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"