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Civil Rights I
I finished school and came home to Charleston, and the Civil Rights Movement was just beginning to crank up. And what happened was that because for the most part my friends were Gentile and they lived downtown, the attitude towards black people was: there was a place for them, and, damn it, they were supposed to stay in their place. And I adopted some of that. I was trying to be something that I was not necessarily. You know, I was trying to be “downtown”; I was trying to be the only Jew downtown. I was trying to be totally accepted and without question. I didn’t know anything about Martin Luther King except that I’d been told that there was something wrong with Martin Luther King, that the FBI was checking on him. Whatever all that baloney was going on, I believed it. In 19—whatever the year John Kennedy ran against Richard Nixon—I was the head of the Young Republicans for Charleston County, knowing that John F. Kennedy was going to ruin the business climate in America. He was going to force unions on my father’s company, and that would be the end. So I grew up with this kind of Republican reactionary background. And so when the Civil Rights Movement really got sparked up here in Charleston, I was anti-civil rights.
There was a strike at the Medical University. The union was trying to organize the lower end of the wage scale, and they were unsuccessful, and so Reverend Abernathy came from Atlanta to intervene. And the powers that be at the Medical University had no idea how to handle it, and so it became a real confrontation. And the National Guard was sent into Charleston, and they came in with tanks. And tanks actually came down the streets in the city of Charleston. And on Morris Street, where our main store was, at the corner of Morris and King, on a particular afternoon when we were being picketed, a National Guard tank came down the street, and it incited the black people who were picketing. And my father was upstairs in the office and saw all of this going on and came downstairs. And there was a group of very militant blacks from outside of our area—and, of course, that’s always the southerners cry, “They came from somewhere else. They’re not our black people.” But anyway, they were on the street, and they were all dressed the same with overalls. I mean, I can see it. And my father came—they were blocking the door to the store, and we had a huge black customer count and they couldn’t come in. They wanted to come in; they couldn’t come in. And my father got into—he got livid, and he asked them please to move, and they told him no, and he was furious and bewildered. My father felt that he had made a great contribution to the black community, financially and otherwise. After that day, he was not the same avant-garde integrationist that he had been before. He no longer carried a banner. He was disgusted, and he didn’t understand how they didn’t know to single him out and leave him alone because he had made a contribution.
I guess when I changed was—I mean all of us remember when President Kennedy was assassinated where we were. I was in Beaufort working there for a weekend or whatever it was, but it doesn’t matter. I do remember the message coming across on the radio in the store, or somebody put it out. It was an announcement made, and what I heard was people clapping and cheering, and it made me sick to my stomach. And that’s when I guess this whole naiveté that I had disappeared, when I realized that I could no longer pretend that I was something that I wasn’t, that I could no longer hide my emotions. And so that’s when I woke up, I guess.
What interests me the most is the fact that all the men that my father grew up with here in town were horrible, horrible segregationists and foul-mouthed and vicious, and I would ask my father, “Why are they afraid of the black man? I can’t understand why they’re so ugly and rude about it.” And I think I had enough sense to know that if they were ugly and rude about him, they were ugly and rude about Jews also, just not to my face. At least that’s always been my feeling: where there’s prejudice against one, there’s prejudice against all. But that attitude did prevail in that generation, my father’s generation, and very, very, very successful men who had no reason not to rise above it didn’t. And the jokes they told, and those jokes have modified some, but I still hear them, and I still walk away. And I work in an environment full of rednecks. Interestingly enough, they are wealthy rednecks and that—there is a delineation, but it’s only in how they dress and the cars they drive. The language and the attitudes are exactly the same between a man who is afraid a black man is going to take his job, and the stockbroker or the doctor or the lawyer who grew up in that atmosphere and who has chosen to retain those anti-Negro feelings. And so the people I see are just plain rednecks, except they’ve got money. And the saddest thing of all is that I see my generation teaching it to their children, and I’m sure their children will teach it to their children. And my philosophy has always been, well, when their generation is gone, things are going change. It’s not going to happen.