When I was growing up in the 1950s and ’60s in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains, I was quietly aware of disparities that seemed both commonplace and unfair. We sang a song in Sunday school that instilled in us the belief that Jesus loved everyone, regardless of color. We took it to heart as we innocently sang the well-intentioned, if insensitive, words, “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world.”
In those days, North Carolina was a segregated society. The rural Appalachian county where we lived was home to neither the KKK nor to civil rights activists, but Jim Crow was the cultural norm. In our small cotton mill town, blacks lived on a dirt road, referred to as the white line. Black men worked as janitors and black women in white people’s homes cooking, cleaning, and caring for children. African-American children were bused miles away to attend the county’s “colored” schools.
Gradually, things began to change. Church seemed to be one place where soul-searching about racism and segregation could happen. I’ve never forgotten the night our youth group leader made a confession. He was a young, “cool” high school teacher, and the older teens looked up to him.
Pacing and sweating, he told us about attending a meeting in a town nearby. Both white and black leaders were there. That would have been unusual, perhaps a first for him, as it would have been for most of us. He said that after the event ended, he went directly to the restroom and washed his hands. After some self-reflection, he realized he was washing because he had shaken hands with a black man.
Like a good educator and preacher, he taught us with a parable so vivid, so personal, so disturbing, that none of us could help but wonder if we would have done the same thing. Racism, we learned from him that evening, was a sin we might not even be aware we were committing.
When I started elementary school, my naïve belief that North Carolina was part of the north during the Civil War was shattered. No matter how eager I was to be a Carolinian on the good side, our state had a long way to go. But that young white teacher at my church, and many others, wanted to change. They inspired us. They eventually led us in peaceful integration of our schools. We wanted to do the right thing. We wanted to live up the teachings of Jesus.
“Political correctness” was neither a phrase nor a value in those days. Coming to terms with our history, culture, and personal beliefs and actions on race was a moral imperative.
Over the past several decades, North Carolina has made much progress towards racial equality. Yet there is still much to be done. Minority voting rights are threatened, and now there are new targets for bigotry – including immigrants and gay and transgender people.
It appears to me North Carolina is, once again, at a crossroads. Communities face a choice between values that are forged in fear and disdain, or those that spring from love and acceptance for all – regardless of race, religion, country of origin, gender preference or identity. We all must look in the mirror sometimes to examine the roots of our discomfort, to challenge our assumptions and stereotypes, and to question our actions and reactions.
When our older son was about 10, he figured out that some of his relatives in North Carolina were in a different political party than his parents. “But they go to church,” he said, struggling to reconcile what to him was inconsistent. I explained that good people could have different political beliefs. I want to believe that, and I hope and pray that our nation is able to overcome disharmony by focusing on what we have in common, while also embracing our diversity.
I’m proud of my home state for many reasons – mountains and beaches, music and culture, barbecue and basketball. I hope the good and gentle people who live there don’t give in to the haters. Please, North Carolina, be the state of acceptance. Be the state of love.
Talbert lives in Silver Spring, Md.