Did you ever see the movie “In the Heat of the Night”? Made in about 1967, starring Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier. A great film.
It totally captured the white heat scorched, austere landscape of the rural deep south.
It also captured the intense southern hatred of white folk for black people, openly displayed and actuated, with often tragic consequences.
Two years before the movie came out, I was a 15 year old high school kid. On spring break, I traveled to the deep south with my parents and 8 year old brother.
Nothing struck me as unusual on this boring trip until we crossed the Georgia state line. The first thing I saw when we entered Georgia was a gigantic billboard that read ‘Impeach Earl Warren’.
At the time, I knew Earl Warren was the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. But I didn’t know anything about his court’s decisions.
It wasn’t till years later that I learned that the Warren court had ruled on cases that overturned the Plessy vs. Ferguson ‘separate but equal’ decision, which allowed for the segregation of black and white students.
So because of Earl Warren, black and white students, by law, had to attend schools together.
We drove deeper into Georgia, and entered another world. We saw shirtless, sweating chain gangs laboring under the relentless sun, watched by rifle toting guards. We drove past shabby homes and trailers, littered with beat up old cars on cinder blocks, and fronted by scruffy, uncut lawns.
We passed through towns with unpainted buildings, beat up pickup trucks, and bored, aimless teenagers hanging out on street corners.
We finally stopped in Claxton, Georgia. Mom and Dad went off shopping
while Paul and I went to a five and dime store (somewhat equivalent to today’s dollar stores.)
I was looking through baseball cards and Paul was checking out the stuff that 8 year olds liked.
At the front of the store stood a middle aged white man, and an elderly black man was sweeping the floor.
Out of the blue, the white man, in a high pitched Georgia cracker voice, let loose with a string of horrific, abusive vitriol, all directed at the old black man. He finished by yelling, “Get moving, you worthless nigger!”
“I’s movin’ boss, I’s movin'” replied the black man.
For my brother and me, it was like getting struck by a lightning bolt from hell. We had never witnessed someone so brutally stripped of their dignity.
I felt intensely fearful and nauseous. I grabbed Paul by the hand and quickly left the store. We got into the car where mom and dad were waiting.
Mom asked us a bunch of questions, but we did not respond.
“What’s wrong with you -did something happen?”
We couldn’t get out of Georgia fast enough. With great joy, we crossed the Florida state line. My brother and I started talking again, even smiling.
We spent about a week in Florida, and everything was fine.
But then we headed home.
And we crossed the Georgia state line.
Everything came flooding back- the awful white man, the old black man, the unspeakable evil.
And once again, we entered Claxton.
And my parents decided to stop there again.
My brother and I made terror filled eye contact. We struggled to breathe.
“Are you boys getting out?”
After mom and dad got out, we locked the doors, closed the windows and waited. After what seemed like days, they came back.
I was praying that Dad would drive straight through to New York, and not stop anywhere. I never wanted to go to the south again.
Chances are if I went back to Claxton today things would be quite a bit different. The racial hatred of the sixties is much less severe today.
Having said that, it’s 50 years later, and I’m never going back.