My Uncle Norman once told me a story. Uncle Norman was born in 1909, and the story involves events from his adolescence, probably the early 1920s. The details may be a little imprecise, but the effect of this story on my Uncle Norman - like the effect he delivered to me - was chilling. I reflect on this story today, and it makes me wonder how much has really changed in the past 90-odd years. Some things certainly have, but some have not.
White like me, Uncle Norman spent his childhood in small Alabama towns and rural areas. One day an unknown black man rode into town on a wagon. The sheriff stopped the man, and a conversation ensued. When the sheriff demanded that the black man put his hands in the air, the man reached into his vest or coat. That's when the sheriff emptied his revolver into this black man's body.
As a very young man my Uncle Norman witnessed this street murder. The sheriff had Uncle Norman help him take the body, I'm not sure where. Examining the bullet wounds to the man's torso, the sheriff said the equivalent of, "Nice shootin', huh?"
The inspection revealed something else. This black man was unarmed.
"Nice shootin.'" The sheriff had no fear of prosecution or consequences. A white law enforcement officer shot and killed an unarmed black man with only the slightest provocation, and he had nothing to fear. And how much has changed?
I know folks could supply answers to how much has changed, and I understand. No longer are all law enforcement officers white. Sometimes they are held accountable for their actions. Race dynamics have indeed changed in our society. But the basic pattern: an unarmed but anonymous black man (or boy), a confrontation with law enforcement, something goes wrong, and the law enforcement officer empties his weapon. So familiar.
I wish I'd known the right questions to ask my Uncle Norman. I was younger and more innocent when he shared this with me. I didn't know then how to read between the lines of a story like his. When it comes to racial history in the South, knowing the right questions takes some learning. Especially for those of us who are white.
For example, why was the sheriff suspicious? I have a hunch. It was a small town, and white people expected to know all the black people they saw. Know their business too. An unknown black man, presumably prosperous enough to own livestock and a wagon: what's he doing here?
I wish I'd asked Uncle Norman his best guess as to the sheriff's motives. When I was younger I just assumed it had all been a tragic mistake. No doubt, the sheriff held no regard for the black man's life. He probably harbored hate. It never crossed my mind that maybe the sheriff wanted an opportunity to kill this man, as I wonder now.
Maybe Uncle Norman answered these questions, but I was too young and too naïve to recognize the answers or to remember them.
Uncle Norman and his wife Aunt Modine had a profound influence on my life and character. With respect to race, I saw wonderful things in them as well as things that leave me ashamed. I know they tried to live with integrity. And I know Uncle Norman wanted to teach me something by sharing his story. I also wonder if, seventy years on, he still needed to unburden himself.
And how much have things changed? This morning a friend shared her story via social media. Today her stepson, a young man of African American and Puerto Rican descent, was driving into a small Pennsylvania town to have his car serviced. The car broke down and he pulled to the side of the road. While he was waiting for a tow truck, a police officer stopped by and demanded to know what he was doing parked where he was. At no point did the officer offer this young man any assistance.
Had it been I, a professional class white man, how do you think the conversation would have gone? And my God: what if this young man had moved too quickly or said the wrong thing?