Race Relations: Have We Made Any Progress?

By Ruth Deen

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” MLK

I grew up in Alabama in the 1950’s and 60’s. When I was in the sixth grade we moved to Scooba, Mississippi to my grandfather’s farm. Growing up I watched the treatment of black people in both Alabama and Mississippi. I saw both good and bad.

The time of my childhood was an awakening time for race relations in the nation, state, and in myself. This was the time of separate water fountains, bathrooms, and schools. It was the time of George Wallace, Rosa Parks, Selma, and Martin Luther King. It was the time of segregation and the beginnings of integration.

Johnny Nealy worked for my grandparents. He was the Head Farm Hand. He was good to my grandfather. And it is my perception that granddaddy was good to him.

I was always running into Johnny around the farm. I noticed that he never looked directly at me. He looked near me but would always divert his glance when I tried to catch his eye. It became a game to me, to jump around and try to catch Johnny’s eye. I never could.

Many years later, as an adult, I visited the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery. There I learned that black men had been beaten, arrested, and much worse for looking a white woman in the eye. It explained Johnny’s behavior toward me. Johnny was being wise and careful for the time and place he lived.

At the memorial I also saw a picture that had a profound effect on me. It remains in my memory all these years later. The picture was of two rows of black men. The back row was standing. The front row was sitting. They were all wearing clean starched white shirts. There was a white poster board sign in the front and center that read…

I
AM
A
MAN

It saddened me deeply that  black men felt the need to tell white people that they were men, not animals. And it implied to me that they were simply asking to be treated with the same respect as any other man.

Did they really need to ask? Yes, they did.

Remember the phrase in the Aretha Franklin song “R,E,S,P,E,C,T find out what it means to me.”

The world has changed a great deal in my lifetime. One of the ways is that when I was young, a minority of white people treated black people with respect. Now I would say it’s a majority today. But it’s not everyone.

There’s still much room for improvement.

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? 
   ~ Book of Common Prayer, Baptismal Covenant