THAT’S SILLY, PART II
The Summer between my first and second years of college I got a job selling encyclopedias door-to-door. It was 1962, folks, and encyclopedias were a large set of volumes, each one corresponding to a letter or two of the alphabet. They were beautifully bound and took up a lot of shelf space, but Google was far off, and these volumes were a great knowledge source right at your fingertips in the comfort of your home.
I lasted about three weeks because I was, and remain, a terrible salesman. If someone said they weren’t interested in the books, that made perfectly good sense to me. For instance, many of the folks I talked to didn’t have kids. Realistically, you needed school-age kids to get the most encyclopedia bang for your buck. Also, that buck required for purchase was sizeable and many folks had other budget priorities.
Within a week I truly hated knocking on doors and trying to convince strangers that I had just what they needed. I began looking for a graceful way out of the agony, and a way that my parents would accept. It came unexpectedly when I experienced an event that had a profound impact on me, and taught me the importance of empathy and perspective in trying to understand others’ point of view. Thus, my story is a continuation of last week’s post.
Our sales strategy was simple. I was on a team with two other summer-job college guys and an older (mid-30s) salaried employee who was our leader. Every day we would pile into a car and he would drive us to a neighborhood in Memphis TN. We would each fan out on different streets, knock on doors, and do our thing.
One day we took a road trip to a small (probably around 10,000) Mississippi town about 40 miles south of Memphis. We followed our usual procedure, and I was about 30 minutes into knocking on doors when a police car pulled up by me. The cop said, “Get in the back with your buddies. You’re under arrest for solicitin.’ We don’t allow that s**t in this town.”
My teammates looked pretty confused and scared, like I was. We drove off and the officer began a non-stop dialogue that went something like this: “Takin y’all to the station house so the Sheriff can decide what to do with you. Damn good thing y’all ain’t n***ers. If you was I’d just take you down yonder to the railyard and put a bullet in your f***in’ heads. We don’t like no law-breaking n***ers ‘round here. Got a special place for killin’ em.”
I was frozen with fear and started praying: “Thank you, God, for making me White.”
Our team leader had already been arrested and was at the station when we arrived. The cop went in the Sheriff’s office and our leader said to us, “Let me do all the talking.” No problem with me; I was about to lose all bladder control as it was!
The cop took us into the office and lined us up facing the Sheriff, who was sitting behind his desk. He was the stereotypical southern Sheriff, just as depicted by Rod Steiger in The Heat of the Night, co-starring Sydney Poitier: substantial beer belly, dark eyes that cut into you like a laser, and a cigar that seemed glued to the corner of his mouth. He leaned back in his chair, put his feet on the desk, and started slicing each of us up with those eyes. Legs shaking, I continued to pray, “Thank you God for making me White. Please make him notice.”
Finally, after an eternity, he spoke, looking at our team leader: “You in charge of these boys?” “Yes sir,” he answered.
“Well what in blessed God’s name y’all doin’ in my town breakin’ our laws?”
Our leader went into a brief and respectful explanation sprinkled generously with apologies.
“Holy, Jesus! Sellin’ goddamn books? Where you boys from?”
“Memphis? So you big city sons a bitches decided to come take advantage of us poor country folk?” He paused, took his feet off the desk, and leaned forward in silence, I think to let it sink in exactly who was in charge. Those piercing eyes again, and then finally, “Is this all y’all? You got any big city n***ers runnin’ ‘round out there? We’ll shoot ‘em down like goddamn pigs!”
“No sir, it’s just us, sir.”
“Do your bosses hire n***ers up there in Memphis?”
“Absolutely not, sir.”
“Any of you boys n***er lovers?”
“No, no sir, never,” we all replied in unison. I added to myself, “Thank you God for making me White.”
The Sheriff looked satisfied, leaned back, put his feet back on the desk, and put his hands behind his head. “I think you boys are OK, just dumb city s**t.” Long pause while we were all probably turning blue from holding our breath. “I’m havin’ a good day and I’m gonna let you boys get on back to Memphis. Y’all’s vee-hic-cull is outside. Y’all best get your f***in’ asses in it.” Then he leaned forward again, smirked, and unleashed the cutting eyes: “But if y’all ever set foot in my town again, God have mercy on your balls? Understand?”
We all showered him with words of gratitude, apologies, and did all but bow and lick his boots. We hustled out of town, making sure not to breaking any speed limits.
That was my last day on the job. My mother was horrified I got arrested. She said, “I’ll call Jack [family friend] and you can work in his plywood plant for the rest of the summer.” No argument from me. Working in a plywood plant in the Memphis summer heat sounded like heaven!
As I said earlier, this episode occurred during the summer of 1962. The civil rights movement was building up a head of steam and dominating social issues. Over the next few years, whenever racial discussions took place around me, I often thought about my Mississippi arrest. At one point it occurred to me that I had come as close as I ever would, and could, experience what it was like to be Black in America. It wasn’t a comfortable feeling.
I often thought about my prayer (“Thank you for making me White”) and wondered if I should be ashamed of invoking it. I decided I should not be ashamed of the prayer because it was not motivated out of racial bigotry, but out of self-preservation. I was, however, forced to face an objective reality that had nothing to do with my attitudes, but everything to do with the incontrovertible fact that my white skin greatly increased the odds of my safety in America.
After Mississippi, I understood the dark reality Blacks lived with every day. That insight brought me shame in other contexts: Drinking out of a public fountain with a “Whites only” sign on it, right next to a fountain with a “Coloreds” sign on it; entering an eatery or using a restroom with a “Whites only” sign on the door.
“This is all wrong,” I thought. I found myself listening more intently to the words of a Georgia Baptist preacher who issued a nonviolent invitation to Whites to try and “walk in his shoes.” I don’t mean to sound sanctimonious, and I confess to many moments over the years of bigotry in my mind and heart. It’s impossible for anyone to walk 100% in another’s shoes, but we can give it a try because some things in life are just downright wrong.
The coping lesson in my story is the same lesson from Part I posted last week (10.12.19): When in conflict with others, don’t tell them their belief is silly, that they shouldn’t feel that way. Put yourself in their shoes, try and see things from their perspective, and you will find your interactions with them will be more respectful and productive. You might even learn something about yourself.