In the early 1960’s our Southern heritage was being assaulted with Yankee government mandates to end “separate but equal” in favor of desegregation “with all deliberate speed.” The Deep South was deliberately dragging its feet. Alabama’s flamboyant governor George Wallace probably expressed our segregationist attitudes best when he attempted to stand up to that Yankee government exclaiming, “I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Our own native son and segregationist Strom Thurmond said, “All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, into our schools, our churches and our places of recreation and amusement.” Strom would even help lay the foundation for today’s modern GOP when he exchanged his Democratic blue for Republican red because Democratic President Lyndon Johnson stabbed the Solid South in the back by signing into law the Civil Right’s Act of 1964. Thurmond claimed it was in protest of big government and State’s Rights. Sound familiar? Wasn’t Strom a candidate for president on the Dixiecrat ticket? Since Strom’s defection the only Democratic presidential hopeful to take a majority of deep Southern states was Jimmy Carter from Georgia. Considering how well that turned out, I doubt that will happen again. Two years prior to the Civil Right’s Act of 1964, in 1962, the debate over the Confederate flag flying on the Capitol grounds would begin when the Battle Flag of Northern Virginia was raised over the Capitol Dome to commemorate the Civil War centennial…and to “shoot a bird” at the federal government’s attempts to push us toward desegregation.
Despite it being racist times I don’t remember my community being a racist hotbed. It certainly wasn’t a hotbed of racist rhetoric. There were plenty of pro-segregationist meetings in our little part of the world, though. Community meetings with the School Board, superintendent and principal were held in, what I thought back then, was the spacious auditorium of our school. I remember the principal and superintendent, along with the local school board fielding questions from a packed “white” house. One question that was never quite answered was “What are we going to do about those Negro ‘Bucks’ walking the hallways with our daughters?” I realize now how fearful some parents were that their daughters were going to be carried off and raped…or worse, that they might willingly walk off on their own before giving up their most prized gift—gasp!—gladly.
Despite this not being an original thought, I believe that race relations in South Carolina (you may insert racism) is the product of fear that has plagued South Carolina since slavery days when the slave population outnumbered the white population. That fear manifested itself in the “well-founded” terror of a potential slave revolt on one side or the prospect of reprisals caused by revolts on the other. In a few accounts, it would appear that reprisals were carried out because there might have been a brief thought of a revolt. This dread would be continued and intensified after the Civil War. Panic mounted over the contemplation of retaliations by the former slaves and that their “unbridled African passions” would be unleashed on our innocent white female population. (What were the African ladies doing?)
The centerpiece of our hate was the resentment by white supremacists, a majority of the white population throughout the South specifically and the US in general, that we were going to be groveling at the feet of black lawmakers. The old “loss of status bug-a-boo” was primary on the minds of old white “planter class” who had had the power and wanted it back. While some blacks were elected, all of that would change with the end of Reconstruction and the antebellum status quo would return and be maintained with De Jure legislation that became known as Jim Crow laws. Later this would be upheld with the Supreme Court railroad case Plessy v Ferguson which made “separate but equal” the law of the land and which intensified the trepidation and hate on both sides of our heritage.
Separate but equal did not seem to be a problem in Indian Land. It did not seem Brown’s “with all deliberate speed” could be an issue at this time but, for reasons that eluded my six-year-old mind, people were worried. We did not have a huge population of African-Americans and none of them were carrying spears or wearing leopard skins like in the Tarzan movies. They tended to live around Van Wyck, the brick making capitol of the state, or out past Uncle James’s farm which might as well have been in…deepest Africa. Maggie Cureton’s family lived way, way, way across the road and by the 1960’s they were long gone.
While I had seen African-American males I would not meet my first African- American adult male until the very late fifties when we remodeled our house. A black brick mason with the interesting name of “Pepsi Cola” Mobley was hired to add the brick veneer to our original home along with the two new rooms added onto each end.
“Pepsi Cola” was a stud, as were his two sons who served as helpers and apprentice brick layers. It was their responsibility to carry the bricks and “mud” to their father as he did the placing of the brick runs. I found the whole endeavor to be interesting but not nearly as interesting as the “colored” folk who were carrying out the tasks. The acorns did not fall far from the tree! Close-cropped “steel wool” hair over clear ebony skin; they possessed the whitest of stereotypical teeth below broad flat noses and wide cheekbones. All three were powerfully built with muscles bulging and glistening with sweat from handling and placing the bricks. “Pepsi Cola’s” decades of brick work had given him shoulders so wide I doubted his ability to walk through a door without turning sideways along with hands that were beaten, scarred and as rough as the slabs on the side of my grandparent’s barn. All three started the day in tattered yet clean tees and denim pants that had patches patched over patches. As the heat of the day intensified, shirts would be discarded exposing broad, powerful chests that were covered in tight black curly hair. Curiously, whenever my grandmother or mother stepped outside, there was a bit of a scramble to put their shirts back on. “Pepsi” was gregarious, singing Negro hymns and laughing his way through the day or “holding court” for anyone near by, which was usually the eight or nine-year old “little man” that was me. I found him to have the most interesting accent to go along with a lot of words that began with “dees” ended in “esses.” His sons were the exact opposite – quiet and, I would say, somewhat sullen. In hindsight, my guess is that there was little way to wedge a word in edgewise with “Pepsi Cola” around.
I learned a lesson of the times during the course of the remodeling. Sent to carry a jug of water out to the workers, I asked Mr. Mobley, “Mr. Mobley, would you like some water?” “Eyes do, Eyes do, indeeds, Little Man,” he answered with his best grin. In turn, I gave the sons water and returned to my grandmother who informed me of my grievous faux pas, “You don’t refer to ‘coloreds’ by mister unless you use their first name.” Okay, “Mister Pepsi Cola!”
For me and the rest of South Carolina, Separate but Equal would hold on tenaciously until my senior year when “token integration” was introduced. Over the next few years, mainly 1969 and 1970, full integration and busing would rule the day when made possible by the threat of losing federal funds instead of earlier threats of federal troops which could not help but bring back references to Reconstruction. Scenes of angry whites meeting buses carrying black children had been broadcast nationwide on our little black and white television since 1957 in Arkansas. Luckily these scenes were not played out in our little corner of the world; however, throughout the state white families fled their public schools, preferring instead to turn down federal subsidies and send their children to private schools bearing names of Confederate generals and politicians. Forty-five years later many of those “academies” still exist, especially in areas that can be described as socially and economically lacking and whose public schools are still predominantly black.
Most of our fears have not been realized. Our most prized possessions it would seem, our women, were not carried off and gang-raped by angry blacks. I guess some white supremacist would say that things are worse because there are A LOT of BIRACIAL folks walking the streets and country roads of the South today. I wonder by what means they got here? Oddly enough, there is even one in the White House! Could it be that most of us are finally overcoming our fears?
I wrote this in the language of the times and it was not meant to offend anyone…except racist and white supremacist. I hope I was successful.
One thought on ““PEPSI COLA”-A LESSON IN PREJUDICE”
You nailed it, Don. Your memories and experiences are similar to mine, although you may have a couple of years on me.