Darryl Levings: When it comes to racism, times have not changed everywhere

08/02/2014 7:00 AM

08/04/2014 3:43 PM

Was way down in Dixie lately, where ol’ times there are not forgotten.

As usual, ate too well in Nawlins, where we tried some new/old places. Take my advice, if you like fried chicken, search out Willie Mae’s in Tremé. If you like the bird paddling in garlic, it’s Mosca’s, an old Italian roadhouse across Huey Long’s bridge.

So we were plumped up nicely when the compass was set for charming Natchez, Miss., with all its deep history and antebellum architecture. On the way up, we stopped at plantation “big houses” restored to their former glory — built originally on the backs of thousands of sweating slaves.

Monuments to another time they are, just as much as those stone Confederate soldiers standing sentinel outside those Southern courthouses.

From their stories, it seemed many indomitable Southern women were to thank for the survival of these old homes with their shadowed porches. Some had been Faulkner-esque spinster sisters or widows gritting it out in the old haunts of their bankrupted ancestors. Their crumbling palaces were falling down around their ears before states or history organizations took them over in the first half of last century.

Often it was the women of the social or garden clubs who stepped in to keep their city and culture alive. The work they’ve put into these near ruins to bring them back to glory is amazing and to be admired.

Other things were amazing, too. A bit south of town is Mammy’s Cupboard, for decades famous for its pies. Just pull off when you see the two-story African-American woman wearing large hoop earrings, a polka dot bandana on her head and holding a tray. The door is in her long pink skirt. I say no more.

And we slept at a bed and breakfast that was no cotton dealer’s mansion, but old, full of antiques and pictures from the past, as well as attitudes.

It was another of those unconquerable Southern women who visited her guests at breakfast. Before we got our bags into the car, she had shared that the newer hotel in downtown Natchez wasn’t thriving, in her view, because it catered to blacks.

“I can’t imagine getting into an elevator with a big black man!” she said. When my wife expressed disagreement, saying she wouldn’t give it a second thought, our hostess replied, “Well, I’m sure they are more educated and refined where you are from than they are here.”

So it’s nice to hear from Chief Justice John Roberts recently that “things have changed dramatically” since those bad old days of racism, leading the usual suspects on the U.S. Supreme Court to trim back the federal oversight on voting rights in the South.

I hope everyone’s had a chance to see the excellent PBS documentary “Freedom Summer,” about the college students who went to Mississippi 50 years ago to register the black voters long denied democracy there. Played it again for my home-from-college daughter. She was transfixed.

Spoiler alert: President Lyndon B. Johnson will not look quite as heroic as many paint him for his later role in the Voting Rights Act of ’65.

Anyway, joked Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert, if racism is dead as five justices say, then it’s time to forgive and forget — with white folks happy to take on the latter task.

In researching a historical series recently, I came across an event occurring 100 years ago in March: In Wagoner County, Okla., two drunken white men barged into 17-year-old Marie Scott’s bedroom, locked it and sexually assaulted the black teen. Her younger brother heard her screams, kicked the door in and fatally stabbed one of the assailants.

Knowing how THAT would go down in the white community, he made himself scarce. The gathered mob couldn’t find him, got frustrated. So Marie was pulled out of the jail cell where the local law had conveniently put her.

She was hanged from a telephone pole, one of more than 100 black women lynched in this nation.

Pretty sure we white folks shouldn’t be forgetting all this.

But yes, the collective “we” in this country have come a ways and still are.

An odd measure of that occurred to me the other day. I remembered how as a kid I’d devoured Korean War comics in which our Marines machine-gunned attacking waves of “lousy gooks,” the communist Chinese.

Now I hear that Archie, another comic staple, has been killed off — giving his life to save a gay friend, a senator campaigning for gun control, from an assassin.

At least in some venues, as little Bobby Dylan sang, “For the times they are a-changin‘!”

To reach Darryl Levings, call 816-234-4689 or send email to levings@kcstar.com. After a column on a long-ago visit with a British lighthouse keeper, someone sent me a book of British coastlines and a lighthouse calendar. I seem to have lost any return address, so hope that my “thank you” here will be adequate.


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