Back when I was editorial page editor of the Pine Bluff Commercial, it was clear from the day I got to town that I was one of those wild-eyed integrationists who was out to mix the races, destroy Our Southern Way of Life and defy the divine origins of racial segregation. And I was hopelessly Jewish, too. To all of which charges I pled guilty, and not only declined to throw myself on the mercy of the court but -- horrors! -- hoped to make the courts colorblind, too. Until one day, some day, we would all overcome together.
The bill of particulars was long and all too exact. I had been seen attending services at black churches where racial segregation had been denounced and boycotts and sit-ins and demonstrations planned. I was spotted circling the block as black protesters outside the Saenger Theatre had been hustled off to the hoosegow by the police. I was a thoroughly subversive character with no intention of reforming. If I wasn't some kind of Communist, I was surely a Republican -- another dubious distinction back when the South had one party (Democratic), one crop (cotton) and one issue that was never discussed in polite society (race).
You'd think I would have known better, having spent my earliest, most formative years being reared above my folks' shoe-repair shop on Texas Avenue in Shreveport, La., when racial segregation (at least during the daylight hours) was enforced by custom as well as law. Everybody on Texas Avenue, aka the Greenwood Road, knew where the white stores, shops and offices ended and where the black ones began -- just after Mrs. Ferris' confectionery. The color line was so clear it didn't have to be drawn, it was just understood. Up the street from my folks' place of business there was an isolated black lawyer's and black doctor's office, but they were outliers. The black business community began in earnest where the avenue took a turn after the Murovs' furniture store and ran on and on until after the old Charity Hospital rose on the horizon and the proper segregated division between the races was formally restored.
The first American music I can remember hearing in my baby bed was "St. Louis Blues" as its notes drifted down Texas Avenue. I didn't understand the words any more than I did those of my father's prayers in Hebrew, but they were planted in my mind early and refreshed every night, if not perfectly:
Saint Louis woman
wid her diamon' rings
Pulls dat man 'roun'
by her apron strings.
'Twant for powder an'
for store-bought hair,
De man ah love would not
gone nowhere, nowhere.
Got de Saint Louis Blues jes'
as blue as ah can be.
Dat man got a heart lak a rock
cast in de sea.
Or else he would'na have gone
so far from me, doggone it!
I loves dat man like a schoolboy
loves his pie,
Like a Kentucky col'nel
love his mint an' rye.
I'll love mah baby till de day ah die.
The music, complete with words beyond my ken back then, had come from the vibrant African-American business zone up the avenue. And years later I would follow the music up the avenue into a carbon copy of the white downtown, only darker, the same only different.
For there was the black movie theater, night club, pharmacy, funeral home, barber shop, beauty salon, dentist, newspaper (the Shreveport Sun), pool hall, beer joint and just as many churches per capita. It was like entering a photographic negative of all the pictures I could see in the respectable Shreveport Times or less than reputable Shreveport Journal ("the white man's paper") in that long-ago day. But all of that wouldn't be necessary in the great millennial day when we the enlightened would do away with segism and all its trappings. Or so I believed and encouraged others to believe.
Yep, the great day was surely coming when all our kids would go to the same all-city high school, root for the same Pine Bluff Zebras, and the notion of black and white neighborhood schools could be left to the dead past as we all lived happily ever after. Historically black institutions -- whether schools or businesses or neighborhoods or athletic teams -- might all be swept away, but black folks were supposed to be so grateful for the coming of racial integration they wouldn't mind. Oh, what a fool this mortal be.
Forgive me, Lord, for I knew not what I did. That's not the only place I went wrong, and surely won't be the last. But the day is coming when that sweet chariot swings low and carries me away to the damnedest family reunion I can imagine. I don't fear death, for the judge in my case, blessed his name forever and ever, loves me. The fix is in. Though I could scarcely imagine such an outcome when I went wrong.
Comment by clicking here.
Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.