RACISM — Reflections of a White Pastor in Oklahoma Part 1

This will be a series of blogs from reflections of my experiences as a white pastor in Oklahoma and serving in two communities that are overwhelmingly white.

Racism is evil. It is simply the result of sin. That is why there is no other place where races are truly “one” other than at the foot of the cross of Christ. It is only in Christ where the sinful nature is crucified and one can truly be free from racism. The further one gets away from the cross the greater the divide among people for many reasons.

It could be said that we are all of one race. Everyone comes from the same one man and woman. There are different nations with diversity of shades color and cultures yet all are created by God from Adam. Paul the apostle said, “For from one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands” (Acts 17:26).

Born in the mid-fifties and growing up in Oklahoma as a Caucasian, I had opportunity to experience the shamefulness of racism as a white person. I am sure it had more of an effect on me than I realized. I am sharing my story because it represents many whites of my era who grew up in the church.

Racism I saw and heard was often very subtle. It was in the normal conversations around me. Not all the time, of course, but it did come up. And it always reflected on blacks in a negative way. I heard the “N” word long before I ever knew what it meant. As I got older I realized they were referring to people of a different color and race. As a child watching people look down on others because of their race always seemed awkward and uncomfortable. Though I never heard as a child that racism was wrong, it felt wrong. As I grew up and had a voice, it became more evident to me that I was to speak out say that it was wrong.

I grew up as a Christian in a white environment except for school. The communities in Oklahoma where we lived were small so forced integration was not an issue.  It was an issue in Oklahoma City and large towns but not ours; we were all going to the same school anyway at the time. In those days, or at least in my world, African-Americans and whites did not mingle except at school and such events. Sports was a place of common ground. My years of wrestling from elementary through high school gave me a great opportunity to build friendships with African-Americans.

In my younger days, the towns we lived in had an area called “colored town” and as whites, we just did not go there unless it was to take food or something to a family. I am embarrassed to even say that today, but that was the reality. That was the world we grew up in the sixties.

In spite of open and subtle prejudice it seemed many of my generation caught something that said, racism was not right. I can’t remember a moment in time when that truth came to me. I just know as I got old enough to see racism it was just not right. I have talked with others who grew up in white neighborhoods and communities of my generation and prejudice did not stick with them either. That was not true for all, but it was for many. Maybe it was the times in which we lived where publicly there was a social conscience that said being prejudiced was not right. I am sure the Civil Rights movement played a big part in reshaping our thoughts. Nevertheless, I experienced subtle and sometimes open prejudice among close friends and family who where Christians. It always seemed so out of character. Racism would slip out as a clear indication prejudice was within their heart.

Racism among Christians was just a part of their culture. It seemed like they had never really thought it through. They were only espousing what they had heard from earlier generations. If challenged those same Christians would back-track, feel ashamed, and change the subject after claiming they really were not prejudiced. Sometimes they would make that awkward comment, “I’m not prejudiced I have friends that are black.”

It was so troublesome when a joke was told and it had racist innuendoes. I even felt fear rising up when I was around whites that were prejudiced. I knew any minute uncontrolled speech would exposed their prejudice and they seemed ignorant of it. This happened on occasions with non-whites in hearing distance. This especially was fearful for me as African-Americans began to be more in my life. I would just freeze. I did not want them to hear the racist comments.

Some racist jokes told among the white Christians were very subtle, others very obvious. There would be laughter and sometimes I would see one or two draw back and you could tell they felt bad. Since most whites around me were not exposed to an inter-racial community it was easy to stay unchallenged with their racism.

I grew up without a television so much of the evening news in the 60’s with all the Civil Rights issues passed me by in my formative years. To some degree I was removed from the public presentation of racism of my day. I remember reading about the accounts of the Civil Rights movement  and wanting to be on the side of justice. My exposure to the Civil Rights resistance and the ugliness of those who fought it was from reading the annual World Book Encyclopedia. I will never forget the pictures of the water hoses being turned on students. I read about it, but never saw it on the evening news since we did not have a television. When I read about Martin Luther King Jr, and the movement, I used to think I would have been different than other whites. I always liked to think I would have stood against  injustice, but I only have to look at myself now to see if that is true.

In the eighth grade I read Black Like Me, the 1961 nonfiction book by journalist John Howard Griffin recounting his journey in the Deep South of the United States, at a time when African-Americans lived under apartheid-like conditions. I remember reading it and thinking I wanted to have the same experience Griffin had. I wondered what it was like to live as a black person in the South.

I graduated from high school and worked my way through college selling Bible books for the Southwestern Company out of Nashville, Tennessee. My first summer was in Michigan. I remember how often I ran across homes where the husband and wife were of different races. It was regular that I met families with an African-American spouse married to a white. There was something about it that spoke volumes to me. That was good for me.

The following year 1974, I sold books in Louisiana. My first week out I ran into another level of racism. As book salesmen we always asked when leaving a home, “Do you know who lives down the road?” One day that first week of sales, the man of the house where I has just demonstrated my books said, “You don’t want to go down there, there is nothing but darkies living down there.” I had no idea what he meant. I couldn’t wait to get down the road to see what he was talking about. I drove down the road wondering what is a “darky.” When I knocked on the door and a sweet African-American lady answered, I was floored. I remembered saying to myself, you are now in the real South. Many of the old service stations still had a restrooms with “other” written over the door and was separate from those marked “men” or “women.”

The following summer I sold books in Georgia. I remember selling Bible books to whites who mentioned their buddies of the brotherhood would want to buy these Christian books, too. I sold successfully among this network of the brotherhood for weeks before I discovered that this brotherhood was the KKK.

Many times when selling in the South among plantation workers, I knocked doors to only hear a young boy’s voice yell from the inside, “Mama, the boss man is here.” I was moved deeply by these experiences. I was grieved and sad. It was like looking into America from the outside. That summer I sold my books on large plantations in Georgia. One plantation was more than 20,000 acres in size. Little cottages lined the dirt roads among the fields just like a picture out of the days of slavery. The African-American families lived and worked on these plantations for all their life. It was work for them and for that I was glad they had jobs, but I always felt like I was looking into a day gone by.

Part two upcoming . . .

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