I grew up in a very small logging and lumber town in the Pacfic Northwest. It probably didn’t have more than 5,000, maybe 3,000 people when I lived there.
We’re talking about when I was two through 11. So that’s 1959 through 1968.
Think of the Watts riots in Los Angeles of 1965, the civil rights movement, Kennedy being shot, Lynden Johnson and the Civil Rights Act, and Martin Luther King.
Even as a young boy, I saw these things unfold on our television.
Our little town was white as white could be. I had no comprehension of what was going on.
This was before Walmart and other big box stores and other small box chains.
A chain store in my world at that time was the Coast-to-Coast Hardware store downtown or the Sears catalog store front on Main Street.
We could get everything we needed in our little town, usually from a place where my parents knew the owner.
When we made the 30 minute drive on a tree lined highway to the big town of Olympia, even then I don’t recall meeting anybody that didn’t look like me.
Then one year, as summer was winding down, when I was maybe six years old; we went to Tacoma, the big town just past Olympia on the highway, to do some back to school shopping.
In a store in Tacoma my older brother and sister were looking at shoes.
I didn’t need shoes, so I wandered the aisles looking at all the shoes.
It was a big store for a six-year-from a small town. I had never seen so many shoes.
As I rounded a corner and headed down a new aisle, I looked up and saw a “black” family looking at shoes.
I had never seen a person with black skin. Confused and a little afraid of something I didn’t understand, I ran back and found my father.
After calming me down, my father asked me about what I saw.
“Yes, their skin was black,” he said.
“What color were their eyes?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I replied.
“People have different colors of skins, just like they have different colors of eyes,” he said. “It makes no difference in who they are.”
My father, who wasn’t very religious may have even reminded me of the Sunday school song, “Jesus loves the little children; all the children of the world; red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight; Jesus loves the little children of the world.”
Many years later I recalled this early memory to my father. He said that that is why he took us to Tacoma to go shopping, to see people that were different from us.
Fast forward to almost 16 years after the shoe shopping incident.
I was managing a residence hall at college.
The fall term was starting and students were moving in. I made rounds of one of the wings of the dorm and talked with the students in their rooms.
As I came back to my apartment my phone was ringing. It was the director of student housing.
He asked me what I knew about the residents of a specific room number.
“Yes, I just came from that room,” I said. “Three of the girls are from Tacoma. They went to the same high school and community college. They are all majoring in business. The fourth girl is from a small town in eastern Washington.”
Back then I could recall the name of that town. I think I could even recall the names of the four girls in that room.
Then he asked, “I need to confirm something, the three girls from Tacoma, are they African-American?”
I paused, thought about it and said, “I don’t know. I can’t remember. Guess I’m not very observant.”
“I think you’re pretty observant, but nobody can say you’re prejudiced,” he said.
We may need to reexamine how we think and what we do as a society when it comes to race, equality, and justice for all.
But the way you make a permanent change in society is in the home, one child at a time.