I am nearing the end of the thick new Civil War biography, “Grant,” by Ron Chernow. But, knowing how it will turn out, I’m already discouraged.
First there will be good news, a grand Union victory after a war (from 1861 to 1865) that cost 750,000 American lives — equal to total losses in all our other wars through Vietnam. Then will come an era called Reconstruction, in which the slaves will be freed. Gen. Ulysses Grant, by then president, will send troops to knock down Black Codes. After that black people will actually begin voting and holding office even in the South.
As a “Kansas City Star” reporter in the 1960s, I enjoyed a journalist colleague, William L. McCorkle, who described that era of Reconstruction in his Ph.D dissertation, “Nelson’s Star and Kansas City — 1880-1898.” Among the old Star’s files, Bill found news stories of black protest meetings here, eloquent leaders who demanded fair treatment while making fun of Irish cops.
Then America turned mean, as we have over and over again down the years. Lynching and burning, the Ku Klux Klan raged through the South, plus Kansas and Missouri. In 1896 the U. S. Supreme court ruled that the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law meant that “separate” could be equal. So America could segregate its schools.
In the Tulsa of 1939, I was bused to an elementary in a brick building with indoor plumbing, a cafeteria, an auditorium and a gymnasium. Black kids living two blocks from my family home went to South Haven elementary, a dilapidated two-room frame building with twin outhouses in the yard behind. From the Supreme Court decision through 1954, that was equal enough in America. My white pals and I used to holler, “Chocolate drops!” at those South Haven black students.
“White trash!” they hollered back.
At my elementary, we were taught what they called Oklahoma history, which somehow included not one word about the Tulsa race riot of 1921, often called the worst in American history. White mobs killed more than 50 people, invading and burning 35 blocks of the Greenwood district, then the wealthiest black community in the nation.
In college during 1954, I was working cheap for Tulsa’s KVOO-TV when they sent me out to buy a Tulsa Tribune, from which we would steal local stories for our evening news. That’s when I saw the headline, “Supreme Court bans pupil segregation.” So in our long back-and-forth struggle toward decency, America was again on the right track. In 1964 Congress passed the Civil Rights Act prohibiting discrimination in the schools, employment, housing and more. So it goes in American history, back and forth from decency to fresh meanness, from Barack Obama to Donald Trump and Kris Kobach.
That pair are still furious about the supposed three million “fraudulent voters” who helped Hillary Clinton win the popular vote. Those illegals are so sneaky that, with the majesty of federal and state law enforcement behind them, Kobach and Trump can’t seem to catch any culprits for prosecution, even those from what Trump calls “s***hole countries.” But the Disenfranchising Duo has skillfully blocked voting by millions of black and Hispanic and poor citizens, young citizens and old ones.
I should now disclose my bias by telling you more about the racist kid who yelled, “Chocolate drops!” That same fellow’s daughter married a black man.
The couple live in Florida now, and have rewarded us with four grandchildren, plus an appreciation of how beautiful kids of all skin colors can be. My oldest granddaughter just finished her first college semester with 15 credit hours of straight A’s.
I will stop my reading of that Grant biography. I’ve seen enough of those mean eras in American history. Still, at the age of 83, I may yet live long enough to witness one more turnaround to decency.