Monday, February 09, 2009

Civil Rights in Natchez

I lived through the Civil Rights struggle when I was growing up in Natchez. My father, Leo Scanlon, was the pathologist and coroner, so he had to go out almost every weekend to attend a murder scene, mostly for black men murdered by KKK members.

I went to Montebello School when I was very young, and Mr. McCraney, one of our neighbours, was a policeman and handled the traffic every morning. We loved to watch him direct the traffic, and felt sorry for him when he had to stand outside in the pouring rain.

One morning, he had a big traffic mess to handle when parents in the school started protesting the upcoming integration of Montebello. I had no idea what was going on when I saw angry parents at the school entrance with signs saying to keep the school whites only -- they shouted at everyone who drove past and looked so frightening.

The following school year, however, we had our first black student, Calvin. I can't imagine what that was like for him, being the only black person in an all-white school.

Anyway, we all liked Calvin, and one day, we had big excitement when we got to tour the Honey Bun factory for a school trip, and we each got a Honey Bun freshly made to eat. The bus was driving through a poorer part of town on the way back to school, and I decided to be clever. I whispered to a friend, "Hey, we're driving through Calvin's part of town." Then she whispered it to others, and others whispered it, and I was sitting next to Calvin and soon noticed big tears rolling down his cheeks.

He'd heard my remark. I'd made him cry! I was so ashamed of myself. How could I have done such a thing? I hadn't meant to hurt his feelings; I was only trying to be cute and wasn't thinking.

It made me think hard about racism. I was so sure I wasn't racist because we'd welcomed Calvin to school, yet I could make a remark like that. I'm still ashamed to this day of what I did, and it makes me think that we all have to struggle with racism, feeling superior to others for no reason, etc., no matter how we pride ourselves on our perfection in public. The internal struggles are the hardest.


Casey Ann said...

I don't think you can grow up in the South without some racism rubbing off on you. I guess the best we can do is never accept it and keep trying to rid outselves of it.

Marty Ellerbe said...

It is interesting how you equate poverty with race Elizabeth, and how you view the remark you made as racist and not classist.

Any poor kid of appropriate sensitivity would have been just as hurt by such a comment about his neighborhood.

It is also interesting how politically incorrect racism is while classism is still so well accepted. Poverty is your fault, unless you are black, then you are a victim.

I get what you are saying though, you did something crude and unthoughtful, as kids will, and you still are ashamed of it. Your feelings in this matter transcend race and class. Would you have known you had so much senstivity to Calvin's feelings, so much that you would carry this memory for a lifetime, had you not slighted him?