I was 14 years old in 1958, living in a rural, very closed, small town in South Carolina. I had a driver’s license because children that age were allowed to have them at that time. Segregation and Jim Crow reigned, but in my tiny world, I didn’t know those words…I just knew that blacks and whites didn’t mix, and I didn’t understand why, and I don’t know that I ever asked. My experiences were limited, and my knowledge of life beyond this tiny town was miniscule.
One day, as I was driving and searching for a place to park in front of stores (the angle parking rather than parallel), I realized there was one spot just ahead. If I even gave a signal, it was only a moment before I turned to the right to park. The car behind me hit my rear bumper and broke my tail light.
The police chief came immediately, asked me few, if any, questions regarding my actions, and gave a ticket to the driver of the car behind me. The driver was an older black man who was respectful and subservient in speech and manner. In that instant, it was as though something that I couldn’t previously define became as clear to me as the sky that day. I knew, still not knowing the term racism, that something ugly, unjust, and unkind had just happened. I instinctively knew that paying the ticket and for the broken tail light would be a financial hardship. I knew I had participated in causing the accident, and the police chief’s response was to place the entire blame on one who was defenseless and poorer than I was because the color of his skin was black.
I am now 71 years old, and I can picture the scene clearly even today. I’d like to say I came away with a heart for justice, but I simply returned to the way things were. Perhaps the seed was planted, however, and that’s why, in 1968-69, I chose to work in the last remaining black high school in DeKalb County, Georgia, thinking I would “help” the black students there or make up in some small way for the blatant discrimination that continued to exist in the South. I was the one who was helped, of course, as the incredible staff and students lavished kindness, hospitality in the truest sense, and love on me. They patiently helped me grow, and their acceptance of the “other” was the most genuine living out of the gospel I’ve ever experienced.