Over the last couple of days friends have relayed to me remarks they've heard from folks regarding the presidential election that are stunning in their prejudice and anger. I know I don't live in the most progressive part of the country, but these comments came from folks that surprised me and my friends with their deep seeded prejudices. It tells me that we climbed a big hurdle this week but still have so far to go. It also made me think about the responsibility we have when that kind of thing happens. While I strive to surround myself with diverse people and learn about other cultures, can I really say that I’m unprejudiced if I don’t call out someone on a racial slur or joke? No. Occasionally, I have spoken up, but sometimes I have bitten my tongue in order to avoid an argument. We are afflicted with politeness in the South. We often choose not to speak up rather than risk offending someone who has offended us. It’s this tolerance for ignorance that keeps us from making positive change, and we, I included, must muster the courage to speak up when we're confronted with the kind of comments I've heard about this week.
I’m posting a column by Eugene Patterson that ran more than 40 years ago, immediately after the Birmingham church bombing that killed four little girls. Patterson was a journalist who always called out people on their prejudices, a brave trait in 1960s Georgia.
I’ve always loved this column. While it was written during a more tumultuous time, its message is still pertinent today. Doing nothing is doing the wrong thing. It’s a good reminder to look deep inside of ourselves before pointing the finger at someone else.
By Eugene Patterson
Atlanta Constitution, September 16, 1963
A Negro mother wept in the street Sunday morning in front of a Baptist Church in Birmingham. In her hand she held a shoe, one shoe, from the foot of her dead child. We hold that shoe with her.Every one of us in the white South holds that small shoe in his hand.It is too late to blame the sick criminals who handled the dynamite. The FBI and the police can deal with that kind. The charge against them is simple. They killed four children.
Only we can trace the truth, Southerner -- you and I. We broke those children’s bodies.We watched the stage set without staying it. We listened to the prologue unbestirred. We saw the curtain opening with disinterest. We have heard the play.
We -- who go on electing politicians who heat the kettles of hate.
We -- who raise no hand to silence the mean and little men who have their nigger jokes.We -- who stand aside in imagined rectitude and let the mad dogs that run in every society slide their leashes from our hand, and spring.
We -- the heirs of a proud South, who protest its worth and demand it recognition -- we are the ones who have ducked the difficult, skirted the uncomfortable, caviled at the challenge, resented the necessary, rationalized the unacceptable, and created the day surely when these children would die.
This is no time to load our anguish onto the murderous scapegoat who set the cap in dynamite of our own manufacture. He didn't know any better. Somewhere in the dim and fevered recess of an evil mind he feels right now that he has been a hero. He is only guilty of murder. He thinks he has pleased us.
We of the white South who know better are the ones who must take a harsher judgment.We, who know better, created a climate for child-killing by those who don't.
We hold that shoe in our hand, Southerner. Let us see it straight, and look at the blood on it. Let us compare it with the unworthy speeches of Southern public men who have traduced the Negro; match it with the spectacle of shrilling children whose parents and teachers turned them free to spit epithets at small huddles of Negro school children for a week before this Sunday in Birmingham; hold up the shoe and look beyond it to the state house in Montgomery where the official attitudes of Alabama have been spoken in heat and anger.
Let us not lay the blame on some brutal fool who didn't know any better. We know better. We created the day. We bear the judgment. May God have mercy on the poor South that has so been led. May what has happened hasten the day when the good South, which does live and has great being, will rise to this challenge of racial understanding and common humanity, and in the full power of its unasserted courage, assert itself.The Sunday school play at Birmingham is ended.
With a weeping Negro mother, we stand in the bitter smoke and hold a shoe. If our South is ever to be what we wish it to be, we will plant a flower of nobler resolve for the South now upon these four small graves that we dug.