Today’s guest columnist is Billy Field.
I first learned about reputation, at least the reputation of a state, in the summer following my 7th grade year, the summer of 1963.
My mother loaded up my sister, my half-blind grandfather (meaning he couldn’t help with the driving), me and my good friend Reid, and we set out across America in a 1961 straight-shift Rambler with a canvas cargo carrier on top, packed with a five-person tent, sleeping bags and fishing rods.
We were headed for Seattle to see the World’s Fair and to be amongst the first to climb the brand-new Space Needle. We planned to camp out along the way, visiting places like Old Faithful, Mount Rushmore and Glacier National Park.
She wanted us to see the world.
When we reached downtown Seattle, with our Alabama license plates that proudly proclaimed Alabama, Heart of Dixie, we were going up a hill when the light turned red, and we stopped. Suddenly our car was surrounded by White people shouting, “Get outta here,” spitting, screaming, “Take George Wallace and Bull Connor and go back where you came from.”
I had no idea what was happening. Like many adolescents, I thought it was something we had done wrong. When the light finally turned green and we pulled away, my mother was gripping the steering wheel so hard that her fingers turned red and I — genuinely not knowing — asked, “Why’d they do that?” And she, continuing to look straight ahead, humiliated said, “It’s because we have such a terrible reputation.”
And in that instant, I learned a lesson in reputation.
These people didn’t know that Mama would be among the first White teachers to volunteer to teach at the Black high school when integration finally arrived. They didn’t know that she insisted that Black adults ride in the front seat while children rode in the back seat, “showing respect for our elders,” she would say.
A woman stopped me on the sidewalk when I was nine years old and threatened, “Little boy, your mother’s going to get into trouble for letting colored people ride in the front seat.” And I knew from previous experiences that word “trouble” meant Klan. When I told Mama, she didn’t miss a beat, she said, “Don’t worry, they’re not gonna do anything to me.” And she said it in a way that she seemed to know for sure that it was true.
When I was growing up, there was a sign on the city limits of Sylacauga, along with welcoming signs from the Rotary Club and the Lion’s Club, that read “Welcome to Sylacauga, Home of the Ku Klux Klan,” But those spitting at our car and shouting for us to leave, didn’t know that three years earlier a friend of mine’s (White) mother painted that Klan sign yellow, for coward, and faced down the Klan when they came to her house and threatened her and her children.
But on this day in downtown Seattle, in 1963, the city hosting America’s World’s Fair, they did know the story of George Wallace and Bull Connor and firehoses and the church bombs and because of that story they did attack us, not about something we had done, but because of a reputation, a story these people had come to believe was true.
But I’m not here to talk politics. I’m here to talk about money, your money, our children’s money for better schools and better teachers and better places to live.
And I’m here to say that when an Alabama politician screams dog whistle gibberish about race in America — that politician is seeking to promote himself and his party and that’s okay. It’s called freedom of speech. But what he’s also doing is…
… he’s costing you money.
How many large corporations with nice payrolls saw George Wallace stand in the schoolhouse door and saw Bull Connor turn fire hoses and attack dogs on children and said, “Well, we just narrowed our list of places to move from 3 down to 2.”
George Wallace wanted power and if he was going to trash the reputation of our state to get it, he would. And when new businesses did not come here because of that, then neither did that new school we might have had, or that addition to the hospital, or the new customers to whom you would have sold insurance, hardware, and tires — they would not be here either, because George Wallace had the national stage and he was going to use it to vault himself into a run for president of the United States and, in doing so…
…. he cost you money.
But you may say that was a long time ago, why bring it up now? And the answer is because Wallace and Bull and the State Troopers on the bridge in Selma joined forces with this invention called television and seared a story into the hearts and minds of Americans that that is who we are. And you and I both know that’s not true. That’s not all we are, but myths die hard. A myth is something people have come to believe is true, often because it’s to their advantage to believe it’s true. The truth is racism is just as bad in Los Angeles, Chicago and a thousand other places, but that’s not the myth of those places. But attack dogs and fire hoses is our myth and so now when an Alabama politician gets on the national stage, blaming crime, poverty and poor education on Black folks, that ignites an old myth.
And the ghosts of George and Bull come back to haunt us. And when they do…
They cost you money.
After that day in Seattle, I put mud on our Alabama license plates, and conjured up a convincing midwestern accent so those we met in the parks would not give us a hard time about being from Alabama.
Mama wanted us to learn how other people lived and we did. And we also learned a lesson about reputation — and about how self-seeking politicians can damage the place we live.
Lyndon Johnson said, “If you tell a poor White man that he’s better than a Black man, he’ll let you pick his pocket all day and won’t say a word.” When you see an Alabama politician, from any party, spewing lies designed to tell the White man that he’s better than the Black man, call that politician’s office and say, “Either prove what you say to be true, backing it up with facts, or stop saying it because…
…you’re costing me money.
You might enjoy Billy Field’s article: Alabama, it’s time for our children to be taught the truth.
Billy Field is one of the last people on earth to see the meteor shoot across the sky on November 30, 1954, crash through Ann Hodges’ roof, bounce off her floor radio and hit her on her buttocks, making her famous. Billy sold that story to 20th Century Fox. He has written for 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers and the TV series FAME for MGM. He taught screenwriting and documentary film production at The University of Alabama. His student’s films, dealing with Alabama history and Alabama biography, are on their website at LightsCameraAlabama.com. Billy is launching a new website designed to teach students to gather oral history from their own communities and work with others across the state to tell those stories through poems, fiction, art, music and podcasts. TheStoryAcorn.com, “Carrying Our Stories to the Next Generation.”
David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).
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