Radishes and Racism

A bouquet of radishes.
A bouquet of radishes.

The Charleston Massacre has gotten in the way. I originally intended to write about personal things using my garden and yard as a starting point and source of metaphor and meditation. The murder of nine people at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, has gotten in the way,

Yankees and Rebs was as much a part of childhood play when I was growing up as cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians.  The good guys were the Confederate Rebels because Kansas City was part of border state Missouri that was more southern than northern. There was no deep discussion but a good deal of romanticism. There were somehow still wounds from having been on the losing side; somehow the Yankees were still seen as oppressors.

Whenever any whiff of understanding about the burdens of being African-American pierced the veil of subtle white supremacy (the murder of Emmett Till, Brown v. Board of Education, Little Rock) it never really had anything to do with us. My mother had enough to worry about as a single parent and an uncertain blue collar job.

It was really only in the summer between my junior and senior years in high school that I began to understand. I went on a bus tour of the southeast United States organized by the Missouri synod of the Presbyterian Church (USA). I saw “white” and “colored” drinking fountains in Arkansas and the “white” and “colored” waiting rooms in the Montgomery, Alabama bus station. We stayed in dorms in predominantly black colleges including Tuskegee Institute and at Berea College. Even with that introduction to the segregated South I am embarrassed and ashamed to say that I never took part in any of the Civil Rights struggles. I became a Barry Goldwater conservative Republican.

Then as part of a college course I read the speeches of George Wallace and realized with sickening clarity that it was not about fiscal responsibility or small government, it was about racism. The only states right he and his followers cared about  was the right of state governments to keep Colored/Black/African-Americans in their place which meant out of white schools, neighborhoods, churches, swimming pools. It meant blaming them for the economic problems of poor whites. It meant not separate and equal but separate and inferior.

We thought the Voting Rights Act and other federal legislative and judicial and executive actions would move this country beyond that racism. Instead Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and their southern strategy made the party of Lincoln into the party Strom Thurmond and Ted Cruz. Racism became more subtle and genteel. The robes of the KKK were replaced by business suits. Voting rights protection were attacked. And many Southerners continued to see themselves as victims clinging to the Lost Cause and never looking at the reality of life in the slave-based economy that made possible their comfortable way of life and their fine mansions.

Now Mother Emanuel and the nine people martyred by a 21 year old white supremacist who wanted to start a race war. What to do? Begin by stripping away the romantic haze around the Confederate battle flag. Take it off state flags and pickup trucks and t-shirts. Let white people listen to what the emblem means to their African-American brothers and sisters. At a deeper level let us understand that racism is still alive and well and operating in our political and economic systems. How can we eliminate it if we won’t acknowledge it?

I really would have preferred to write about radishes today. For the first time I actually have a root crop that is thriving. Maybe it is the fertilizer I added or the cool, rainy weather. Whatever the reason, they are beautiful.

Today I ask God to give me the love and courage to confront my own prejudices and to not let the prejudice of others go unchallenged.


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