I vaguely remember the name Rodney King from my childhood and hearing about the riots in LA on the news. I lived in the Midwest, and while I’m not naive enough to believe that racism didn’t exist where we lived, it didn’t seem to affect me. Racism seemed far away, and mostly something from our country's past — an issue we had collectively moved beyond. I realize now that I was just young, white, and sheltered.
In Missouri, there was no talk of north and south. And the confederate flag was something I only saw in history books, or as a meaningless souvenir that you might acquire on a road trip, no different than a commemorative t-shirt or a mug.
Then I moved to South Carolina.
I quickly noticed subtle differences between the culture here and the one I grew up in. Most obvious to me were the constant references to the North and the South. Comparisons between Northerners and Southerners. Not only did people remember this division in our country, but it seemed they wanted to keep it alive in some form.
When I moved here, the confederate flag was still flown at the South Carolina state capitol. Yes, a historical symbol — but one filled with decades of meaning on all sides.
Someone once asked me if I had ever read a book that was life-changing. While not technically a book, I’m currently making my way through one of the most life changing documents I have ever read. It’s a thorough survey documenting the state of race conditions in Greenville, South Carolina in 1950. The report covers everything from living conditions to education to medical care.
It’s essentially a time capsule of what life in 1950 Greenville was like for the black community. The paper is aptly titled, Everybody's Business.
Reading this document has educated me in a way that no history book has ever done. To see discrimination documented factually in black-and-white is frankly shocking. The realities of daily life that were socially acceptable are recorded here with stats, figures and quotes.
You can read the report in its entirety here. If you prefer a more visual or concise read, this Time/LIFE article and photo series (1956) by Margaret Bourke-White is also helpful.
I confess: I have only made my way through part of the paper. Not only is it a lot of information to take in, but the sad realities are difficult and heavy to process.
It’s eye-opening to realize that this glimpse into Greenville’s past is only one generation removed from me. When I sit in my neighborhood meeting, around me are many people who experienced this version of Greenville. People who are intimately familiar with the conditions I’m reading about because they lived in them.
This past week I’ve heard many people say that it's time for white people start listening. I agree, but I want to add that if we're just starting to listen, we have some serious catching up to do.
Maybe the facts were glossed over in school, or maybe I just wasn't listening because it didn't seem relevant. If we're serious about listening, and really hearing what our fellow Americans have to say, I think we have to look back as well as forward. Without the benefit of historical context, how can we even begin to make sense of the frustrations and limitations our neighbors face? What is, and has been reality for the black community is not common knowledge in the white community.
This is not an excuse. It’s a call to action. It's time for us to do our homework. To read the facts, take in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the pleas for equality from those who have gone before us. We need more than just snippets from Twitter to comprehend the complexity of the events happening around us.
I can no longer pretend that race issues have nothing to do with me. The truth is, they're everybody's business.