I should not have been surprised. I was teaching a class on the press and democracy in 2008 when I was the Batten Professor of Public Policy at Davidson College. In one session, I talked about Harry Golden. The students’ reactions? Blank stares. They had no clue who he was.
Maybe you don’t either. He’s worth getting to know.
That’s particularly true for Charlotteans. Golden – journalist, author, activist, close friend of poet Carl Sandburg – was our guy. The man often referred to as the Jewish Mark Twain lived, worked and died right here in the Queen City.
He deserves more public recognition than he’s gotten from this place where he made his home. So I was glad to see that on Sunday a state highway marker to honor Golden will be unveiled, followed by a discussion of Golden’s life.
Golden was a fascinating man who had some rascally ways. He came to the South from New York City after a misadventure landed him in federal prison for five years convicted of mail fraud and stock manipulation. He came to Charlotte where he eventually wrote for this newspaper.
It was when he started publishing the Carolina Israelite in 1941 that things really got interesting. He would write about anything and everything and given the tenor of the times, that writing would often focus on race and civil rights.
Golden managed to skewer the absurdities of race relations in some hilarious and novel ways.
For instance, his advice on desegregating movie theaters was to give black women white babies to carry with them. How to get rid of segregated drinking fountains? Put out-of-order signs on all the whites-only fountains. Some say President Dwight Eisenhower heeded the suggestion on military bases – sort of. He had the “For coloreds” and “For whites” signs on bathrooms at Southern bases painted over, ending that segregation with some brush strokes.
Of course Golden’s most familiar treatise on race dealt with segregation in schools. He came up with his Vertical Integration Plan.
He started by giving the South (specifically North Carolina) praise for eliminating segregation – “vertical segregation.” He noted that the “tremendous industrial growth and economic prosperity of North Carolina” was because it had “voluntarily all but eliminated vertical segregation...
“The white and Negro stand at the same grocery and supermarket counters; deposit money at the same bank teller’s window; pay phone and light bills to the same clerk; walk through the same dime and department stores, and stand at the same drugstore counters.”
Then came his zinger: “It is only when the Negro ‘sits’ that the fur begins to fly.”
“Now, since we are not even thinking about restoring vertical segregation, I think my plan would not only comply with the Supreme Court decision, but would maintain ‘sitting-down’ segregation... Instead of all those complicated proposals, all the next [state Legislature] session needs to do is pass one small amendment which would provide only desks in all the public schools of our state – no seats.
“The desks should be those standing-up jobs, like the old fashioned bookkeeping desk. Since no one in the South pays the slightest attention to a vertical Negro, this will completely solve our problem. And it is not such a terrible inconvenience for young people to stand up during their classroom studies. In fact, this may be a blessing in disguise. They are not learning to read sitting down, anyway; maybe standing up will help...”
Too, too clever – and wickedly funny.
You can find out a lot more about Golden at a permanent exhibit set up in 2009 at UNC Charlotte’s Atkins Library. Included there is a copy of a 1974 presidential pardon he got from Richard Nixon for Golden’s fraud and stock manipulation conviction. Yes, the same Nixon who it has been revealed in recent releases of his taped conversations from 1973 didn’t think highly of Jews, calling them “very aggressive and abrasive and obnoxious” and dubbing them “all spies.”
Golden wrote loads of witticisms. I like this: “The arrogance of the young is a direct result of not having known enough consequences.” But my favorite might be “the only thing that overcomes hard luck is hard work.” Golden left a wealth of books and other writings that attest to that hard work.
Check him out when you get a chance. It will be worth it.
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