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The Civil Rights Movement first touched my life about fifty years ago, though I scarcely knew it at the time. We were visiting my father’s sisters at the old home place in South Carolina, and were heading home from a lakeside picnic. I was old enough to read and ask questions, but too young to follow current events.
As we slowly wheeled out of the parking lot, station wagon crowded with parents, kids, and aunts, I scrutinized the retreating entrance sign from my perch on the back seat. Its big bold letters read “Greenwood County White Park.”
The park didn’t look white to me. Except for the ducks, all I saw were the usual green trees, brown water, and red dirt. This had to be explained. [End Page 1]
“Why do they call it ‘White Park?’” I demanded. “Why?”
Flush with modern theories of childrearing, my parents normally indulged my curiosity, but not this time. Dense silence suddenly enveloped the front seat.
Maybe they hadn’t heard me. “Was it named for Mr. White?” I offered helpfully. “Is that why they call it ‘White Park’?”
More silence. Tense silence. Without knowing it, I had stumbled onto a sore subject, something my parents did not want to discuss with children, especially around sensitive kinfolk. You never knew what people might think. Finally my mother stammered something about explaining it to me later, but she never did. I got a similar reaction when I grew a little older and asked for definitions of some funny words that kept coming over the airwaves: “segregation,” “integration,” and even “race.” These concepts were too hot for her to handle, and I would have to figure them out on my own. Even sex was easier to explain.
For a southern child in the 1950s, segregation was everywhere, but Jim Crow alone had not created the awkward silence that was unforgettable even before I understood it. Earlier generations of white parents had explained racial boundaries as a matter of course, and I was already aware, without being able to articulate it, that the black people in my life had entirely different roles from the white people. But by the time I encountered the mystery of “White Park,” old racial assumptions were becoming untenable for “moderates” like my parents, far too absurd to explain to a child but still too powerful to criticize in company. Unable to defend segregation but afraid to renounce it, my parents were truly speechless.
It is clear to me now that it was the infant Civil Rights Movement that had disturbed our family outing that uneasy afternoon. Gathering strength in the twentieth century’s first half, the Movement had already scored impressive victories in the streets and the courts. With years of bloody struggle still ahead, black marchers and protestors had already touched my parents’ consciences, undermining Jim Crow’s moral defenses and leaving my mother and father tongue-tied. In the years ahead, new waves of marchers would keep pushing forward, ultimately overturning decades of brutal discrimination and forging a social revolution. As they did so, millions of white southerners, including my parents, would surprise themselves by learning to live by a new racial code. The Movement’s greatest victories were the monumental changes it brought to the lives of black Americans, but some of its achievements were less tangible than equal housing or the right to vote. For some of us, at least, as the physical barriers of segregation slowly fell, the mental barriers that had created Greenwood’s “White Park” in the first place slowly receded as well, first giving way to stammered excuses and eventually to palpable relief that the duty to defend the indefensible had finally lifted.
This issue of Southern Cultures focuses on the Civil Rights Movement, and its timing is apt. Here at the Center...