by Dan Rogers
Friday, June 2, 2000
Emily Reed died two weeks ago, and I only heard Monday.
She rated an obituary in the New York Times, and I took notice, since it was subtitled "Librarian in ’59 Alabama Racial Dispute." As director of the Alabama Public Library Service Division, which lent books to libraries throughout the state, Reed chose to allow Garth Williams’ The Rabbits’ Wedding onto her shelves. From those shelves, the imagination could and did easily see the book pass into the hands of children. Most of Alabama’s literate children were, of course, white. And the book, which I have never read, features the nuptials of a black and a white rabbit.
A political uproar ensued over the perceived allegory of miscegenation. After vile questioning from state senators about her beliefs concerning integration, Reed left the state, presumably forever. She worked in Washington, DC and Baltimore the rest of her life, and died in a nursing home in Maryland.
Finishing the obituary, I felt the kind of moral nausea that usually only comes from profound personal shame at my own misdeeds. I was most disturbed that Reed was chased away from this, my home state, and never returned. Her rough interrogation at the hands of coarse, sweaty bigots in seersucker was all too easy to picture. In her place, I would have left, too.
But fortunately or not, I was not alive yet and forced to confront the question of emigration. Four years later, in Birmingham just a few months before Martin Luther King wrote his letter from the city jail there, I was born into a lower middle-class white family. I remained totally unaware of integration’s chaos until my family, which had moved to a nearly all-white suburb of Pittsburgh in 1967, moved back to Alabama in 1972. I now had black class mates and didn’t know how to react around them, but had already figured out that you were supposed to react. You couldn’t just be around them, you had to have a conscious attitude. I was a white Southerner, all right. Five years in northern suburbs had changed nothing.
That fall of 1972, my older brother made a black friend in our rural school and asked him to visit our dilapidated farm house. The friend never came. He was afraid we would shoot him. If a nine-year-old could laugh in scorn, I would have. I knew my family didn’t shoot people. But I still didn’t have any idea what my brother’s friend, or Emily Reed, or a million black Alabamians, or hundreds of thousands of loving white Alabamians had suffered, were suffering, for their support of the basic principles of kindness and charity.
Slowly, the poison surrounding me seeped into my system. I only know it now, when occasions like Emily Reed’s death force me to reflect on my past and the culture that became part of my character. In school, I never had black friends and would have thought it odd or uncool if I had. In my teens, I could laugh thoughtlessly and then pass on jokes told at the expense of blacks. It means nothing to say that I was young, didn’t know any better, and appear to have changed for the better. The damage is still there, as surely as if I had eaten lead paint chips off the school walls.
Now, decades later, I am a historian of modern Germany. I have made the study of its reconstruction after World War II the focus of my research. Lately, that has meant working through the records of dozens of Emily Reed-like incidents, witnessing Germans forced to deal with the racism in their past, trying to decide what it means and whether it’s still with them. For me, it’s very easy to see the Germans avoiding, repressing, twisting, writhing. If a German runs across these words, I’m sure she or he will, with a touch of Schadenfreude, enjoy seeing me do the same.
Unlike Germany, where it’s illegal to be too overt in one’s support of the racist past, we have our die-hard Confederates. Not believing Lee surrendered, they fight in his stead over a flag he probably didn’t spend too much time worrying about. The flag’s supporters are a poor and pathetic remnant of once-formidable public opposition to the idea of unity based on respect for diversity. They are a sorry fringe element, as the power brokers who used to wage the struggle in public now, maybe even mostly unaware, fight in private.
Around here the struggle against unity takes its most insidious form in the desertion of the public schools. Most children whose parents can afford private schools go there; many of their parents and a vast majority of the other whites habitually veto property tax increases designed to save the public ones. Without the encouragement of a decent school, only the most heroic young blacks will manage to overcome centuries of economic history stacked against them. Really, who can expect every black child to be such a hero, or condemn those who fail to find the necessary courage?
I imagine Emily Reed having grown tired of the struggle, tired of what the Germans call the Ewiggestrigen, those incorrigibles who defend a past long beyond any defense, who extol one or two extenuating circumstances about a society that was and is shot through with the worst that humanity has to offer. Like Reed, I may just leave. But, at least for a while and maybe forever, I am going to stay here, teach about the Germans, and hope my questions about their past don’t make me an irredeemable hypocrite.
Dan Rogers lives and teaches in Mobile, Alabama.