Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site | Adobe Stock photo
“Every man is guilty of all the good he didn’t do.”
By Royal Calkins
Most of the regrets I carry into my years of age spots and memory malfunction have to do with losing my temper or the attitude issues that caused bosses to decide I wasn’t the one who should be promoted.
The biggest one, though, the one that hurts the most, is something else entirely different, something much larger and darker. It’s about something I didn’t do. I have told others about this on a couple of occasions and they absolved me because I was young when it happened, but they were too gentle. Youth really wasn’t an excuse because I knew better.
It was back before most of you were born. It was in 1961-62. It started when I was a sixth-grader in a government school at Langley Air Force Base along the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia. The government school, like all the schools I had attended until then, was integrated. It was a fine school. My best friend there, my toughest competitor for good test scores, was Debra Mariner. She was a black girl. A funny and generous girl.
At the end of the school year, Debra and I hugged goodbye. We might have cried, too, because we would be going to different schools for seventh grade. Public schools in Virginia were so fully segregated at the time that the powers that be tried their best to make sure that not just the students but the entire staff was white. I think they tried especially hard to do that at my new school because it was called Jefferson Davis Junior High School.
Debra, of course, would not be going to Jefferson Davis. Black girls and boys went to Phenix Training School on the other side of Hampton, closer to the plant where black women processed blue crabs from the bay. Phenix was a decrepit place that focused on vocational training. Why would those students need to learn history? There were plenty of good jobs on the docks.
Educationally, there was no separate but equal going on here. Just separate. This was eight years after Brown v. Board of Education was supposed to have fixed this nonsense but Virginia was slow to get the message and Hampton was especially and proudly slow.
Here’s where the regret comes in. I cannot forgive myself for going along with it. Once I was at fancy-pants Jefferson Davis Junior High School, they did their very best to teach me to be a racist, but I had escaped those lessons earlier in my schooling. Unlike most of my classmates, I had not attended segregated elementary schools and had not been taught that slave owners were misunderstood and that the Confederacy was merely in hibernation.
It wasn’t til seventh-grade that I heard pleasant white lady teachers pronounce the supposedly acceptable alternative pronunciation of negro that is so close to the N-word that I can’t bring myself to write it.
So I had less of an excuse than my classmates for not standing up at the close of my sixth-grade year and calling bullshit. For not saying I’m not going to take part in this. This is wrong. Send me to Phenix, anywhere, just not to Jefferson Davis, whose marching band wore little Johnny Rebel uniforms with Confederate flag breastplates. They told us the school colors were grey for the Confederacy and red for Yankee blood. Seriously.
My friends tell me there’s no way I could have done the right thing, which is terrible and possibly true. My parents would have freaked out. Probably the whole town would have freaked out. Someone probably would have forced me to join the other white kids with their madras shirts and penny loafers.
What I truly regret now, a million years later, is that it never even occurred to me. I knew it was wrong. I knew that it was wrong when Jefferson Davis parents at junior high school football games yelled nasty, racist chants at the Phenix fans across the field. I didn’t join in the chants, at least, but I also didn’t stand up and tell the white parents to shut up. Never occurred to me. Or if it did, I was too chicken.
I’m not looking for absolution here. I don’t need it or deserve it. I’m writing instead to help remind me and those within the sound of my typewriter that there are plenty of obviously wrong things around us that are not being properly pointed out and fixed. The best examples, of course, used to be those Dixie flags flying for so long and the slaveholder statues finally being toppled after decades and decades of mocking the marginalized. But those are mainly just symbols. What about very real things like the inequitable funding of schools? One needn’t look far.
Decades ago we were told that our legislators had mandated equal funding of public schools without regard for demographics, yet most of us have been quiet about the fact that the Carmel school system spends at least three times per student as the Monterey and Salinas school systems. If that isn’t a form of segregation, I don’t know what is. Yet we’ve been as quiet as 12-year-old me.
“Yes, but property values are higher in Carmel, so that’s why there’s more money for the schools.” True enough. But so what? The need for a decent education is just as high in Soledad as it is in Carmel no matter how much it costs to build a house on Scenic Avenue.
Here’s another example. COVID-19 is afflicting far more Salinas Valley residents than Monterey Peninsula residents but are we doing anything about that? Well, the Health Department is sending people into the fields to hand out masks and pamphlets in Spanish. But the logical explanation for the numbers is that the virus is spreading quickly among Salinas Valley Latinos because so much of their housing is crowded. And there, apparently, the discussion ends. Bummer.
But why isn’t there a much larger emergency effort to provide more spacious housing for those who are risking their lives to pick our spinach and weed the strawberries? I don’t want to pick on ag, but at what point does the epidemic become so deadly that plowing a crop under would be better than doing more hiring.
We see the statistics every day and what do we do beyond deciding not to shop in Salinas? Nothing. Just like I did. We see the statistics every day, the rate of infection much higher in minority communities than in mostly white communities but is anyone standing up and complaining and lobbying the powers that be to do more. If there are, we need to join them.
I’m sure you can think of your own examples if you put your mind to it. When’s the last time you saw someone not wearing a mask in a store? When’s the last time you told that person to get a mask or told the store manager that you wouldn’t be back until they started requiring masks of all customers? The anti-mask mouthbreathers out there aren’t shy about declaring the rightness of their foolishness. Why aren’t you smarter people out there not speaking up in your own defense? If you’re worried about the virus, remember that your mask doesn’t help you as much as it helps them.
Obviously it’s often harder to do the right thing. It’s easier to see something wrong, even for years and decades, either without recognizing that it’s wrong, or pretending not to see it or perhaps taking comfort in knowing that you at least recognize the problem even if that’s as far as you take it. Maybe you pat yourself on the back because you once posted something about it on Facebook.
What I do to try to make the world a better place is to perform occasional acts of journalism, sometimes investigative, which one of my editors once pronounced as a high-risk act.
I can also help affect change by listening to the young people and the people of color, who have not been listened to. One reason the recent Black Lives Matter protests were so successful was that they were organized and led by black people, mostly young black people. Imagine what would have happened if old white folks like me had been in charge. It would have been about Black Lives Matter and whales matter and climate change matters and rent control matters and Social Security matters. The important emerging voices would have been drowned out.
Did you know that hundreds of Monterey County children are in foster care or group homes (don’t get me started about group homes) and that about 400 boys in foster care and group homes are waiting to be assigned CASAs? That’s Court Appointed Special Advocates,CASAs, help fill the gaps that overworked social workers and therapists aren’t able to address by themselves.
Did you know that in several Monterey County locations, hungry people wait in exceedingly long lines for boxes of food from the various food banks, which need your extra money a lot more than Netflix does.
I have digressed quite a ways from my point, which had to do with regret. Unfortunately, there’s nothing I can do today to undo what I didn’t do a half century ago, but I can make up for it at least a little by spotting other times when I should stand up rather than shut up. Maybe if I can find enough of those opportunities, maybe Debra Mariner will forgive me.
By the way, Jefferson Davis Junior High got a new name in the 1980s and the Phenix school that Debra attended was condemned shortly after her arrival.
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