07 January 2010


By Andy Weddington
Friday, 08 January 2010

“If you as parents cut corners, your children will too. If you lie, they will too. If you spend all your money on yourselves and tithe no portion of it for charities, colleges, churches, synagogues, and civic causes, your children won't either. And if parents snicker at racial and gender jokes, another generation will pass on the poison adults still have not had the courage to snuff out.”
                                                                                                                                                               Marian Wright Edelman (1939 - )

Today, an unusual flow to the Commentary but it’s necessary. Bear with me.

In 1965 our family moved to Burlington, NC. My dad, having served ten years in the Air Force, and mom were starting a new life with five children to rear. I was the oldest.

I started 2nd grade at Blessed Sacrament School—the small catholic school a block or two off Main Street in the city’s downtown. The school, conjoined with the church and adjacent to the Rectory—Monsignor’s home, was one classroom each of grades kindergarten through eight. There may have been 200 students. It was probably more like a 150; maybe less. We wore uniforms. Dark blue slacks, white shirts and dark blue ties for boys. The girls wore a white blouse with jumper—solid blue later turned to a blue and green plaid—knee socks and a beanie. Sneakers were only permitted for wear at recess.

Blessed Sacrament was unique and, as far as I am concerned these days, a gem in Burlington. Like the city and county public schools it was integrated but did not have to deal with the sometimes violent unrest between races that occurred in the area's public schools during the late 60s. At Blessed Sacrament skin color did not matter. Why would it in a school so small everyone knew everyone?

I remember a dynamic we laughed about year after year: Jimmy Black and Ernestine White were classmates—Jimmy was white and Ernestine was black. The surname irony was not lost on even elementary school kids. Other black students and friends I remember include: Johnny Davis—a bright student and gifted and strong-willed athlete and all-around good guy. His father, Ed, was the church’s Boy Scout troop leader for a few years; Harold Cobb—a big kid with a gregarious personality. An extrovert if ever there was one and he had a smile and laugh that lit up a room. Harold was a talker—loud and quick on his feet—and during one year’s fund-raiser he sold more cases of Reese’s peanut butter cups than anyone. His girth was evidence he also ate his share; Duane Wilson—my brother’s classmate and one of the nicest kids you’d ever meet. He was a happy-go-lucky, outgoing guy. Everyone liked Duane. Mothers loved him. His life ended too short—the eighth grade, I believe—from complications following a “routine” tonsillectomy. His death was a tragedy. His funeral brought blacks and whites together in a small rural church for a moving service unlike anything you have ever seen or heard. And there are others who would come to mind were I to reflect longer. Oh, and—Mrs. Byrd—she was the only black teacher along with one or two other laymen and a handful of nuns. She was a great teacher.

After finishing the eighth grade at Blessed Sacrament, and since there was no local Catholic high school, it was time to move into the public school system. It just so happened that was the year federal courts ordered Burlington City Schools to end the operation of a racially segregated school that was in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. One consequence for compliance was the founding of Sellars-Gunn—a new junior high for the city’s ninth graders. And there was bussing.

Sellars-Gunn was led by a black principal. There were black teachers and staff and integration of the student body in every facet of academic and extra-curricular activities. It was one hell of an experiment and not without bumps considering the times. I remember some racial tension at school in those days (my first experience) but the tension was not necessarily caused by students. It seemed those stirring the pot were dropouts and hooligans with nothing better to do than loiter school grounds and instigate trouble.

When the school year ended we split to attend one of two city high schools. So, for the next three years we competed against friends and former teammates. It made for an odd but friendly rivalry. As it turned out, Sellars-Gunn operated as the city’s junior high school for eleven years before ninth graders were finally, and wisely, reabsorbed by the two high schools. I never understood the theory behind all ninth graders together for one year and what the big deal was about integration. Looking back almost 40 years—I still don’t.

Twenty-five years later, after completing high school, college, and a couple of tours of duty in the Marine Corps, I’d find there were still people not only not ready for integration but unwilling to accept it. The world was passing them by and they knew it.

In 1962 James Meredith broke the color barrier at Ole Miss—the University of Mississippi—the school, that until the mid-80s, proudly waived the “Stars and Bars”—the flag of the Confederacy—at sporting events; namely football games. The Chancellor struggled to furl that offensive flag on campus—eventually he succeeded. But it was a battle. Some folks just would not let it go.

The Confederate flag aside, it did not go unnoticed that white Mississippians barely acknowledged Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. On the other hand, the birthday of Jefferson Davis was a celebration. If I remember correctly, a public school holiday. I may be wrong on that point but I don’t think so. Funny, in the end, Davis was a “loser.” I guess that explains his die-hard followers. Weird? You bet—and I was reared in the South.

In late May of 1986, twenty-four years after Meredith crashed through the wall, I and my new bride rolled into Northern Mississippi to set up our first household in the town of Oxford. A captain in the Marine Corps I was assigned to join the university faculty as an Assistant Professor of Naval Science. Specifically, I assumed duties as the Marine Officer Instructor on the staff of the Naval ROTC program and, as part of the active duty cadre, was responsible for shaping young men and women—black, white, and otherwise—into Navy ensigns and Marine second lieutenants.

Interestingly enough and to my complete ignorance at the time, this same month—May 1986—a baby boy was born to a drug addicted, neglectful mother in Memphis, TN—a Volunteer State city 90 miles due north of Oxford. I will return to this matter later.

Back in the 80s, there were signs—some blatant and some subtle—of racism in Mississippi (there was in other parts of the country as well but I was living it in Oxford). Some instances were just sad—with there being little hope for the ignorant. Other cases were startling, damn disappointing, and stirred my anger--something that is rather difficult to do.

One example, to this day, remains vivid for me and still turns my stomach. A barbershop in Oxford would not cut the hair of blacks—and that included blacks who had been selected to attend Ole Miss on a Naval ROTC scholarship. If you can believe it, young men volunteering to enter an officer training program to serve their country could not get their hair cut in a barber shop—in America—in 1986. There was no “Whites Only” sign on the door but there may as well have been. Their stupid guise was they did not know how to cut the hair of blacks. Never mind that they could have learned or taken on a barber that knew how and made some money. “Green” was not the issue; black was. Incredible.

Of course, thanks to James Meredith, blacks attended Ole Miss; and just about every other college in the country. And they were a presence on the sports teams. I best remember Ole Miss Basketball. The heart and soul of the team for the 86/87 and 87/88 seasons was two gifted black athletes. Charles Prater who I distinctly remember as being one the smoothest most deceiving players I ever saw play. He was not especially tall or big but he played with a quiet finesse and always found a way to the basket to score. On senior night he was introduced before the game and, as I recall, escorted to center court by white parents. That caught my attention and wonderment—quite a sight in the heart of Dixie.

The other was the team’s leader—the point guard—Rod Barnes. Rod Barnes was about the most ‘unathletic’ looking athlete I ever saw play sports—much less Division I men’s basketball. He was not much over 6 feet. He was broad-shouldered and barrel-chested and not in a muscular way. He was high-waisted with long, skinny legs and walked as if one may have been a half inch shorter than the other. Some of the fans called him “Cambodia.” I don’t think anyone ever called him that to his face. But, Rod Barnes was a leader. He was smart and a damn fine basketball player. The biggest mistake an opponent made was underestimating his talents based on appearance. Those that did paid for their mistake. Twenty years later Rod Barnes returned to take over as Head Coach of the team he once led on the court. Wow!—is right.

In the 88/89 season another black talent—a junior college transfer—joined the Ole Miss squad. Not too often do you have a ringside seat to watch a 6’6” 225 lb. man effortlessly glide around the court the way Gerald Glass did. And his repertoire of dunks—well, they were spectacular! On a break-away the opponents stood clear and watched in awe—as did the fans. Gerald Glass was a man playing against boys. After two noteworthy seasons at Ole Miss he went on to play in the NBA for six seasons.

Anyway, I found it interesting then and still do, that, some twenty-five years earlier, federal law enforcement was necessary to ensure compliance with the law to allow blacks to attend Ole Miss, and here was the day blacks were a dominant force on the school’s athletic teams. What a goofy quandary.

Nor was it lost on me that 18 year-old freshmen co-eds were driving BMWs, Mercedes, or other such high-end coupes and not a mile from campus were blacks (whites, too) living in poverty. Not that the dynamic was unique to Oxford but it was an irony impossible to ignore in the small city of Oxford. It was a stark contrast of the “haves” and the “have nots.”

Now back to the baby, Michael, I mentioned earlier. Born in Memphis the same month I arrived in Oxford, he had passed his third birthday when I finished my three-year assignment in August 1989. I was still oblivious to Michael’s existence and the hellish life he was living. But then again I had no reason to know of him.

More than twenty years would pass before I would learn of Michael, his phenomenal story, and ties back to Mississippi and Ole Miss. A story that would take me back to my days living in Oxford, teaching at Ole Miss and witnessing—firsthand—the sometimes not-so-subtle divide between black and white.

I am talking about the story of a former white Ole Miss basketball star and his former Ole Miss cheerleader wife—Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy—who voluntarily took on the role of “parents” and welcomed a young teenager, literally penniless and homeless, into their home. That would be Michael Oher (pronounced: Oar).

Michael Oher, a big and graceful kid for his age, was blessed with the genes for mammoth size, nearly super-human strength, quickness, and speed (a monster among mere men)—assets than cannot be coached—to do one thing in life; play professional football. And not just play professional football but the one position that has become among the most, if not the most, well-compensated on the field; left tackle. That job—protect the quarterback’s blind side. Period.

A couple of months ago the movie The Blind Side was released. Hollywood’s version of Michael Lewis’s remarkable tale of Michael Oher—an impoverished black kid from the mean streets of Memphis who hated being called “Big Mike,” and a couple of white, self-made millionaire Ole Miss graduates who were blind to color but not to need. How damn ironic.

It was not easy. The Tuohy family sacrificed. And Oher, defying all logic and odds, worked—at academics and sports—with determination and commitment to a degree he’d never known or ever been held accountable for. He had to overcome years and years of indifference and neglect. But he did it. His academics improved and he excelled on the football field—in high school and at Ole Miss. Today, Oher—a 6’5” well over 300 lb. mountain of a man—is a rookie tackle for the Baltimore Ravens and making millions. Again, how damn ironic.

I do not know and have never had the pleasure of meeting Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy or Michael Oher or any other of the real characters in the tale. Maybe one day I will. I would like that. But I know from my childhood home life and early days of schooling this story is the way the world is supposed to work—at least in America.

I am proud to have taught at Ole Miss and to have a connection—albeit a circuitous and threadbare one—to a real-life drama, that more than 20 years ago, I would not have imagined possible from a place I once lived and taught. The story serving as proof positive that, though it’s not a course of action, there is, after all, hope. Hope that right and good will prevail.

Even more than my tenure at Ole Miss I am grateful for and proud of parents who raised me on a foundation of color blindness. And those times as a youth when societal “wrongs” were unavoidably present before my impressionable eyes and ears they acted quickly to teach and stress it was wrong. Tolerance never entered the teaching—it had nothing to do with it. It was and is what life in America is all about. It was no more complicated than that. Yet today I wonder if, under the same circumstances, I'd have had the chutzpah and compassion to do what Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy did. I like to think so. I know my parents would be disappointed otherwise.

For the record, we turned out some damn fine naval officers—black and white—at Ole Miss who today wear the eagles of Navy captains and Marine colonels—and the oak leafs of commanders, lieutenant colonels, lieutenant commanders and majors, too. They are defending America during some testy, dangerous times and allowing our citizenry—including barbers—to go about life and business essentially carefree.

I do not know if the barbershop in Oxford ever changed its way. God, I hope so. I'd enjoy nothing more than to see one of those black students from yesteryear, now a senior officer, return to Oxford, walk in that barbershop, take a seat in the chair, and say, "trim it up." That is what the United States of America I wore a uniform to protect and defend is all about.

Post Script
Even if you have seen the movie, pick up Michael Lewis's book. Once in hand you will not be able to put it down.


Lynn said...

This is an excellent post, Andy! You are such an amazing writer. Artist and writer after the Marine Corps...decorated Weddington!

I read the book before I saw the movie, and I, too, could not put it down. The movie did a good job as well, but I learned so much more than I expected to about football in the book.

Stephanie said...

Once again, another exceptional read and very profound Commentary, Andy.

Your recollections of earlier school day's and classmates-- through to your personal experiences of living and teaching in Oxford--amazing!
AND some truly astonishing facts and events that took place...really, not so long ago!

I saw--and very much enjoyed--the movie version of "The Blind Side" and will be adding the book to my growing library.

Thanks again, for sharing ONE of your many passions and talents...your gift of writing.