I grew up in Denver, not in the racially divided south. I remember all the race riots in the late ’60s but racism wasn’t really a part of my world. My first real job was at a radio station in downtown Denver. The station played what was known then as “soul music.” Today, it would probably be “hip hop,” although I know little about music genres. I reported the news. Along with a guy called “Funky Frank,” we were the only two white guys who worked at the station, and I never gave it any thought. The only roommate I had in college was black.
When it was time to go to seminary, Sharon and I moved to Louisville, Kentucky, and I experienced my initial encounters with segregation. One experience that stands out clearly was when a friend went to interview with a church in Georgia about being their pastor. He told me that the only question he was asked was what he would do if a black man wanted to join the church. This was about the time that Jimmy Carter’s church in Georgia was in the news because black people wanted to join.
I was flabbergasted that my friend wasn’t upset about the question. He was from Georgia, so he wasn’t surprised. I told him that it would have been the only question they would ever ask me because I would immediately leave. I’ve always been kind of hot-tempered that way.
They did invite him to be the pastor, and later when we visited, I came across something else new to me. All the white people in town sent their kids to private schools, so they didn’t have to attend a segregated school. Although his only child at the time was young, the church promised to provide the funds for private school when he became school age.
This would have been in the mid-’70s. In my own naive world, I thought racism was a thing of the past. It wasn’t, and it still isn’t.
Now, here we are in 2019 holding people from the south accountable for things they did back in those days. It certainly doesn’t surprise me that people were doing racist things at that time, it was their way of life. I doubt if you must look very hard to find a politician in Virginia, or Georgia, or Alabama, or a myriad of other places in the south who grew up believing they were better than blacks.
To be honest, I’m a bit conflicted about whether dragging up the embarrassing past is a good thing. All of us have done things in the past that were stupid, and we don’t want them to be used against us now that we have more sense. If you didn’t do something stupid when you were young, then you were probably boring and had few friends.
On the other hand, if what you did was something that continues to cause hurt and embarrassment then you probably need to do something about it. For example, if you made an unwanted pass toward a girl when you were in college, it might be a good idea to apologize and seek her forgiveness before you are forced into contrition by outside forces. In other words, don’t wait until you’re caught before making something right.
A politician today has known for years that dressing up in blackface is wrong and hurtful to many. The apology should have been made years ago. Since it wasn’t, now they must face the music. Admittedly, some who turned out to be good people when they finally matured are going to be dragged down by all of this. However, if they really are good people, perhaps a confession prior to getting caught would have been helpful.
James 1:16 provides some helpful guidance about the value of being honest within a community: “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”