August 07, 2020: From Evasions about Jim Crow to Epiphany

Growing up in the Cradle of the Confederacy in the Forties and Fifties, surrounded by monumental reminders of the “lost cause” of the Civil War, I was confused early on by the racial contradictions bequeathed to me and my peers by Jim Crow.  As a result, I used to ask my mother Why?” about this and that aspect of the (mostly) unwritten rules of segregation.  I never asked my father, because I intuited that he was not likely to be receptive to them.  I had already noticed that he did not like to hear on the radio and see on the television sets he sold for a living such Black entertainers as Montgomery’s own Nat “King” Cole or Ella Fitzgerald or Lena Horne, each of whom Mother liked.

Questions I used to ask her included, “Why can’t I call a Black woman a Black lady?”  “Why can’t I call a Black man, “Mister _________,” using his last name?  “Why can’t I give up my seat on the bus to an elderly Black woman?”  “Why …?”

Mother’s answers were never quite satisfactory somehow, but the fact that she tried to answer them made an impression on me.  Moreover, in doing so, I early got the impression that she didn’t like her answers either.  That she never used the N-word, when my father often used it, and she forbade my sister Glenda and me to use it, reinforced the feeling.

So, I grew up in Montgomery with growing doubts about the racist rules of the culture in which I and my friends were educated and which we otherwise absorbed via osmosis.  Those doubts were reinforced by experiences I enjoyed with the Black maids who helped raise us and with my first Black friend, nicknamed “Blue Jesus,” with whom I played in Burkville in Lowndes County, and my second Black friend, nicknamed “T.C.” with whom I worked at the downtown Sears store, while I was in high school.  They were also reinforced as I read an orange-backed biography of Black diplomat Ralph Bunche in the fifth grade, as I observed white reactions to the famous bus boycott in 1956-1957, and as I enjoyed such movies as “Show Boat” (1951) that dramatized the injustice of segregation laws.

At Robert E. Lee High School, I was well aware of the Southern heritage we continued to absorb in class and social gatherings, even before, as Student Council President, I presided over the ceremony in May of 1960 that dedicated the statue in front of the school.

It wasn’t until I matriculated to Auburn University in 1960 that my growing doubts and dis-ease about Jim Crow evolved into a rejection of the racist inheritance I and my fellows had been bequeathed.  That outcome was hastened in such courses as Cultural Anthropology, which confirmed my suspicions that the concept of “race” lacked scientific validity, and in experiences my freshman year with “Black students” who turned out to be graduate students from India. I was primed for change in other ways, too, but none was more powerful than serving as SGA President and helping the University prepare to enroll without incident its first Black student, Harold Franklin, on January 4, 1964.  While I wrote him a welcome note, which he recently told me he thinks he recalls, the AU Administration had told students to stay away from him and so we did so.  We should not have followed the admonition so literally, I recently told him, apologizing for being so unaware.  I’ve long regretted that I never visited him in his dormitory room (he had an entire wing all to himself).

It all came to a head for me one night while I was in graduate school, working on my master’s thesis in the University Relations office, where I had been working part-time.  “It” so impacted me that I wrote my reaction down on Sunday, evening, March 11, 1965.  Fifty-five years later, as I was completing my latest book, Awakenings:  A White Alabama College President Reflects upon His Life & the Lessons He Learned Resisting the Racism Inherited from Jim Crow, I re-read what I wrote for the first time:  “It is 8:05 p.m. on the … campus.  A[n ABC] news bulletin [just] broke into the quiet music [from the radio I was listening to] ….  Mist shrouds [the Auburn campus] as inside Martin Hall an angry and frustrated student … sits listening to [the] … news reveal another tragedy:  Unitarian from Boston, minister, father of four children …, civil rights demonstrator, [Rev.] James Reeb has just died of head injuries suffered at the hands of four Selma bigots.  [Actually, he died a few days later in Birmingham.]  Another senseless murder in a sensible cause for human freedom.  ***

“I have never been so mad and upset as I have [been] over the recent events in Selma:  gubernatorial orders … so broad that state troopers found themselves with powers enough to ‘attack’ demonstrators …; citizens with such prejudiced opinions of the toleration limit of their societies that they unmercifully murder a minister on the streets of their town; a state that refuses – without overt force – to give the franchise to many of its ‘citizens.’

“God, when will our people learn ….”

“It is 8:20 on the Auburn … campus.  The mist outside can be [a] burial shroud, or it can be a cleaning … agent, taking with it in evaporation on the morrow all there be of hate and injustice in this land ….”

Even as I was changing that night at my college Alma Mater, I couldn’t help wondering whether or not any of my friends were experiencing such an epiphany.  It turned out that they had not yet and some never would.  That led me to ask myself, “Why did I change and they did not?”  More anon.

Jim Vickrey

See Jim’s past columns.

fullsizeoutput_7481A product of seven of Montgomery’s public schools, including Robert E. Lee High School, Jim Vickrey grew up questioning the rules of Jim Crow. At Auburn University where he was SGA President, graduating first in his class, his questions led to an epiphany on March 11, 1965, that caused him to abandon his racist heritage. Pursuing a career first in the Methodist ministry, then the law, he ended up in higher education for nearly 50 years. Retired from the law and from working at half a dozen Southern universities, including Auburn, FSU, USF, the University of Montevallo (where he served as president from 1977 to 1988), and Troy University (1991-2014), he now writes from his hometown. A widely published author and scholar, he has authored or co-authored four books since 2015, two published, with one at the publisher, and he is completing the fourth, Awakenings, about his journey from child of Jim Crow to mature son of the South.