Saturday, July 18, 2009

A Southern Journey

A book arrived in the mail today, a copy of the autobiography of Morris Dees, a white Alabaman and highly regarded civil rights attorney; A Lawyer's Journey: The Morris Dees Story (expanded from the earlier version, 1991's A Season forJustice) tells how Dees and the legal organization he founded in the early Seventies (the Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Montgomery) waged successful battles against the Ku Klux Klan and other white racist groups and also helped gain the release of several wrongfully jailed black prisoners.

The coincidences one encounters in life are always a bit of a surprise. Here's how I came to obtain the book...

Some weeks back, my wife and I traveled to Montgomery for a few days (I'll explain why in a moment). Two days after our return to Seattle, I received a printed solicitation on behalf of the SPLC, signed by Nobel prizewinning author Toni Morrison.

Almost 40 years ago now, I spent most of a day with Ms. Morrison in New York City when we were both involved in educational films; chatting about our personal lives over lunch, she told me about the book she was writing--which became her debut novel The Bluest Eye--and how she hoped it would launch her as a writer. Wonder how that worked out...

Anyway, the conjunction of Morrison, Montgomery, race issues, and the work of that law group caught my attention. I sent some money to the SPLC, received a letter of thanks from Dees, and was then inspired by an open invitation on the organization's website ("Share your story of fighting hate or promoting tolerance") to send the following email:

Hello. Please bear with me as I write this...

A few weeks ago, my wife and I visited Montgomery to share in our son Mike's graduation from one of the Maxwell air base colleges there. For nine months he had been living in a small house on the ranch of well-known cattleman and Montgomery social figure John "Bubba" Trotman; across from Mike is the similar house of longtime Trotman family server Ruthie Sankey, a black woman who lovingly took Mike under her wing during his stay. Over the few days, we enjoyed the company of both Bubba and Ruthie, but could easily see the surviving paternalism of white Montgomery on display.

The visit was my first return to your city since living there during 1955-56, the year of the Bus Boycott. During those months, my father and mother gave rides to many walking black people, helping them get to work or shopping or whatever. Mom was a south Georgia woman who never completely escaped her racial upbringing, but Dad was an AF officer from Illinois who easily supported the integration of the services.

I grew up about equally North and South and so have always (maybe erroneously) believed I have a better understanding of black/white issues than the typical anti-Southern liberal, even though my own politics are certainly progressive if not radical at times. I believe that Dick Gregory got it right: "Down South they don't care how close you get, just so you don't get too big. Up North they don't care how big you get, just so you don't get too close."

I remember fondly (maybe foolishly) late-Forties, early Fifties visits to my Mom's parents on the Spivey family farm near Mystic, Georgia, where I had no playmates other than the black kids my age, and where I eventually worked for a few days as the only white boy in the tobacco barn's black crew. But I also know I was seeing (even if not yet understanding) various subtle forms of white racism.

This rambling story does have a point. Just after we returned from Montgomery, your SPLC solicitation coincidentally arrived in the mail. I decided I definitely had to send a small contribution. Then Mr. Dees' detailed letter thanking me arrived just this morning, again by coincidence on a day when I am actively commenting (via blogs) on racial issues past and still present in Jazz music.

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. Sadly, race still matters. Keep up the important work!

All best regards, Ed Leimbacher

And the book? An unnecessary extra gift thanking me for the small contribution. But--wheels within wheels--it arrived just when I was pondering what to blog about next. Now I serendipitously have assembled this, and I can look forward to reading about the work of Dees and other real heroes and heroines of the (post-Martin Luther King) Civil Rights struggle--still being waged today by the SPLC and others, in Alabama and elsewhere.

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