Empathy lies at the root of all morality; so I have heard and so have I observed. I heard it first in stories about the Rabbi Jesus in Sunday School. He said it plainly: “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I recall, my Dad, the teacher of three rowdy boys, kneeling backward in the front seat of our automobile while Steve Garner, Dean Cooper and I squirmed in the backseat, more or less captive for the thirty minute lesson. He would be surprised to learn that I also remember what he had to say: how a bystander in the story that Jesus told squirmed, too, and defensively inquired, “Who is my neighbor?” when the interlocutor was confronted by such an uncompromising imperative from the itinerant preacher from Nazareth. But it is not only from hearing that I have become convinced; I have found that my recognizing or overlooking my humanity reflected in another—whether neighbor, stranger or enemy—is the key or the lock to how moral will be my actions toward them.
There are aspects of the Alabama home of my youth of which I am proud. There are many recollections of the 1950s and 60s that bring me joy. There are memories of the ancestral South that warm my heart. The polite and genteel manner of folk toward each other, their passion for spirituality, our respect for a precious legacy as stewards of the land, the comfortable and languid speech that savors the delicious taste of words even as you utter them. One image shames me, however; one that is an indelible picture will forever pain me. I close my eyes and still see painted there on the floor of the city bus a filth-besmirched pale green line. You see, I was not permitted behind that line, nor were the others allowed to sit at the front.
A Magical Bus Ride
Once, when I was a fledgling flitting from one playmate’s nest to another on Flamingo Drive among the gray clapboard-sided duplexes of the “Birdville” projects, I rode wide-eyed with Mother downtown on the city bus. It was an awe-filling adventure to hear the “whoosh” of the brakes and the “whack” of the door opening near the smiling driver clad in a white short-sleeved shirt with black tie and smart blue cap, to smell the clouds of black diesel smoke leaving an atmospheric, nearly invisible trail behind us. We disembarked at Bienville Square, it dark and cool with deep refreshing green shade—really almost black in contrast to the blazing morning sun—with darkness spilled out in irregular puddles under the ancient oaks that were planted well before the War Between the States, or the “Civil War,” as Yankees like to call that same conflict of a century before. We ate at Woolworth’s lunch counter seeing only pale faces—like mine—reflecting back from the mirror behind the waitress. I glanced up from my sandwich just in time to see a chocolate face under a white paper cap peer out from the kitchen. He looked at me, then crooked his head out the slot to sing, “Order up! Miss Betty!” wiping a diadem of sweat drops from his forehead. “How does that Hersey-bar man keep from melting?” I mused silently.
We crossed the square past the fountain to buy some salted peanuts at the Planters Store then moved to a park bench between the wrought iron fence next to the azaleas and the ancient and ornate fountain that splashed noisily and blue. I saw a woman with skin the color of cocoa hurry by in a starched gray uniform. “Maid,” I thought, then turned again to the greedy squirrels. When we had exhausted all the peanuts, the riot of tails that surrounded us dispersed to reassemble around another benefactor, and we gathered ourselves with our packages and walked back across the street. At the corner we circumnavigated a knot of people that gathered around a slightly frightening creature with a bushy head.
He was jet black: black skin, almost gun-barrel blue-black, black hair, black clothes. His hair was electrified, here tangled, there matted, everywhere standing up and out. His eyes rolled in a wide voodoo evil eye, flashing maniacal conjunctivae the color of café au lait. His clothes were worn shiny and black with bus diesel smut and street grime. He gripped an ancient banjo that he strummed while he danced a bare-foot shuffle on the pavement with a soft whisper slide and a clap of the sole. I was surprised to glimpse the pink of his palms and the inside of his mouth when he placed a light bulb in his mouth and crunched down just before Mother dragged me around the corner and out of sight the degrading spectacle.
“Momma, who was that man?” I asked.
“He is nobody. You don’t need to concern yourself none, honey,” she replied, distracted.
Our World Was Separate
Ours was a separate world, I remind myself. We did not concern ourselves with what the dark-skinned cooks did in the kitchen or where the maids were going, since we had no maid or cook—black or white. I glanced sidewise out the corner of my eye—it is rude to stare I was taught—at the black man in the red uniform who operated the elevator at Gayfer’s Department Store. He wore white gloves, a red cap and a deferential attitude. “Mornin’ Ma’am. . . . How are y’all young man? . . . Third floor . . . shoes, suitcases and housewares . . . . watch your step.” We did not trouble ourselves over where he went at night or what he thought. He was just there to serve us. Nor did we did trouble ourselves with the concerns of the black stevedores on the docks of Mobile Bay whose backs glistened in the sunshine like proud muscular horses as they unloaded boxes and crates from ships laden with the goods of the world. They were not our people nor were their concerns ours. We had our own concerns.
Yet, I was fascinated by the forbidden fountains that advertised “colored” water. However, I was doomed to disappointment, since the water that shot up arched only in a clear parabola before it splashed against the porcelain, just like the “white” water. The people who came and went from the “Colored” bathroom, on the other hand, were indeed colored: cinnamon, cocoa, chocolate, coal, tar, toasted, caramelized and burned dark; young men and old and boys with dark curly hair; black, brown and gray. I wanted to rub my thumb against their arms to see if the color would rub off, like charcoal or chalk. I watched intently. But I saw none among them who I reckoned to look like me: pale, fair with white-blond hair or green eyes. “Pink and green are colors, too, aren’t they?” I thought.
I rode on the bus and looked back at the little brown boy just my age who sat in the wide seat at the rear of the bus on the other side of the pale green line. I secretly wanted to ride there and look out of the rear window, watching where we had gone. But then I began to wonder if he ever wanted to ride up front by the driver and see where we were going? I began to feel sorry for us both.
But I was frightened at the difference and distance between us. As I grew to be a teenager, I became even more frightened at the demands I heard them make, and the men who shouted them in the streets. I was frightened and frustrated because I suspected that their banners listed just demands, that I was on the wrong side of the line, and that I had no real voice to answer or any real courage to speak up or the wisdom to understand what was happening. Dr. Martin Luther King was in Birmingham leading the protest. He was arrested. He must have been doing something illegal, I thought, because law-abiding citizens don’t get arrested. He wrote a letter answering the criticism of some prominent clergymen, as well as my tacit indictment. But I did not read his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” until forty years later. Yet in it he writes of me as if we had been corresponding. In his letter he speaks with sadness, “I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate,” he wrote of me, “who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice. . . . Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is more bewildering than outright rejection.”
I See Myself Reflected
I am a moral person, I protest. Often these days I don’t even notice the color of a person’s skin, I treat everybody with respect, and I am relieved not to live in a world with official but unjust walls of discrimination. But, too, I am shamed still that I stood by with lukewarm acceptance and thus defended an immoral status quo by my inertia and by my fears. I finally see myself reflected in the eyes of those I once feared.
There are many things that I remember proudly from my youth. But that line I wish I could forget. But I cannot. I meet it again and again even today in subtle and ugly ways, in others and in myself. And then I see in my imagination myself sitting in the back of the bus, looking were we—the brown boy and I—have been. We are sitting together on the same bus, sitting on the same seat, sitting behind the pale green line, and looking out the same window, together. Like a pair of sons of the South, brothers really—what we actually are.