My local newspaper, the Knoxville News-Sentinel is running a year-long series, “1968 – The Year that Transformed a Nation.” As I read the first installment today, I couldn't help but reflect on my 1968. I turned 16 in January, 1968. I was going to high school in an all-white, racially segregated school in a small-town in the Mississippi Delta. We had moved to the near-by town in hopes of a better and more stable school system during the uncertainty of desegregation. My home county had been one of the epicenters of the civil-rights movement in the south. We were the home-town of Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer. I didn't know much about her at the time, but my parents did. They did their best to shelter me from what was happening all around us, but even with our limited access to national news, I knew enough. I began that year as a more-or-less obedient child of my conventional parents.
I grew up on a Delta cotton farm. We weren't quite big enough to be called a plantation. My family's farm (the Place, in local parlance), was established in the 1920's, long after the era of slavery. However, the farm system in the 1960's still held black people, coloreds as we said then, in virtual bondage. I was not brought up to look down on people, but rather to extend them Christian charity. The families who lived on our Place were treated with respect and we maintained an attitude of “noblese oblige” in their regard. However, they were not considered to be socially or intellectually as our equal.
The events of 1968 made me call into question long-held assumptions: the government knows more that we do and they must be acting in our national interest; the state knows best in regard to social norms such as integration; the Church is acting in the spirit of Jesus.
At the beginning of 1968, the body count in Vietnam was on the nightly news. How could we anything but victorious when the reports were thousands of Viet Cong killed and only hundreds of American boys? The war protestors were surely unpatriotic and even furthuring the cause of the enemy. I accepted it all without reflection. My father was cynical about the war, but he was certainly no pacifist. I don't remember my mother expressing an opinion, even though she was a very intelligent and opinionated in other areas.
At the beginning of 1968, integration of schools was the most imminent threat to my way of life. In my area, colored (blacks, African-Americans) were in the majority. Integration of schools would lead to black and white mixing as social equals. We were instructed as to how we must behave if a few blacks actually attended our schools. We were to simply ignore them, as if they did not exist in our white world. I did that in 1968. I blush today with shame to admit it. I had no real notion of what was happening in the adult world behind the scenes, of the threats to black families, their jobs, their very lives, if they dared send their children to “our schools.” I knew there were "COFO" workers in our community - young white activists living with black families. It was a shocking thought at the time.
At the beginning of 1968, I was an active member of my local Baptist church, part of the youth group, and serious about being a “good Christian.”
By the end of 1968, I still had no clue about the war. It didn't seem right to me, but the extreme anti-war activists and the “radical” Eugene McCarthy did not resonate with me. I simple did not have enough information to process it. I didn't know anyone who was against the war, although I didn't know anyone who supported it either. In Mississippi, civil rights was our front and center issue, not the war.
By the end of 1968, so much had happened, so much that my well-meaning parents could not shield from me - murder, assassination, riots, political convention tragedy. None of it fit in with my neat Christian belief. When our church ushers stood in the door ready to block any blacks from entry, I knew that we had it wrong. All around me, events and attitudes were completely counter to the Christian values that I had been taught. I knew that I could not longer accept the dichotomy between belief and action. I knew that I would never be the same.
Yet still, I wanted to be a cheerleader and go out with my boyfriend and have sleep-overs with my girlfriends. I really didn't want my life to change in the ways that it must. I wanted to believe that my parents were on the side of right and that my church was not corrupt. At the end of 1968, I still had a little time, but not much, to be a child. My view of the world had changed.
Written on January 21, 2018