The writer, who identified himself or herself only as “An Avid Reader” in a letter addressed to me, wrote that “in regard to your article on voter suppression, why don’t you simply commit suicide and leave your estate to the NAACP – that would take care of your guilt complex and rabble-rousing.”
Since there was no return address, here’s my open letter of response.
Dear Avid Reader,
Thank you for easing the blues of missing my late father on Father’s Day. You resurrected some good memories.
As soon as I tore open your letter Wednesday, I realized how much fun my father and I would have had talking about your response to my column last Sunday, “The Naked Emperor of Voter Suppression.”
I thought back on how my father, Dick Railey, had nurtured me through my years in newspapering until the day he died. When we’d share Corona Lights and cigars, I’d tell him about hate mail or hate calls. He’d puff on his stogie and laugh it off, telling me that such responses meant I was doing something right.
What he didn’t say, what was understood, was the hateful responses he’d gotten for standing up for integration in the 1960s in our small town in rural Tidewater, Virginia.
Avid Reader, your letter might be the closest thing to a red badge of courage I’ll ever get. But it was nothing compared to what many of our parents went through. Not even close.
My daddy was physically and morally courageous. He was of that special breed of World II veterans, fire-forged by war and the Great Depression in which they were raised. My father, who served in the South Pacific in World II, survived typhoons and ships being blown up beside his. He and many in his generation of warriors, white ones and black ones, came home and embraced a new freedom fight, the one for civil rights.
My father lost friends and business at his small law practice for standing up for integration. Driven by his Christian faith, he never backed down.
He saw the country he loved change for the better. He rejoiced in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He encouraged the campaigning of a black friend, Virginia’s Doug Wilder, who in 1989 became the first black to be elected governor.
Avid Reader, my father and I saw much of the venom drop out of race relations.
But my father, who died 11 summers ago, didn’t live to see the gutting of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court in 2013. Soon after that, the N.C. legislature rushed in with a package of some of the most restrictive voting provisions in the land, curbing everything from early voting to voting by college students.
My father would have been sickened to realize that much of what was gained by the sacrifices of so many was wiped out so quickly. He rightly saw voting as a sacred right guaranteed by our Constitution and secured by blood, not some privilege with which to tamper.
So, Avid Reader, thanks for reminding me of the wellspring of my passion for this fight.
But no hara-kiri for me. There’s too much to get done, my father would tell me. A few years ago, I asked Gov. Wilder about critics telling my father to back off integration. Wilder remembered that and told me, “That was just like pouring gasoline on a fire.”
Avid Reader, thank you for reminding me that I am my father’s son.
John Railey is the editorial page editor of the Winston-Salem Journal.