My career as a citizen began around 1918 with my grandmother. She was at home on the farm when she observed a man driving his horses up the hill upon which the farm sat. He was doing this by beating them most cruelly. Grandma filed a complaint against the man and the case was soon called to court. Grandma testified but the case was thrown out because she was pregnant and therefore not a credible witness.
She was pregnant with my mom, who began her citizenship career in the 1960’s. She had one son and four daughters; the town had a YMCA that let girls in for dances but wouldn’t let them swim in the pool or participate in any other activities. A meeting was called for anyone interested in forming a YWCA, and my mother attended. In fact, she became a member of the first board of directors.
It did not occur to me until many years later, but none of the other board members whom I met were white. Mother became deeply bonded with the African-American women—Negroes, in those days—who served on the board. It was the 1960’s and things were tense between blacks and whites. One night at a meeting my mother made a motion that was met with absolute dead silence. Into the painful silence, my mother said, “It’s because I’m white, isn’t it?” She was a woman who stepped up and faced the hard stuff.
I remember my mother going on a tour of the homes in the colored section of town—which happened to be only four blocks from our section—and coming home to show me photographs of the homes. Doors were off their hinges. Toilets were broken and overflowing. Tenants paid high rent but landlords would not fix anything. Thereafter, my mother took to joining the people who stood on the courthouse steps with protest signs. It was about justice, fairness and equality.
Unknown to my mother, decades earlier her father had been moved by the same notions of moral righteousness. He was the head of the labor department at the steel mill that was the major industry in the area. It was in Pennsylvania and periodically his people would make a sweep through the South to hire men for the hot, hard work on the mill floor. The men they hired were coloreds, and when they arrived in Pennsylvania the only housing they could find were high-rent houses that were little more than shacks. Mortgages were not made available to them from the existing banks. When my grandfather realized this, he got two of the men from his church to go together with him to form a savings and loan company where the Negro millworkers could get low-interest housing loans.
In the 1970’s, my mother’s brother was elected Justice of the Peace. My uncle knew that the current Justice of the Peace was corrupt and he decided to run for the office when he learned that the JP was on the verge of retiring and was grooming his daughter to take over the position. Uncle Dick lived a reality-based life and accepted the corruption but the problem was that the daughter was stupid as well as corrupt and that was too much for my uncle to tolerate.
His family had a good name in the area and he had a good reputation, so he got elected. Then the local police, deputy sheriffs and state troopers learned that the accustomed perks weren’t available in the new JP’s office. There were no kickbacks, no beers in the refrigerator, no cigars in the desk, and no welcome for them to use the typewriter to write their reports. Uncle Dick dispensed justice to the people to the best of his ability. In the middle of one dark night a state trooper woke him up to deal with a man charged with speeding, drunk driving and resisting arrest. Clearly, the man had been beaten. Equally clearly, he was black.
One of the things that Uncle Dick knew was that it was near the end of the trooper’s shift. Presumably he had not made his quota of traffic tickets and chose this black man to make his day. It was also relevant that the trooper was new in the area and didn’t know enough not to bring a case like this before Uncle Dick. The family had lived on the farm in the valley for three hundred years; they knew just about everybody and everything. Uncle Dick knew that the bloodied man standing before him was a good family man, didn’t hang out in bars, and was driving home after his shift at the mill.
Uncle Dick proceeded to read the riot act to the state trooper. He went up one side and down the other side of the fellow, then turned him around and kicked his butt. He made it clear that if the trooper ever again brought before him a man who had obviously been beaten then the trooper would find himself under arrest. The problem, of course, was that Uncle Dick dressed down the trooper in front of the black man. Come re-election time, the state troopers—in full uniform and full violation of campaign law—went door-to-door and campaigned against Uncle Dick, who consequently got un-elected.
These were my antecedents.