Wednesday, September 20, 2006



The other day, I came across this New York Times article. It's about the uncovering of a swimming pool in Mississippi, a pool that had been filled in and covered up some 35 years ago. It's about racism and racial segregation from another era.

The swimming pool was a community pool, but not for everyone in the community. It was a "whites only" pool, something typical in the south at that time. But one result of the civil rights movement of the 1960s was legally enforced desegregation — often to the strenuous objections of the local white community. That was the case here, when the pool was closed, filled with dirt, and covered up, to be found again by a developer 35 years later.

It was a pool for whites that was forcibly desegregated.

And they preferred to destroy it, denying it even to their own children, rather than have blacks swim there.

Though I lived during that period, I gasped when I read it. Though I saw "Whites only" signs when we moved to the south in 1962, it still seems so alien to me, as something from fiction. The parts of the south where that thinking was prevalent were just places I passed through. Where we lived, it wasn't like that. I knew about it, but I was young, and I didn't really get it. My parents taught me that we're all alike underneath, and that's what I learned.

So when I saw George Wallace personally block the way of black students at the University of Alabama in 1963, and when a black Alabama church was bombed that same year, I didn't understand why. When Martin Luther King, Jr, was shot in 1968, I didn't understand why. And now when I see this, I still don't understand why.

I'm heartened, though, to see how far we've come over these years. There are people who still think that way, but they are not in the mainstream, and their views are no longer widely tolerated. Mississippi made an important symbolic gesture by ratifying the 13th amendment to the US Constitution — the one that abolished slavery — in 1995, 130 years after it had gone into effect. And the fact that the newly unconvered pool is now being reopened as a community pool for everyone is another sign that things are better.

But the story reminds us of how it was, and we don't have to look far to see that, while things are better, they're still not right. It should be so easy to make it right: just treat everyone with equal respect. Why is that so hard?

Why is that so hard?


Now I could understand your tears and your shame:
She called you "Boy" instead of your name
When she wouldn't let you inside
When she turned and said, "But honey, he's not our kind."

—— Janis Ian, from "Society's Child"


Ross Patterson said...

That pool reminds me of Farmville, here in Virginia. Faced with enforced desegragation of their high schools, Prince Edward County chose instead to close down its entire school system for five years.

And we wonder why the Sunnis and the Shia can't just kiss and make up?

Barry Leiba said...

A co-worker who commented to me in the hallway was particularly impressed with this part: "The businessman, a former political candidate named Gilbert Carmichael, decided to spend $25,000 of his company’s money to excavate the pool and rededicate it to all [...]." Mr Carmichael deserves a good deal of credit for that.

scouter573 said...

I grew up in suburban St. Louis about the times you describe in your blog. Racism existed but was often hidden. My family reached out to black families that lived near us - they did not live in the same neighborhood, but nearby. I feel fortunate that they did this because I am (relatively) free of racial bias. I don't mean that as a holier-than-thou statement. I have my own struggles, but I accept them as challenges to be aware of and to overcome rather than seeing them somehow based in fact or nature. I can't imagine how much harder it would be to accept people as equals if I didn't have such examples as my parents and such experiences when young. As part of my "pay back", I try to find similar opportunities for my own kids to learn.