It was April of 1966, two years after President Lyndon B. Johnson had signed the Civil Rights Act.
As a soldier with the U.S.Army, I had just been transferred from Ft. Leonard Wood, Mo. ToFt. Gordon, Ga. That, I thought, would give me a good chance to see a part of the United States that I’d never visited – the Deep South.
So, with my Army dress clothes and as many civilian clothes I thought I’d need – all freshly pressed (thanks, Mom!) and hanging neatly from a bar in the back seat – plus a duffel bag filled with other necessities – I headed out in my 1965 Corvair.
I’d laboriously pored over a number of maps, procured from a local gas station, and selected the route I’d take to Ft. Gordon, adjacent to Augusta and the famed golf course there.
At 23, much of the world news held little interest to me. What I wanted was to see the world. So, I selected a route that would take me south through St. Louis, continue into Mississippi, then carry me east to my destination through Alabama and Georgia.
It was in Mississippi that I began noticing the roadsides. The back roads were lined with small wooden shacks, many of them constructed above ground on poles – I assumed they were built that way to escape flood waters that may arise each spring. There weren’t just a few; they literally filled the landscape.
Just as suddenly as those shacks appeared on the horizon, they’d disappear again, replaced by magnificent white mansions. I assumed those were plantations owned by former slave owners in Mississippi.
Crossing into Alabama I began seeing the signs. The signs were everywhere – courthouse squares, businesses, water fountains, you name it. They read “White Entrance,” “White’s Only,” Colored Entrance” and just about everything imaginable that could be tied to segregation.
This was two years after President Johnson signed into law a Civil Rights Act that supposedly would end those segregationist practices in the south. That law had not.
For a young man who was born and raised in “Lily White” rural Iowa, it was, to say the least, an eye-opening experience. Growing up, the only African Americans I’d ever seen were in movie houses and on the television screen. But, in those first 20 years after World War II had ended, black faces were seldom seen on either of those mediums.
The first real life black person I had encountered was as a basketball player at North Polk High School. Neighboring Ankeny – we were in the same conference in the late ’50s and early ‘60s – had one black player. I sought him out and we became, if not friends, acquaintances. In college, naturally, there were many athletes of color in the Iowa Junior College Conference, but it wasn’t until I was in the Army that I really began to know soldiers that just happened to be a different color than I.
I don’t suppose I ever did understand their plight, but driving through Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia on my two-day trip to August, I think I gained, at least a little, insight into what it must have been like to be non-white and growing up in the South during those years.
Most of us, me included, will never fully understand what it was like being a person of color growing up in the Deep South.
Fifty years have passed since race discrimination was made illegal. Fifty years. Half a Century. I believe we’ve made progress through those decades past.
But, after that many decades have passed, I can see we still have a long way to go.