Deep in my bones, beyond what you imagine, I’m ashamed to tell you this.
My parents raised me better than my actions show.
My Dad grew up during the Great Depression in the steamy hot weather of Meridian, Mississippi. It was a time with a suffocating racial climate that couldn’t have been much easier to avoid than the humidity.
If I were my Dad, I might have an excuse, because we often take on the attitudes and often misplaced beliefs of the people around us.
But, I wasn’t raised in a climate of racial fear or hate and what I did was not what my father would have been likely to do.
My Dad left Mississippi when he was still a young man and during my formative years I was living in rural Colorado, where most people I hung around with looked the same, believed the same and had about the same economic future. I just assumed we were all in this together.
There were exceptions.
The Ute Indians lived in a nearby reservation and oil finds had given their tribe unexpected wealth after decades of poverty. There were migrant workers who passed through during harvest seasons, but for the most part, to me people were people.
Mom and Dad raised me in a wonderful giving and loving environment where everyone at least treated as an equal even if we at times felt more or less fortunate than the people around us.
I walked into the barber shop I’ve been going to for many years.
Newtown, Pennsylvania is not Colorado, but it’s certainly not Mississippi in the 1960’s.
I remember Mississippi in the sixties, because my family took a trip back to see family and the picture of Mississippi in that hot summer was burned into my brain.
It was the first time I’d ever seen separate drinking fountains and separate bathrooms for Whites and “Negros.” As a teenager, I was more than a bit shocked by the reality of a world in which all men were not created equal, much less women.
I remember feeling like I was in a backward foreign country, not the United States of America.
The heat and humidity was the same though. It was already climbing into the 90s and I was feeling that pressure cooker feeling of steamy, muggy hot.
Newtown, PA has its own history of racial problems and my friend and early mentor Ed Johnson – whose company invented the 401K plan – had been a part of it.
When local business leaders were trying to exclude blacks, Ed was a vocal minority. There were scary things going on and Ed was threatened more than once, but it didn’t stop his efforts to help support the two small black churches in town and even today Ed continues his efforts with a passion that’s unstoppable.
But life in my neighborhood isn’t anything like the Newtown in the 60s. All races mingle and associate with each other and while I occasionally hear a racist remark, it’s certainly not the norm. Families are likely to have a wide ethnic background, mixed race marriages are common and society is polite here even when they think less than polite thoughts.
Or so you would think.
I’ve been going to the same barber for ages, but on this hot and muggy day, my usual barber was off celebrating the marriage of her daughter, so I sat down the barber chair of one of the other barbers.
I love learning about people, so it was natural to ask the barber a few questions.
I found out quite a bit.
He’d been working at the barber shop for about four years, was 69 years old and had learned to cut hair in Italy from an uncle.
He started by sweeping out his uncle’s barber shop at the age of 5 and learned the old fashioned way, by watching and then by doing the best he could to imitate what he saw.
At the age of 18 he’d immigrated to the United States and it was clear that he’d laid solid claim to this land of freedom. Now, he was hoping to retire in a year or so.
Despite the fact that he’d been cutting hair for almost 60 years, I was a bit nervous about my new haircut.
His scissors were moving fast as he talked and my haircut was obviously going to be shorter than I anticipated, because the hair on half of my head was considerably shorter than the other half.
The television was blasting away in the background, with the morning news.
Our president spoke a few words and it became clear that my barber was not a fan.
You’ve probably noticed the passion with which people judge our politicians of any flavor.
Personally, I’m just glad I don’t have their job.
If you are a politician, no matter what you do, someone will be putting you down for it.
So when it comes to people who are criticizing politicians, I tend to hold my comments.
I’ve been fascinated by presidential politics and politicians since I was a teenager and the truth is, you would be amazed at which ones I’ve found to be worthwhile — from all political persuasions.
But I’m usually more eager to hear others opinions on politics than to express my own.
I rarely take anything as absolute truth, which can cause problems when it comes to political discussions.
Other than an occasional “hmmm” I shut up.
And then the tone of the monologue grew more judgmental. It moved beyond the realm of presidential politics and extended to broad categories of people, political ideas and finally into complete classes and races of people.
The language could have been straight out of a barber shop in the 1960s in Mississippi and the barber made a vigorous defense of his right to call people by names which all decent people would judge to be racial slurs.
I cringed in my seat and glanced in the mirror at the barber behind us, whose ethnic background was indiscernible to me, but who probably wouldn’t have been in the majority in rural Colorado in the 60s.
I have no excuse for what happened next …
My family gave me plenty of examples about how I should act in situations like this.
My memory fades on the details, but stories have been burned into my brain and I know what a relative of mine did in a similar situation when it took a heck of a lot of courage to say anything.
My uncle was the pastor of a church in Mississippi, sitting in a barber chair when the men were discussing excluding blacks from the church and his response was something like, “over my dead body.” Luckily, he didn’t die for his remarks, but he did lose his job.
I know how members of Jane Mark’s family traveled to the south and paid a horrible price for trying to stand up for people during the civil rights movement.
I know what good people should do when they are confronted with wrong, because I’ve been raised to know …
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
I’m ashamed to tell you now, I did nothing.
Please don’t tell me that it doesn’t matter.
Not only to me, to the barber, to the man standing behind me, but to everyone they touch.
That’s the power of our impact.
What we do makes a difference, whether we want it to or not.
Every person listening to that conversation cringed and said nothing.
And I had an opportunity — never to be repeated — to stand for something good.
God help me stand for something good today.
All the best,