, and porch ceilings. That color was called haint blue. They believed that ghosts (haints) wouldn’t cross water, so the blue would keep them from entering their homes. One of my great regrets is that I never immersed myself in such an interesting culture. That was impossible for me at that time. I had evolutionary miles to go.
I was a product of my environment. I was just as prejudiced as the other white kids, used the n-word, and generally tried to fit in with everybody else. There was one difference though, I loved to read. No one ever read bedtime stories to me or even encouraged me to read, so I started out reading comic books. I later branched out to kid’s adventure stories, then sports books, and soon I was reading anything I could get my hands on. My one year younger brother and I thirsted for knowledge in a wasteland. How I envy the children of today. In those days encyclopedia publishers would send the first book, the “A” book, to people free, hoping they would go on to buy the set. We could never afford a set, but Charlie and I memorized the “A” book from cover to cover. I still have a warm place in my heart for aardvarks. Also it probably explains why I haul two old encyclopedia sets around with me every time I move. I just like looking at them.
The small sexually censored, but surprisingly philosophically uncensored, school library was my only source of literature. I read anything and everything, Mein Kampf, The Communist Manifesto, just to name a couple. These days I would probably be put on a watch list. What I discovered from reading those books was that even the most abhorrent philosophies have some appealing truths at their core, which are then warped and twisted into something evil. There is an Arabic proverb: “That which is learned in youth is carved in stone.” However, thanks mostly to my voracious reading, gradually, very gradually, I began to question my own beliefs.
Because of the association of the Republican party with Lincoln, as well as being the party of blacks during Reconstruction, almost all whites were Democrats. I never heard of a white Republican on Johns Island. That would have been a curiosity like a two-headed calf. Since blacks were kept from voting by one means or another, that meant that in South Carolina the Republican Party only existed on paper. Oh every now and again some guy with a big ego would run for office as a Republican simply because he could, but it was just token stuff. For all the statewide offices, the general election was a joke. The Democratic primary was the only real election.
During the Kennedy Administration, southern whites became increasingly alarmed and angry with the progressive tendencies of the Democratic Party. The solid south held together one last time for Johnson in 1964, only because he was a fellow southerner. Johnson’s relentless support for civil rights was the killing axe blow among whites to the Democratic Party in the south. Oh the tree didn’t fall immediately, but it was doomed. On the other hand the Republican Party was a blank slate, an empty vessel just waiting to be filled. And fill it they did. The Republican Party in the south was reborn as the party of racism and intolerance. That didn’t mean that the whites who remained in the Democratic Party weren’t racists too, most were, just of a more moderate variety, some of whom were capable of adjusting their beliefs. Also a few hardcore racists remained Democrats for seniority or other personal reasons.
The exodus to the Republicans continued over the years, particularly as the Republicans began to tone down the racist rhetoric. The fight over integration and voting rights was over. They began to couch their policies in terms of states rights, limited federal government, and the pro-life movement. The last time that I looked, around the turn of the century, less than fifteen percent of registered white voters in South Carolina were Democrats. It well might be less today. Even with the exodus of the hardcore racists, it was still difficult for blacks in the sixties, seventies, and eighties to win Democratic primaries. This was the era of Clinton, Carter, the Gores, etc. White Democrats were more progressive than white Republicans, but it was still tough for them to vote for a black person, especially one who had never held a major elected office, and almost none had. Eventually this led to the tacit acceptance by southern blacks of Republican gerrymandering, which assured that fewer Democrats would be elected, but most of those that were would be black. Also it meant that Republican candidates in gerrymandered districts did not have to moderate their positions in order to get elected, in fact quite the opposite. Continue reading