Life is a Business – Chapter 29
A series of essays on the past, the present, and the future
What Do We Owe Each Other?
It’s time to Speak
For several years now, the old words and phrases from a dark era are not only creeping, but also, racing back into our conversations, both public and private. The hair stands up on the back of my neck when I hear carefully crafted statements that do everything but say what’s actually on a person’s mind. My mind’s ear knows the hateful words that are right on the tips of their tongues, wanting to burst forth. I wish they would stop wrapping themselves in a cloak of morality, patriotism and brotherly love right before their code worded diatribes. Don’t pay attention to anything before the word “but”. Peoples’ true, heartfelt beliefs come after the words “but” or, “in all due respect”. Racism has acquired more subtle marketing skills over the decades and learned to disguise both the act and the actors. When I was a boy, it was done openly via rooftop speakers mounted on old “Blues Brothers” style KKK cars that regularly came through town on Saturdays, blaring vile rhetoric and throwing out hateful propaganda leaflets to promote the next cross burning at a local cave to “take our country back”. The vast majority of the white people in my hometown were not supportive, but they were too scared to challenge the unseen hand of power wielded by the Klan. “It’s best to keep your head down and your mouth shut…” was the advice given to the baby boomers that saw social injustice firsthand and wanted change…this was now being done to our classmates, teammates and friends…the world was changing as we were changing.
Forces are Trying to Turn the Clock Back
I grew up in the turbulent 1960’s in the wonderful small Southern town of South Pittsburg, Tennessee, which sits on the Alabama state line. Make no mistake, more than just the amount of red clay and kudzu changed when you crossed the state line, just as it did going up into many of the remote Tennessee mountain communities. South Pittsburg was uniquely progressive for it’s time and place. There was a congeniality among races, even though there were quiet, but clear lines of separation at Second Street and Railroad Avenue. Even then, we had mixed neighborhoods in Hamburg and on the Old Jasper Road, along with Penn-Dixie Cement, company owned housing. Dr. Hiram B. Moore M.D. was the only black doctor in the region and well respected by all. He, along with his wife and daughter broke the unwritten color barrier when they quietly built a home up on the hill in the trees at the end of Fourth Street. He knew how to gracefully break down barriers, just as he had done to go from sharecropping to graduating from medical school at a time when the overwhelming odds were that he would not even finish high school. He was the first doctor I remember and took care of our family for my entire childhood, as he did for many, many white families in need of help…you paid him, if you could, with what you had, when you were able. I am certain he retired with a fortune owed to him in unpaid medical bills, but also left with the undying love and appreciation of a community, to this day. Dr. Moore was just one example of many outstanding men and women of color in our town – people who walked tall among all men, stood eye to eye; they both gave and commanded respect at all times. They had far more impact on the success of the community than anyone would realize, much less admit…they inspired all people to be better. For certain, our town was still carrying much the same baggage from the Old South as many others, but there was an undercurrent of change that preceded neighboring towns by decades. Unfortunately, “Jim Crow” stubbornly held on and refused to die away in certain parts of society.
There was the Princess Theater, which had the separate door outside and the stairs up to the balcony overhead. I was embarrassed and looked away from the faces of friends who could not sit with us downstairs at the movies. What was the issue? We swam in the same creek, swung on the same rope, hung onto the same inner tube and ate the same fried fish and hoecakes out of Beulah Buckner’s black iron skillet sizzling over the coal grate fireplace. My summers were spent with black friends who just disappeared in the fall, when school started. I began to question this system in elementary school and think about how race, education, money, communication skills and personal appearance determined so much of the outcomes of our lives. I started studying the habits of successful families, both black and white. Same environment, different outcomes…what is the difference? How much was oppression vs. how much was the refusal to be oppressed? In just a few years, I came down on the side of those who refuse to be oppressed and are willing to sacrifice everything to earn the right to succeed. In the absence of violence and threat, capable individuals choose to either wear the yoke of poverty, illiteracy and crime, or choose to throw it off. I found that it starts with Respect…first, for your own self, then for others.
We had South Pittsburg High School for white children and a proud, historic school at the edge of town called McReynolds High that drew black students from a 50-mile radius. McReynolds, led by the beloved Professor Burnett, had dedicated teachers, administrators and parents who all understood the importance of a good education and the personal skills required to integrate oneself into the larger community. We had black entrepreneurial families, strong church leaders and strong working class families who stressed education and citizenship to their children. Along with Dr. Moore, who tended to all of us working class folks, regardless of race, social status or ability to pay, there was Mr. John Jordan, who ran a successful dry cleaners and raised a family of children who distinguished themselves educationally and professionally, some becoming teachers, one a lawyer and Tennessee adjutant general, some senior HUD executives and much more…always giving and earning the respect of the community. Jody Osborne worked for the telephone company and sold eggs on the side to put his children through college. Mitchell Ware was one of the finest, fairest gentlemen school bus drivers who ever lived and helped kids make it up the ladder. I could go on much longer talking about people of color who greatly influenced my life from a very early age; it started with Zethel who kept me while Mother taught school, then Joe Martin that cooked in my grandfather’s restaurant along with Luther Windham and Virginia Pope. They all treated me like their own little boy in my childhood years. Later, I witnessed the high character and standing of people like Mr. Patton at the Post Office, Hollis Wooten at the hospital, along with my savior, the smiling Juanita Gaines, who sneaked me desserts (when I came to get the slop to feed our hogs) without getting caught by the cafeteria boss! These people were good to me, respected me…perhaps, some loved me…as I did them. They accepted me into their homes, their lives and their hearts without precondition, judgment…or prejudice.
One day, as integration of the schools kept being delayed, McReynolds High burned to the ground and the past was swept away with the ashes. Mr. Beene called the entire school, grades 7-12 to the gymnasium to announce the integration of the school next Monday morning. He strongly said it was the right thing to do and we were going to do it the right way, with dignity and peace for all…and we did, with only a few incidents among the knuckleheads who were always in trouble anyway. Most of us knew of each other and many had been playmates and neighbors, so we all worked through our differences. It worked because the vast majority of all parents in South Pittsburg had high expectations of their children’s behavior. Trouble at school meant a lot more trouble when you got home! The community shared common values, dreams and aspirations across all racial and socio-economic lines. People of all backgrounds actually believed in the “Golden Rule” and accepted the responsibilities that accompany the rights we enjoy as free people.
Uncle Dave Gaines, the patriarch and gentleman farmer of one of the last “40 acres and a mule” post Civil War tracts granted to freed slaves, taught me more about respect in 15 minutes one day than I will ever learn in a lifetime. We were giving him a ride to town in our old pickup truck when we had to stop and wait as an older, much larger high school student just kept leaning over talking to a girl in a car, ignoring us and blocking the Old Jasper Road. After a long, silent wait, Uncle Dave stepped out on the running board and shouted something that made me want to crawl down in the floorboard and dread the beating I would get at school on Monday from the young man. Uncle Dave saw the shock on my face, patted my leg to say it’s all right, then calmly revealed to me the differences in men and how some were ironically, the exact same animal, just covered in a different skin, known by a different derogatory nickname. He taught me that it was the principles a man lived by, not his skin color that mattered. I can still hear him chuckle and say: “Trifling is trifling…” and he proudly proclaimed: “I am a black man”!
In high school, I was privileged to play on excellent basketball teams that not only won most all of our games, but also won while being well – groomed young men and gentlemen. Proud of what we were and what we represented, we took the first integrated team to play on a famous mountain in north Alabama among a hostile, standing room only crowd packed to the out of bounds lines, shouting threats and even flicking knives and telling our black players that they could be shot if they scored another basket. We let them win by whatever score they wanted and got the hell off that mountain! More than once we had to lie down in the floor of the team bus while under attack leaving Tennessee mountain school communities with pick up trucks of thugs alongside us, waving the Confederate flag and throwing rocks and bottles at the windows.
I cannot say enough about the courage of my black teammates and friends, Charles “Weegie” Martin, who passed recently, and Jim Wigfall, now a South Pittsburg City Commissioner. Coach Sam Brooks asked them if they wanted to stay home and be safe or go play-their choice. They both volunteered to go into harm’s way to stand up for what was right and support the team, even at great personal risk. Amidst all the slurs, threats and bullying, Charles and Jim played their hearts out and never responded to the hate. I was shown on those days and nights what courage under fire really meant. They stood on their heroes’ shoulders to be like Jackie Robinson and young black athletes today need to respectfully stand on theirs. We each took different roads, but remained friends for life, bonded forever by having shared our youth.
What’s Missing on Both Sides Today?
I am asked repeatedly: “What was the magic of South Pittsburg” that made it win at everything? It started with self-respect that became mutual respect; it was nurtured by high expectations, work ethic and widespread integrity. South Pittsburg had the only industrial jobs (besides coal mining) in the area that provided well paying jobs for under educated people. The businessmen in town recognized that work ethic was color neutral and they opened the doors at the three largest industries, U.S. Stove Company, Lodge Manufacturing Company and Penn Dixie Cement for minorities to build a successful middle class life. My grandfather often said: “All money is green when it gets in the cash register”… Fellowship is good for business!
We had great educators, both black and white, who fought for every child to succeed. We had great pride in our town’s success at anything and everything it undertook…we expected to win, so we did.
South Pittsburg’s Secret Formula
- We believed in our duties to each other, just as we believed in our own rights.
- We shared in the pain; we shared in the gain.
- We took joy in each other’s success and picked each other up in failure.
- We refused to let each other, our parents, our town, or ourselves down.
- We allowed ourselves to love and accept each other, even with our differences.
- Very few expected something for nothing.
- Very many expected everything, in return for giving everything, every day.
- We accepted no excuses for bad behavior, nor let you blame someone else.
Rediscover these principles and unlock the potential of your own lives.
Drive these principles home with your children and give them a chance.
Stand for something; say what needs to be said; lead people to a better place.
Pay your blessings forward, for the sake of all of our children.
That’s all we owe each other, nothing more, nothing less…
The Golden Rule is all we need to change the world.
* Author’s note: Special thanks to South Pittsburg Commissioner Jim Wigfall for consulting on this article and being my friend for life.
By Bill Hewgley