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W.E. Gutman: Is that the America so many long for?

The Long View

Posted: April 3, 2010 10:26 p.m.
Updated: April 4, 2010 4:55 a.m.
 
Slogans, like martial music and fiery sermons, have an intoxicating effect. We adopt them because they sound so righteous.

"Give me my country back."

"This is not the America I knew."

"Ah, the '50s, those were the days."

Banality crumples into a heap of chauvinist imbecility - "America is for Americans."
Is this a case of selective amnesia or the early onset of dementia?

I immigrated to the United States from France in 1956. Eisenhower was president. The economy was sound. Within a week I found a job and rented a studio apartment. Basic necessities cost a fraction of what they cost today. For 15 cents, a subway token took you from the Bronx to Coney Island; from Manhattan to Flushing Meadows.

Yes, those were the days. It was great to be 18, white, educated, free and untainted by heredity.

I had read "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" as a boy and studied the rudiments of American history in school, but the scenes these works evoked and the lessons they imparted had an academic remoteness that denied me the privilege of first-hand experience. It's one thing to read about intolerance, and quite another to see it replayed live in all it ugliness.

It was when I joined the U.S. Navy and landed at the Charleston, S.C., airport that America put on its vilest visage. I never forgot it. I was startled at first, then outraged.

I had just alighted in a realm of incomprehensible madness. As I headed to the men's room, two signs greeted me. One read "Whites," the other "Colored." Caucasians went one way. Men of darker complexion went another. Seized with a brief moment of indecision, I stood there not knowing what to do. Drinking fountains, I noted, were also segregated, although in a twist of irony lost neither on the whites or the colored, they were both fed by the same water conduit.

Two incidents cost me brief periods of detention, first in the city jail then, preceded by a tirade from the captain, in my ship's brig.
Riding for the first time from the base to the USO in downtown Charleston, I proceeded to the back of the bus and sat down. Seeing me in his rear-view mirror, the driver brought the vehicle to a halt. He got up and ordered me to move to the front.

"Why?"

"Do as I say."

"I'm comfortable right here, if you don't mind."

"You don't understand. Nigras ride in the back. White folk ride up front. It's the law."

"It's a stupid law."

Black riders around me demurred. Their expressions conveyed a mixture of hesitant esteem and alarm. I was creating a scene into which they were loath to be drawn.

"Please, do what he says," a black man pleaded.

"I can't. If I do I acquiesce to this lunacy. I become part of the problem."

The bus driver summoned a policeman and had me ejected in handcuffs. I was charged with disorderly conduct and spent two hours in one of the city's lockups. I was then turned over to the Shore Patrol who escorted me back onboard ship.

The second incident was more serious. I was strolling in one of the city's princely neighborhoods, admiring the handsome antebellum mansions along the way. Hobbling toward me on a narrow sidewalk was a grandmotherly black woman leaning on a cane. Her gait was unsteady, her stride slow. She seemed out of breath.

When I realized that we could not both navigate the sidewalk, I stepped onto the curb to let her pass. I had not gone two paces when a man rushed toward me, spat in my face and barked: "N____r lover!"

Enraged, I pounced and seriously altered my assailant's profile. I would have been charged with aggravated assault had I not successfully argued that I'd been provoked, spat upon and publicly humiliated for acting with courtesy and compassion toward an elderly person. I was charged with simple battery and remanded to naval authorities. Placed on report, I spent two nights in the brig. Shore leave privileges were suspended for a month.

Relieved of watch duty, I spent the next four weeks scrubbing the galley, chipping away at rust, waxing and buffing the lower decks and tending to the latrines.

This was 1956 America. Jim Crow was king. Schools, lunch counters and public transportation were segregated. Lynchings, once a staple of American entertainment, still took place in the dead of night. The great exodus from south of the border had not begun.

Is this the America so many Americans long for?

W. E. Gutman is a veteran journalist and author. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.

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