Probably each of us has had an experience that awakened our conscience to an evil or injustice—an experience that forever changed the way we looked at the world and ourselves—a moment of moral clarity that made us reflect, “I was blind, but now I see.”
As a young boy growing up in the rural South, water fountains labeled “White” and “Colored” were as normal to me as men and women restrooms. So when my grandmother took me to Woolworth one day, what caught my eye was not the separate lunch counter for “Colored”; it wasn’t even the fact that the “Colored” counter was located on a mezzanine just below the one for whites—which was a social statement, in and of itself. No, what was out of place was the “white” man sitting among all of those black people.
“Grandma, what is that white man doing there,” I asked.
Grandma quickly surveyed the lower counter and then turned back in a whisper, “Oh, he only looks white. He’s just very, very light, son.”
Somehow her answer failed to satisfy my young mind. I stole another look at the mezzanine to study the man. But try as hard as I could, the man was not “colored,” he was white. Noticing my confusion, Grandma leaned in to explain how differences in skin pigmentation can make one appear white.
For the next half hour, between sips on my cherry Coke, I glanced down at the mezzanine. It didn’t help that there were customers in our section darker than the man below. I was puzzled.
That is not to say I didn’t have prejudices of my own; I certainly did, well into my high school years. But the lunch at Woolworth was my first awareness that there was something much deeper than skin color here. In the following years, my conscience was scraped each time I returned to that scene. Nevertheless, it would be much later before another experience would bring me full-face with the evil underlying my faulty thinking. Continue reading here.
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