One night in 1973, the national board of the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks decided it would be okay if some of the Elks were black. I was told to localize the story.
The first lodge I contacted hung up on me. The second one, down in the First Ward, was the Improved Benevolent Protective Order of the Elks. I asked a man who answered if anyone would talk about the decision to integrate the social group.
“Sure,” he said. “Let me see if I can get one of the white guys to talk to you. We have been integrated for a long time.” It turned out that the word “improved” had been added when black Elks and women Elks, unified by exclusion, had started their own lodge.
Years later, when I was the editor of another newspaper with a more Southern cast, a lady on our reader advisory board stayed until after others had left to thank me for including young black men and women among engagement and wedding announcements.
I confessed that I hadn’t had any idea that I wasn’t supposed to do that in the first place – which changed her opinion of both my intelligence and courage in a single shot.
I happened to be in New Jersey when the legislature approved civil unions for same-sex couples. Almost immediately, someone wanted to know if they could announce their civil union in the newspaper. Seemed okay to me.
Newspapers have had a role in ratifying the nation’s long march toward inclusion and not always as unconsciously as the few times it has happened around me.
Hodding Carter II, a Louisiana-born true Southerner and the publisher of the Greenville, Mississippi Delta Democrat-Times, shocked his readers by printing a photograph of Olympic athlete Jesse Owens on the front page and by deciding that the head of the black Red Cross deserved a courtesy title – “Mrs. St. Hille” rather than “the St. Hille woman.”
Carter won the Pulitzer Prize in 1946 for 12 editorials he wrote stressing the need for racial tolerance and respect in the wake of a war against fascism.
Then, following the Supreme Court decision favoring school integration in 1954, white citizens councils sprang up across the South, raising funds for country day private schools and religious schools with selective admission policies.
Carter wrote two articles for Look magazine, condemning a newly founded Citizens Council as an “uptown Ku Klux Klan.” In 1955, Carter was censured 89-19 by the Mississippi House of Representatives for what he had written.
Carter’s son, Hodding Carter III, who served in President Jimmy Carter’s administration, wrote years later about what that was like for his father.
“This is when the need for courage beyond the physical came in. Dad was a Southerner through and through. He wanted to be loved by his fellow white Southerners. The condemnation, the boycotts, the incessant nighttime threatening phone calls were all hard to take.
“Harder, however, was the sense of isolation from the conforming majority. He spoke ever more vigorously, and he suffered ever more intensely from the hate and scorn of his clansmen. It took a fearsome toll.”
Thankfully, much of that is behind us and we can have our discussions and reach our consensus without what Hodding Carter called “dishonest and contemptible tactics.”
These days, an accidental arrangement of body parts is no reason to deny anyone the vote, pay them less, fire them first or bar them from employment in the first place. Regardless of skin tone, a person can buy a sandwich by entering through the front door, use any available water fountain, take any seat on a bus and even run the country.
Among the many great qualities of the American character is the recognition that there is only so much a body can do when a kink in the double helix lands a person on the trailing side of evolving traditional cultural norms.
What matters today is not so much how you were born or even how you appear, but rather how we behave toward each other.
On this journey together, we don’t all arrive at the same place at the same time. Along the way, nice never hurts.