Getting Woke before Woke Was a Thing

I am just old enough to remember a racist south. It is where I was born. The place where I lived was transforming around me as I grew up. We got “woke” before it was a thing. I was too immature to see it at the time and only came to understand what happened after many years of reflection on those events.

Some of the last vestiges of the Jim Crow south remained in my small community. Schools were still segregated when I started school. Only Whites were allowed to sit in the lower level of the movie theater. African-Americans had to use the balcony. Lunch counters were mostly White-only. It seemed normal but, even in my preteen thinking, it felt wrong.

At the same time, the Civil Rights Movement was growing. Mixed with the news from Vietnam were the stories from closer to home, places we had visited, such as Atlanta, Birmingham, and Memphis. It seemed unreal. Southern people were at the point of the spear and many could not understand. Southerners mostly thought that the remnants of retained racism were acceptable. It was as it always had been. There was denial.

An amazing thing began to happen. Southern people began to look at themselves and examine their attitudes. It was not something that could be seen from the outside. It was an intensely personal self-evaluation. Over a period of several years, many southerners had looked into themselves and they saw something they did not like. They decided to change but it was a long slow process.

Our churches were at the center of this change. My father was a deacon in his Baptist church, and he participated in public discussions seeking insights into what God would want. I saw my father spend many hours seeking answers.

This was happening across the South. Christians have a responsibility to discover wrong thinking and correct it. In some cases, we might read it in scripture. Our spirit may feel God’s correction. The hardest challenge for Christians occurs when someone on the outside looks at our lives and discovers a contradiction. “If you are a Christian, how can you believe that?” is a question that can cut deep. That question is the one that forced people to look inward.

I was an observer of this process. I was still a child, immature but changing, even as the adults around me were changing too. There are three moments that helped define my thinking. The first two were through my father.

My father was part of a program in which churches would exchange speakers. My father agreed to speak to the local African-American Baptist church and, in exchange, one of the laymen from that church spoke in our church.

I remember some of the controversy that this caused in my home church. It was something that simply was not done. My father stood his ground, for he believed that his understanding of the character of God allowed no different treatment of people based on race.

My father was a businessman. He once jokingly remarked that he did not care what color a man’s skin might be as long as his money was green. Trade and business have no race. He was consistent in business, at church, and in his personal life.

He cared for the African-American employees of his business and I saw that he treated them the same as his White employees. He shared their joy and their grief. I learned a lot from watching my father. He never once sat me down and said that he wanted to teach me something. The lessons were in watching.

I also remember the very day my elementary school was desegregated. The local African-American one-room school was to be closed and the children attending there were coming to our school. We were out in front of the school to greet them when the bus dropped them off.

My play friends who lived just down the road were some of the first off the bus. I went to meet them and walked into school with them. My white classmates criticized and insulted me for having them as friends. It did not matter. They were my friends. We had been together for many days during the summer. I did not understand the fear or dislike my White friends had for them. I have since wondered how hard it must have been for them to come to the new school.

A lot of things changed for us in the coming years. All over the South, people were making the choices that my father and community had made. It was one person at a time, family by family and town by town. We realized that much of what we believed was simply wrong. It was not what God wanted and it was not reasonable.

The political realignment was only a small part of this. The South has not become solidly Republican because of race. The move to Republicanism in the South is more about liberty. The Southern people tend to be fiercely freedom-loving people who want all people to share in the dream of the Declaration of Independence: Life, liberty, and freedom from government oversight as we pursue happiness. The free market is an integral part of this liberty.

My memory throws up one final, defining moment in my becoming “woke” before there was such a thing. One day there was an African-American lady visiting my mother in our home. (I am not using her real name.) A news program on TV was discussing the preferred words for the people we now call “African American” or, if we’re really progressive, “BIPOC.”

Back then, the discussion was whether we should change from the technically correct “Negro” to the coming-into-vogue “Black.” I embarrassed my mother by asking our guest what she wanted to be called. With great wisdom and seriousness, she said, “You can call me Mary, but your parents would probably prefer that you call me Mrs. Smith.”

I understood perfectly.

IMAGE: Happy little boys by Vormingplus Regio Brugge. CC BY 2.0.