"We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone". The plain black and white sign was posted above the counter at the little diner on 9th Street in Huntington. At the time it really didn't seem unusual. In fact, there were several businesses where I had seen similar notices posted. It seemed reasonable to this 10 year old at the time that any business had that right. However, I later came to realize that those were code words that signaled to black people that they were not welcome in that place of business. It was sometime around 1959-1960 when I first noticed the sign. Racial segregation was still a problem in our area.
The schools had been desegregated as a result of the Supreme Court's "Brown v. Board of Education" decision. Locally, "colored" schools like Douglass High School in Huntington, Aracoma High School in Logan, and Booker T. Washington High School in Ashland had recently closed down, and their students were integrated into student bodies that did not exactly welcome the black students with open arms. We didn't have any major incidents in our area that I can remember, but trouble in places like Little Rock, Birmingham, and Montgomery were documented each evening on the Huntley- Brinkley report. America was changing, and it wouldn't come easy.
As a white kid, growing up in the 50's and 60's I obviously never felt the sting of being the recipient of racial discrimination, but I did become aware that it existed. We were on vacation in the early 60's when I saw first hand what black Americans had been dealing with – especially in the south. Dad stopped for gas along a rural highway somewhere in Arkansas, and we kids headed for the restrooms. The attendant directed us to the back side of the gas station where we saw three restroom doors. They were marked, "Men", "Women", and "Colored". I remember thinking how unfair that seemed. After that, I began to learn more about "colored water fountains", "colored waiting rooms", and "whites only" lunch counters throughout the south.
Today it seems unconscionable that an entire segment of American citizens were kept out of hotels, restaurants, movie theaters, just because of the hue of their skin. But to our national shame, that was the case. The evil institution of slavery had ended 100 years earlier, but in some states there was still a sizeable portion of our population who didn't even have the basic right to vote.
The faces in my neighborhood and our church were all white. It wasn't forced segregation. That's just the way it was. The black folks lived in "their part of town" and we lived in ours. In fact, the first time I had any classes with a black kid was not until my sophomore year in high school. We didn't have any close friends who were black. Dad worked with some black men at the Nickel Plant, and we knew that they were nice guys, but our families really didn't know each other. They lived in their neighborhoods and went to their churches, we lived and worshiped in ours. Things were just that way then.
Your Great Great Grandfather (my Papaw) first worked in the coal mines, then later became a representative of the United Mine Workers of America. He worked with and represented a number of black coal miners as well as white ones. Most of the black miners in their coal camp lived in an area called Price's Bottom. They and their children walked up and down Kimball Street going to and from their homes to work and school. They were always polite and said "Good morning" or "Good afternoon" as they passed my grandparents home. They all seemed like nice folks, but we didn't really know them very well. That's the way things were then. Looking back on those days it brings a smile to my lips when I realize that no matter whether the miners were of African descent, or Italian, or German, or Welsh, or Hungarian, they were all black when they came off their shift of duty in the coal mines.
I remember when Hal Greer broke the "color line" to be the first black basketball player at Marshall University. I remember Rosa Parks, James Meredith, Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King, Jr. I remember the southern governors and sheriff's like George Wallace, Orval Faubus, and Bull Connor who stood in opposition to integration. The daily newspapers and TV news broadcasts brought the disturbing images of police dogs, fire hoses, marches, sit ins, jailings, and other tumultuous events to our eyes and consciences every day. I remember the marchers and demonstrators behaving peacefully and singing, "We Shall Overcome Someday". I think that most Americans, no matter what their ethnic background, were moved when Dr. King boomed from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial about his dream that one day his little children would be "judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin".
Looking back at those days now, it is difficult to believe how far our country has come in the last 50 years. Prejudice and racism is not dead, but things are changing daily. Today an American of African descent will be inaugurated 44th President of the United States. That was almost unimaginable back in the days when I was your age. Even though I voted for Senator McCain for President, (not because of race, but on the issue of experience and qualifications) I join with all Americans today with as sense of pride as Senator Obama places his hand on the Bible and takes the oath of office as President. President of ALL Americans. He will be my President, and I have the responsibility and privilege to pray for him.
My prayers are with the new President. I pray that he will be a leader who seeks the counsel of Almighty God for every decision he is called upon to make. He cannot provide all the answers to the problems that face and divide our nation – but God can! I pray that God will speak to the hearts of ALL of our elected leaders to do what is right in His sight, and what is right for our nation.
You guys live in exciting, yet sometimes frightening times. No one knows what the future holds, but we do know who holds the future! Trust God. You'll never go wrong.