For more years than any audience should be subjected to, I have made opening remarks at Bartow’s Diversity Luncheon, an event in which community members of different races come together for a time of fellowship and reflection.
I have been asked to do the same again next Wednesday. My theme will be the same as it was last year; permit me to share some of my remarks with you.
It was 58 years ago, on May 17, 1954, that the United States Supreme Court handed down its unanimous ruling in the case of Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., ruling that the doctrine of “separate but equal” was fiction — what today we would call an oxymoron.
My father, who was editor of The Polk County Democrat, wrote a column declaring that it was about time. Dad spent several months as a patient in an Army hospital toward the end of World War II. The hospital wards were racially integrated, and he understood that black soldiers bled the same blood, and suffered the same pain, as white soldiers.
He was a member of one of Bartow’s first biracial committees, one of the forerunners of this diversity organization.
Nobody ever called my Dad a flaming liberal, but when it came to race relations, Dad was blind to color. That stance impacted me at an early age.
In The Democrat’s first issue after the Brown vs. Topeka ruling came out, he wrote a column supporting that decision as long overdue. His observation was not greeted with wide enthusiasm.
He got an anonymous phone call asking him how he would like for his home to be dynamited that night.
If I were a young man with a wife and a 13-year-old son, I would have been scared witless. Dad was not scared; he was mad.
It was at about that same time that I made the comment in a seventh grade classroom that I didn’t think colored people — that was a term of respect in those days — should be treated differently because of their race. It was not a widely-shared belief.
One of my classmates stood up and declared that I was an African-American lover. Actually, he might not have used the term “African-American.” It was not in common use in those days.
If I repeated the term he used, my Mother, God rest her soul, would rise up from her grave and whip my butt, here and now, despite the fact that she died some 20 years ago.
At any rate, I was so dumb that I wasn’t even offended. My parents raised me to love everyone, even if the social mores of the day did not embrace interracial friendships.
But let me tell you, my friends, what did offend me. Four or five decades later, I took an editorial position opposing a move that a largely black organization had taken. I wrote that I did not think that this organization deserved special consideration because of its racial makeup, essentially the same position I had taken in seventh grade.
One of its members stood up at a city commission meeting and declared that I was a racist.
Being called an African-American lover, or a pejorative derivative of that term, because I opposed decisions based on race, did not offend me. Being called a racist for taking the same position in adulthood offended me then, and I remain offended by the term today.
So let me renew my exhortation that just as we retired the N-word that my classmate directed toward me in 1954, let us retire the R-word — racist — today.
When we disagree, let us disagree as ladies and gentlemen, not as black people and white people. To paraphrase my classmate of 58 years ago — in a way he never intended — let us love each other, even when we disagree.
If you are married, you know that is possible. Indeed, it is inevitable.
On a highly personal basis, I have four grandsons. Two are Lakeland-Americans, one is a Gainesville-American, and one is an Ethiopian-American.
And perhaps, long after you and I have gone to our greater rewards, my Ethiopian-American grandson, Addisu; his Gainesville-American brother, Asher; and his Lakeland-American cousins, Liam and Calvin; will carry on this event, not as a Diversity Luncheon, but just as a bunch of friends getting together for lunch.
Perhaps they will wonder what the big deal was in 1954.
(S. L. Frisbie is retired. If you want to hear about his experiences covering protest marches, lunch counter sit-ins, and freedom riders, and his memories of the March on Washington, ask him. Be ready for a long reply.)