Without risk we achieve nothing. I wouldn’t respect that in myself.
We all know racism is alive and kicking today in spite of laws to even out the playing field. Since the civil rights movement, we have made progress. Eight people of color were CEOs of Fortune 500 companies in 2011 whereas in 1970 it was zero. (This number has dropped recently, according to The Atlantic, October 2017.) Neighborhoods that were once very divided are seeing more diversity. Interracial marriage and dating were illegal until 1967 but are common today. In spite of currents of hatred I see too frequently running through this country, I have seen changes in my lifetime.
It was 1981. I didn’t really date in high school. I was introverted and fearful of most people. I lived in an abusive family and preferred being at school to being at home. Our gym teacher, Mr. Wirtz, could see I needed help, though I doubt he really understood how much and what kind of help. But he offered what he could. In the hallway one day he asked me if I was involved in any extracurricular activities. I wasn’t. He told me he needed a manager for the boys’ track team and wanted me to do it. I went cold with anxiety but knew I couldn’t say no.
At the first practice, he introduced me to the team as the manager and told the boys they would be reporting their stats to me. My throat clenched and I thought I might vomit. They would be reporting to ME. They would have to talk to me, and I to them. I had imagined I would merely carry equipment and remain invisible.
After a couple of weeks, I had learned my job and was a bit more comfortable with it. I had begun to notice that some of the boys seemed just as reluctant to speak to me. They barely spoke above a whisper, looked at the ground when reporting or stumbled over their words.
I was short; maybe 4' 10 in tenth grade. In the seventh grade, Randy Newman came out with his song, “Short People”. Kids would sometimes sing it AT us as an insult. I was appropriately angry and humiliated. I had already heard all the words thrown at me over the years: munchkin, peewee, short-stuff, runt, midget, pissant. Yes, kids are cruel. Randy Newman, however, nearly destroyed me socially at the threshold of puberty.
Most of the boys on the track team were tall. Some of them were VERY tall. One of them started calling me Short-stack and it stuck. But it was said affectionately. This was new to me and I didn’t mind it at all. There was one boy, Myles Moore, who had a particularly warm way of saying it that held my attention. He had beautiful, coffee and cream-colored skin, big brown eyes with long lashes and the kind of smile that made me feel like the sun was shining right on me.
I started really enjoying the field games and cheering for these guys who were becoming my friends. I especially liked riding the bus with them to and from away games. They were loud and funny and I rode along on their energy. On the bus home from one away game, Myles sat in the seat in front of me. He kept looking at me and eventually asked me where I lived. There were four towns that all went to my high school. One of them was an all-black town, Lawnside. I lived in Magnolia, the smallest and poorest of the four towns, similar to Lawnside. He asked me if I walked home every day. I did.
The next day after practice, I crossed the front yard of the school and headed down the sidewalk toward home. Three of the boys were behind me and split off in different directions. Myles jogged to catch up to me.
“Do you mind if I walk you home? I won’t walk all the way, just part of it.”
“No, I don’t mind,” I was suddenly nervous, but happy. “But you live in the opposite direction.”
“That’s ok.” He said and put a hand on my shoulder. He was VERY tall and I had to look up at him. “You’re so little and cute,” he grinned. I smiled and looked down. I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing.
We talked about classes and teachers that day. Two days a week he walked me most of the way home. One day he got very serious and said to me, “You know you can’t tell anyone about us. No one!” I thought to myself, I didn’t know there was an us, but I guess I did. It was just unspoken and completely non-physical. What he was saying sank in. This was why he didn’t walk me all the way home. My mother would have raised holy Hell if she ever saw us together, even just walking home.
“Are you afraid of my parents getting mad? Or maybe our friends not liking it?”
“Nah, my friends won’t really care. But the women … the black girls will hurt you. They’ll be really mad.”
I named a couple of black girls that I was friends with. He told me they couldn’t save me.
After a moment he reached out and took my hand. My heart soared. We held hands all the way to the corner where he turned off towards his own home. He quickly kissed my cheek before he left.
And that was the last time Myles walked me home. Or held my hand. It was just too risky. I hadn’t realized how risky and how serious he was about the girls beating me up. I knew exactly what would happen at home if my mom ever found out I was seeing a black boy. I imagined her standing with a pack of girls from school, waiting for me on the way home. I imagined them all beating me unconscious.
There were two tables at one end of the cafeteria where all the black kids sat for lunch. I saw them as if for the first time and wondered why. Not one white face among them. Not one black face at any of the other tables. I asked a friend if she knew why they sat that way.
“Because they like to keep to themselves,” she answered. “You know there were riots here just a few years ago!”
I was surprised. “Riots?”
“Yeeeaaah! Oh my God, the cops were called! The blacks against the whites. Especially when they started joining some of the teams. They would fight like almost every day. My father said that making us all go to school together caused it.”
“Just a few years ago?” I was incredulous.
“Yeah, like four years ago, even.”
It had been too risky.
I watched Myles play for the rest of that season, and the next until he graduated. I cheered him on like I cheered everyone else, but on the inside, I was cheering much louder for him. He approached me in the bleachers at a game one day.
“You can still talk to me, you know.”
I guess I had been avoiding him wondering if maybe he just decided he didn’t like me. “Ok,” I smiled. He squeezed my hand. “No one is even looking this way right now cuz-a the game,” he grinned, then disappeared.
That same year in the South, five members of the KKK charged with murder in the 1979 Greensboro Massacre of five black protestors, were acquited by an all-white jury. Also in 1981, Morris Dees, the grandson of a Klansman and civil rights lawyer and founder of the SPLC, successfully sued the United Klans of America and won a $7 million judgment for the mother of Michael Donald, an African American who had been lynched by UKA members in Alabama. Payment of the judgment bankrupted the United Klans of America and resulted in its national headquarters being sold to help satisfy the judgment¹.
I still think about Myles all these years later. I live in North Carolina now. It’s still risky. But today, I would have told him he is worth the risk — that WE are worth the risk.
- Dees, Morris; Steve Fiffer (1991). A Season for Justice: The Life and Times of Civil Rights Lawyer Morris Dees.