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‘What was wrong with those people?’

WHITE WOMAN: “I grew up hating you because you were a rapist and a thief and a murderer.”

BLACK MAN: “I grew up hating you because you could go anywhere you wanted to go, and I couldn’t.”

WHITE WOMAN: “I’m afraid to go downtown at night because of all the black gangs.”

BLACK MAN: “I’m afraid to drive at night and get pulled over by some white cop.”

WHITE WOMAN: “I won’t change until you stop your teen pregnancies and have real mother/father families.”

BLACK MAN: “I won’t change until you try to see behind my skin and into my character.”

Many black/white discussions have been held in Atlanta during this past year under the direction of Karen Parks, and several have begun once again here in Middle Georgia. We began in Macon about 10 years ago with the Center for Racial Understanding. We even had an office downtown on Second Street. Even though the funding ran out and the enthusiasm waned, some of the friendships that were formed remain strong to this day.

I don’t have the secret of future success and I don’t know who does. But I know one thing; We’ve got to keep communicating. And I’m pleased to see it begin again.

In the meantime, integration and communication have moved steadily and quietly in places like St. Peter Claver Catholic Church and the Tubman African American Museum and now in the two First Baptist Churches in downtown Macon. The Macon Rotary Club (which in 1986 was all white and all male) is today a model of integration. And I know there are other places, too. But sometimes I think it might be a matter of age.

I don’t hear any prejudicial angst coming out of the mouths of my 24-year-old grandson and his friends. They’re an integrated group and they do everything together. Two of the couples have what we would call mixed marriages; I don’t know what my grandkids call them. I think the black young men still feel a bit uneasy when they’re pulled over, but so do the white boys. I think the white girls resent the black gangs in town but no more than the black girls. I hear them all laughing and joking together.

I don’t think these black kids remember A. Philip Randolph or our own William P. Randall, or even Martin Luther King Jr. They were never involved in civil rights marches, and wouldn’t want to be. They were never told to sit in the back of the bus, or refused service in a restaurant. They all have good jobs and are raising beautiful children. I’m sure they’ve heard stories about Rosa Parks and Julian Bond and the hundreds of African-Americans who were discriminated against by whites, but these are old stories and this is not a part of their reality.

I know the white kids have heard the “old folks” tell stories about the “ghetto blacks” and how to avoid them. In the 1950s and ‘60s my Irish family was part of 15 white families who moved four times further south in Chicago because “the blacks” kept moving into their neighborhoods. Just think of the tales that were told in my home. If we’re old enough, both races have horror stories to tell.

Now I know we still have lots of prejudice in Middle Georgia — 11 a.m. Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour of the week. Not every civic club is integrated. How many black families have white friends over for dinner; how many white families allow their children to play with black children? How many blacks still can’t get the job they want because of race? Yes, we have a long way to go.

But somebody said (I don’t know who it was): “We are more alike than un-alike.” I know I won’t be around to see us meld into a culture where diversity is not only OK but desired. Shucks, I won’t see even the first solid steps.

But my great-grandkids will see it, I believe. I think they will live in diversity like we live in prejudice; I think they will welcome all colors and races and creeds and no-creeds. I have great hopes that they will judge people on their character and values, and not on their gender or race or religion.

I have a dream (forgive me, Martin) that on that day, my great grandkids will pick up their history books and read about our struggles and our pain and say: “What was wrong with those people?”