In 1968, I was ordered to the Naval Air Station at Meridian, Mississippi, for jet pilot training. Before we moved there from Pensacola, Florida, I left the wife and kids, and drove to the city to find a place for us to live. The air station had accommodations for bachelor student pilots, but not married ones. After a day of shopping for a suitable house with a real estate agent, I was whupped. On the way to my motel, I bought a newspaper. I intended to read it at breakfast next morning, but when I flopped the folded paper on the bed, it opened to the bottom half of the front page. A headline flat woke me up.
25th NEGRO CHURCH BURNING IN 24 MONTHS
I wasn’t tired anymore. The gist of the article was that we were entering the third year of monthly Negro church burnings. The arsons happened in the counties around Meridian. Inside the city, shotguns had been fired through the windows of civil rights supporters, one black, one white.
What the Sam Hill kind of place had the US Navy sent me to?
I didn’t know anyone out at the base to talk to. I was the only one from my class to be assigned to Meridian for jet training. Others in my class in Pensacola wanted to fly jets. They, and all of us, had been able to express our preferences between jets, prop planes, and helos on a card. The card was called a dream sheet. Where the Navy assigned a student for his next phase of training was driven 95% by what kind of pilots the service needed most. Sometimes entire classes got their choices. Other times no one did. So I’d been lucky. One of my classmates, a Marine, told me, “Mississippians hate Negroes, Jews, Catholics, and Communists. In that order.”
The Marine knew I was Catholic. He’d wanted to fly jets in the worst way. He’d been jealous, I figured. And what do you expect? He was a Marine. I was Navy. He was probably jealous about that too.
But that night in the motel room, after reading the article, I got up and propped a chair under the doorknob.
I was on the list.
I worried about bringing my wife, two-year old daughter, and infant son to such a place. “Oh, you don’t have a thing to worry about,” my real estate agent said the next morning. “Lots of Navy people live here in town. New apartment buildings have gone up since they put that naval air station here. We like the Navy.” I wanted to ask if they liked Negro, Jewish, and Catholic Navy people, but I kept my mouth shut. The Communists, well, I wasn’t fond of them either.
After I took a house and we moved in, the Welcome Wagon Lady called. A bright nicely dressed elderly lady, mid thirties I’d say, with a high-noon sunshine smile bid us the thing she was named for. I told her about reading the article in the Meridian Star. “Is my family safe here?” I asked.
“You don’t have a thing to worry about.” That line again, and spoken real Southern. “Our Negroes know their place.”
“It’s not the Negroes I’m worried about, ma’am,” I said. “They aren’t the ones burning the churches.”
A black hole swallowed the sun in her smile, and the Lady got in her Wagon and drove away leaving a mighty frosted over Welcome behind. I’d shot my mouth off, and I worried about it for a while. Nothing happened to my family though.
I went to work, and we joined the Catholic parish in town. The congregation was all white. I didn’t think too much about it. While I was growing up, we never had Negroes in any parish I was part of. No Negroes in my grade school either. High School in St. Charles, we had, as I recall, one Colored boy in the freshman class when I was a senior. I remember him as a bright young man who wore better clothes than I did. The point is, until I entered the service, I didn’t have many opportunities to interface with Black people. By 1968, I had been in the Navy for nine years. Over those nine years, I saw opportunities for Black sailors improve, at a glacial pace, maybe, but improve. And of course, any observations I made at that time were set within a rigid military authoritarian structure. Also over those nine years, I visited ports in the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, as well as the Far East. I thought I knew what it felt like to be an alien in a foreign land. Then we moved to Meridian.
About three weeks after moving in, the wife and I went to Mass just like the two Sundays before. The parish provided babysitting, which made for nicer services, absent the otherwise ubiquitous infant protest. As my wife and I mounted the steps to enter church, we could see the place was packed. It seemed there were a fair number of Catholic Mississippians for other Mississippians to hate. Proceeding down the aisle ahead of us, an usher was leading a trim, ramrod straight, tall young man with a blond crew cut. On his arm was a stunning beauty, a blond knockout. I knew who they were. The tall dude was a Marine student pilot, near graduation from basic jet training. The woman on his arm was a local girl. The two of them had married the week before.
Their usher stopped and tried to shoehorn the couple into an already packed pew, while just behind them was a pew with only one black-haired female in it. The newlyweds appeared to be arguing. Tall Blond Crew Cut pointed to the nearly empty pew. Short Blond Knockout kept pushing into the already crowded one. A grim determined look took residence on Tall Blond Crew Cut’s face, and he grabbed his bride by the biceps and lifted her into the pew with the black haired girl.
A hush filled the church as if someone had just busted open a piñata, and instead of candy, profound silence spilled out. For a very long second, a dropped pin would have created an eardrum busting cacophony.
Our usher stopped abruptly, and hissed, “Move in!” at the occupiers of the pew next to us. They scrunched together, and we entered. I wondered what was going on. I gave my wife the “what’s happening?” frown. She has always picked up on social things that blow right by me.
“The black-haired girl is Colored,” she said.
I often think about that black-haired girl. Probably nineteen or twenty. A college kid from up north I figured. Bright looking young lady. Hair nicely done. Nicely attired in a light blue dress with a floral print and a darker blue sweater over it. She kept her eyes straight ahead and wore a calm composure that amazed me, surrounded as she was by palpable hostility and hate.
Up by the altar, the sacristy light, a candle inside a red-glass shield, was lit, indicating consecrated hosts were in the tabernacle on the altar, or as some put it, Jesus was home. I wondered if He was home, if the hate inside the church had unconsecrated the hosts, and if He had shaken the dust from our place from His sandals and moved on. Then I remembered the “Where two or three are gathered …” We had Black-haired Girl, Blond Crew Cut, and my wife. We had the requisite minimum, and of course, the Good Book says He was no stranger to places filled with homicidal hate. He was there that Sunday all right.
Ever since that Sunday, I’ve admired the Corps, and I think about Tall Blond Crew Cut often.
For a time, back in 1968, I used to ask myself, “Self, if you’d recognized that black haired girl as black skinned, would you have had the guts to lead your bride to that pew to sit there too?”
I knew I would not have had to lift my spouse into the pew. She is like Deacon Larry. She would have done the right thing without any help from me. Me, however, at first I gave myself a “Well, maybe.” But I continued to ask the question, and before long, I concluded I’d have chickened out.
Decades before I met Deacon Larry, I failed to provide the right answer to his question: Have you done enough? That is stuck on my soul. I find no absolution in not knowing what was going on. Knowing I would not have measured up is the sin.
Other violence occurred in Meridian that year. A new synagogue was dynamited a couple of days before the first services were to be held. An attempted dynamiting of a Jewish businessman’s house—he had posted a reward to identify the synagogue bombers—culminated in a machinegun shoot out with the police. I figured the Feds had been tipped off.
We were in Meridian when Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis 230 miles away. I thought for sure Negroes would protest, riot, rampage in the streets. But there wasn’t a peep. The chief of police was quoted as saying he’d issued shoot-to-kill orders to his officers if there was any sign of unrest. The fact that there was no protest in Meridian following the assassination, I think, speaks pretty eloquently to the effectiveness of the repression.
After some of those crimes, such as when the earthen dam burial place near Philadelphia, Mississippi, of the three civil rights workers slain in 1964 was discovered, such as the thwarted bombing, a modicum of justice for Negroes and Jewish people followed behind federal law enforcement authorities intervening. But of course when you have to put modicum in front of justice, it ain’t justice. Criminals, some of whom wore a sheriff or a police uniform in their day jobs, got a slap on the wrist in my opinion. And the wrist slap, again my opinion, was to throw it as a sop to the Feds.
Those months my family and I spent in Meridian etched my soul with sympathy for Black people’s plight. And guilt. I’d watched news broadcasts of civil rights activities; and I’d seen the violence visited on marchers and sitters-in; and I thought, thank God, it’s not my family, thank God we only had to live in Meridian for six months, thank God I am in the military and therefore exempted and absolved (in my mind anyway) from the necessity of considering whether to join the protest.
One thing that did not happen in Meridian, the local police were not delegitimized by the events that unfolded there. Not in 1968.
Aside: I visited Meridian in 2010 researching a story I was working on. I set the piece in Meridian in 1968, and I wanted to read the Meridian Star in the Meridian library before finishing the final edit. After a morning of looking at six months of newspapers on microfilm, I was approaching brain coma. After stumbling out to and climbing into the trusty pickup, I was trying to remember how to fasten a seatbelt when two young Black boys sashayed down the sidewalk in front of me. They were a couple of years older than my rock throwers. Twelve or thirteen maybe. They had jeans slung low with the obligatory underwear showing. IPod earphones plugged in and they were moving to the tunes. Right there on a sidewalk in Meridian, Mississippi. In broad daylight. After a morning of reading about 1968, the scene was magnificent. Never in my wildest imaginings did I expect the sight of low slung pants and underwear to give my heart such a kick of joy. Maybe to appreciate the impact of that sight, you have to be a Curmudgeonly Old Fogey who doesn’t read newspapers or watch much news because you already know the world is going to hell in a hand basket, and you believe that the tee shirt sporting “People Suck, Animal’s are Neat” is right on. At any rate, Low-pants Boys transported, uplifted me, without the benefit of having a DeLorean with a flux capacitor, across decades. Inside the library I’d been back in 1968. I saw those boys, and in a heartbeat, it was 2010. And it was better. It was Magnificent!
I’m stopping here for no other reason than I want one of the parts to end on an upbeat note.
Low slung pants. Underwear showing. Upbeat. A COF, by virtue of planetary tenure and self-proclaimed wisdom, knows to take hopefulness from whatever source may chance to proffer it.