SPRINGFIELD – When you are a young man, 20 years seems a long time.
But as we age it seems just the blink of an eye.
I was thinking about that last week when I watched the “Green Book,” a movie about a gifted black pianist, Don Shirley, touring the segregated South in the early 1960s with his white driver.
The Green Book was a manual carried by African Americans listing restaurants, motels and other accommodations that would serve black people.
The obstacles he faced are hard to imagine.
Having been born in 1965 in Illinois, I don’t have any personal memory of legal segregation. I know it existed in my hometown of Galesburg. The beaches at Lake Storey and seats at the Orpheum Theater were segregated.
I just don’t remember it.
But my first newspaper job was in the South, working for the Galveston Daily News.
At the time, being all of 23 years old, I was perplexed by the hostility many African Americans held toward the newspaper.
I asked an older reporter about it and he explained the newspaper had advocated for segregation and at one time wouldn’t even run black and white obituaries on the same page.
When I asked when the newspaper stopped this abhorrent practice he told me, “Oh, maybe, 20 years ago.”
My reaction: “Well, why are they still angry? That was a really long time ago.”
Yeah, I know, pretty arrogant, pretty ignorant. I now know two decades is not that long ago at all. But it sure seemed like it when I was young.
The stain of segregation and racial discrimination is a lasting one in our society.
Overt, legal segregation of public accommodations may be gone. But racism isn’t.
Many folks hate the term “white privilege.”
But it is time that we all own up to its existence.
Just last month, I pulled into a Springfield gas station that had a sign up on its pumps that said “Please Pay First.” I waved at the attendant, who I didn’t know, and he turned the pump on for me. When I went in to pay after filling up, I asked, “How do you know who to turn the pump on for?”
The attendant gave me a smirk and said, “You can look at people and just tell.” I shifted my feet uncomfortably and paid for the gas. I know a black person who always has to prepay at that station.
It’s not as overt as a “White’s Only” sign. But it is just as racist.
My mother grew up in an all-white area of rural Illinois. She never thought much about segregation or racial discrimination until she witnessed it while taking nursing classes in Louisville, Ky. in the early 1950s.
“I would be out walking and black men would step off the sidewalk and onto the street when they met me,” she said. Even decades later, her shame was evident and her eyes downcast as she related the story to me at the kitchen table. She still felt sullied by the experience.
White privilege wasn’t something she sought or wanted. It didn’t mean she didn’t have to work hard for the things she achieved. She had her own struggles. Childhood poverty and an alcoholic father were among them.
But the color of her skin was never one of those challenges.
SCOTT REEDER is a veteran statehouse journalist and a freelance reporter. ScottReeder1965@gmail.com