April 7, 2016
When I was 18, I worked for the Tennessee Department of Conservation at the Cedars of Lebanon State Park, a summer job where a few teenagers helped the park’s permanent workers clean up the picnic areas and campgrounds and ball fields. I mostly helped two ageing characters who’d gotten their sinecures through political patronage. Both were near retirement, and were seeing out their working years with some easy work in pleasant surroundings. They had a black boss they didn’t much like — a park ranger — but they kept their racial sideswipes to a minimum, at least for those days.
Both were men of profound and “sincerely held religious beliefs and moral convictions,” as the saying goes. (Or rather, as the language of the new Jim Crow law in Mississippi goes.) They often held forth on weighty matters of faith and morals as we cruised the park in a truck, emptying trash cans and spending long (very long) breaks beside the big Cedar Park swimming pool, full to the brim of bikini-clad young women enjoying the fine Tennessee summer. Two expositions of their faith have long stood out in my memory.
One was the story of a fallen woman, a prostitute, who in her despair and moral anguish had turned to the church of one of my stalwart Christian colleagues. He told of how one Sunday, she came into the church after the service had started: shyly, hesitantly, seemingly ashamed of herself as she took a seat in a back pew, still wearing the clothes of her previous night’s labor: short skirt, tight top, platform heels. (He was particularly assiduous and copious in his description.) The startled congregation hardly knew what to make of her — and she hurried out quickly at the service’s end.
But she kept returning, for the next few weeks, always in the same fashion: coming in late, furtively, still in her Saturday clothes, keeping to herself in the back, hurrying out lest she scandalize the faithful by her very presence. Obviously she was yearning for the Lord to pull her from her life of sin. But no one in the church approached her, no one emulated the Saviour with the woman taken in adultery and said, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”
And so, said my colleague, he took it upon himself to rectify the situation. Seeing how the story was tending, I found myself revising my perhaps too-hasty opinion of him. Perhaps, I thought, he was a man of broader, deeper character than I had hitherto surmised.
Then he went on with his story.
His solution to the appearance of the prostitute in the church house was not to welcome her, speak to her, tell her of God’s grace and forgiveness. No, it was to step forth boldly before the congregation and declare that such a wanton creature should not darken the door of the Lord’s house; she should be barred from coming back ever again.
“We never saw that whore again.” This was told in tones of quiet satisfaction, the tones of a man who had humbly but bravely done his duty. To say that I was gobsmacked is to riot in understatement. I had a hard time believing he had read the same Gospels that had been read to me — and that I had of my own volition eagerly read — since my earliest childhood.
(This same colleague told another interesting — albeit more secular — story that has also stayed with me. In brief, it was how he had spent years in the service of the local political machine buying votes on election days: “Ten dollars each for whites, five dollars each for the niggers.” He had worked his local district for decades like this. Oddly enough, the previous summer, I’d worked for another state agency, picking up trash on the highways, where another aged colleague told the same tale, although he worked a different district.)
The theological disquisition of my other colleague in the state park was not quite so vivid, although it too stayed through almost 40 years since those halcyon days. One day, while making our rounds, the talk turned for some reason to interracial marriage. Of course, it goes without saying that these two Christian gentlemen considered such a thing as completely and utterly retrograde to their “sincerely held religious beliefs and moral convictions.” There was not any question about it; anyone involved in such filth was bound for hell — as was any nation that countenanced such evil. This was standard fare for that time and place, a sentiment I had heard expressed by most people around me since I was first able to discern the meaning of human speech.
Given the ubiquity and all-pervasiveness of this sentiment, it’s not likely that it alone would have a lodged in my mind for long a time. But what I found curious was how this stalwart’s sincerely held convictions regarding the purity of marriage transcended ordinary notions of race altogether. To be sure, he strongly held forth that he didn’t believe in marriage between “white people and Mexicans;” that was, again, de rigueur for our milieu. No, what struck me was that he went on in his religious-nationalist fervor: “I don’t believe no white should marry no French, or Italian, or Russian, or English neither!”
I think it was this last that impressed me most deeply. Not even the English were white enough for this good white Christian American! Even the English — the very avatars of whiteness, who had carried their “white man’s burden” to the four corners of the earth in the god-ordained crusade of Empire — were not really white … because they weren’t American whites! Or, to be more specific, they were not Southern American white people, because doubtless this stalwart would have considered, say, Italian-Americans in New Jersey or Irish Catholics in Boston to be far less than white. (And don’t even get him started on the Jews!)
Many years later, I myself married one of these ungodly non-white people: an Englishwoman, no less! My colleague had long flown to mansions on high by that point, but I must admit he crossed my mind as my English bride and I plighted our troth in the ancient environs of Oxford.
I was reminded of these long-gone co-workers by today’s stories out of Mississippi: a state where I once worked in the piney swamps of Meridan, the city where they tried — and freed — the killers of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. These were the civil rights workers who’d gone down to Mississippi in the Sixties to ensure that everyone had the right to vote — and the right to be served at businesses open to the public without being turned away because of someone’s “sincerely held religious beliefs and moral convictions” that certain kinds of people were beyond the pale.
Many people died and many more suffered to take us out of that pit of hate and despair. And by the time I was riding with the stalwarts — 13 years after those murders — their attitudes seemed quaint, outdated, broken vestiges of a vanished past. I laughed at them, and kept laughing for 40 years. But as that famous Southerner William Faulkner once said, the past is never dead; it’s not even past. And so the good stalwart white Southern Christians of modern-day Mississippi have reassembled the dry bones of hatred and prejudice and made them walk again. A whole new army of Jim Crow zombies.
The laugh was on me, on all of us. Despite all the deaths, all the suffering, here we are again: if not at the absolute beginning, then close — too Mississippi goddam close — to it. The old battles must be fought again. The self-righteous peddlers of prejudice, the hawkers of hatred, the weak and stunted souls who turn away the suffering, who cling belligerently to the accidents of their pigment and their national origin in a vain and pathetic attempt to keep their own terrors and chaos and shortcomings at bay — they are back with renewed vigor, and we must take them on again.