Posted by: johnhourihan | July 23, 2013

Racism from Robinson to Martin

The feelings that accompanied the killing of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his killer, whether the verdict was right or wrong, shout loudly that we, as a country, need to take another step toward the equality of all men and women.
When it comes to racism, our country has come so very far from the 1940’s, from the 1950’s and 60‘s.
We have had black Senators, Representatives, Supreme Court justices, and we now have a black president.
We have come a long way to be sure, but there is something preventing us from taking that last few steps to true equality.
I believe I know what it is.
I would like to re-post something I first published many years ago, in the hopes that some young parents might read it and understand what I have come to understand about this scar on the morals of our nation.

Bigotry, the opium of the ignorant, isn’t inborn.
That is why, when I see racist kids I remember that it begins at home, when we’re young. That’s when the impressions that last are first etched into our cognitive map for the future.
It takes a real effort by parents to prevent it. You have to put it on the line — have a little guts.
When I was 10 years old, my brother’s asthma forced our family of nine to immigrate to Arizona from Massachusetts. Because of Scrapper Jack’s bedlaster’s salary, we could only afford to take the bus.
I saw the United States of the 1950s as you could only see it, from a Greyhound, and learned that there was more difference between rich and poor than there was between black and white.
The first day of the journey was an unending city going backwards through my window. I nodded in and out, only waking completely at the roadside diners where the bus driver got a kickback for stopping.
We’d invariably get toast in the morning, or a drink for lunch, then climb back into our assigned seats to feast on the jars of baby food my mother had packed in a suitcase – bananas, applesauce or chocolate pudding.
In those days it was the only thing not in a can that would last the four days and three nights to the Wild West. Vacuum-packed was what you did with the Hoover when you were moving.
We were heading for Phoenix, and I fully expected to see Indians.
Drugged by the numbing rumble of Eisenhower’s highways, I reached some altered state of irresponsible existence. There was no school, which was a good thing, but there was no baseball, which wasn’t so good.
Somewhere in the murky middle, sleep deprived and stinking like a 10-year-old Irish urchin who hadn’t seen a bath in more than a few summer days, we stopped to change bus lines.
Seven satellites buzzed around my parents out onto the street, down the sidewalk, four blocks to the Trailway terminal. All the while the woman who had been in the seat in front of me pretending to be rich, complained about having to be on the street with “those people.” I could only assume she didn’t like us.
It was an oppressive afternoon, and the sidewalk rippled in the heat haze as my mother held the door and counted out loud as we went by her into the drowsed crowd of passengers waiting on rows of wooden benches, reading newspapers, sleeping mouth-opened, or fanning themselves with hats.
I headed for the water fountain with my father close behind. Scrapper Jack was a boxer, a shoe worker and an Irishman; not in that order.
Our common ground was baseball. We loved the Sox, now that the Braves had left town. But of course we loved The Mick too and Jackie Robinson.
There was a line at the water fountain, and a group of three or four people at the end was grousing about the fat guy who seemed to be trying to drink all the water that was left in the pipes. Someone called him a camel, and Scrapper Jack laughed.
I stepped out of line and peered along the queue of sweaty shirts and hiked up skirts.
Then I learned something I hadn’t known before.
There was a second fountain.
A perfectly empty fountain, sitting alone, exactly like the one we were headed to, except it didn’t have a line.
I couldn’t believe these people were all so locked in place that they couldn’t see it.
I shot a glance back at my father. He had seen it too. He looked at it and looked at me. He seemed sad.
“How come?” I asked him.
“Read the sign,” he said.
Over the line I was in, tacked on the wall was a sign that said “WHITE”.
Over the other it said “COLORED”.
It made no sense to me.
The only “colored” man I had ever met was Buster, who brought the take-home hats to my mother in the white panel truck. My mother would always make sure there was soda for Buster on the hot days, which I liked because he always shared it with me.
I looked back again at Scrapper Jack. He was assessing the other people in the line now, anticipating my question.
“Can I drink out of that one?” I asked. A few people who had huddled into line behind us laughed.
He wasn’t moving, but he had put his hand on the back of my neck like he always did when we walked down the street.
“Well,” he said, “Jackie Robinson, if he was here, would drink out of that one.”
He watched me and the crowd of people.
The fat camel guy walked by wiping his mouth.
He stopped for a quick look at me when Scrapper Jack said, “Just keep moving,” and he did.
I knew what he meant. He always told me to play like Robinson. He called him “fearless.” So he said this thing about Robinson and then he squatted down to eye-level as if he had made a decision.
“And he wouldn’t be allowed to drink out of this one.”
I thought back to sharing a Miscoe orange soda with Buster on the bumper of his hat shop truck.
“What’s the difference?” I asked.
He stepped out of line and looking more at the people who were all facing us now for some strange reason, and he said, “It’s your call.”
We always spoke baseball in those days. I guess when you don’t have a lot going for you, you’re drawn to the fairness of the game.
“I guess I’m not thirsty,” I said because I could tell drinking in one line was going to cause some serious problems, and I sure wasn’t going to drink somewhere that Jackie Robinson and Buster weren’t allowed.
And because I realized even then that I had more in common with them than with the people in that line at the WHITE water fountain.
It was years later, maybe high school, when I realized what a tense situation that had been, and that Scrapper Jack was ready to take on anyone in that crowded Southern bus terminal rather than let his kid grow up a racist.
It takes that kind of effort to be a father.
You have to be willing to put it on the line, so when I see a racist kid I blame the parents for having no guts.



  1. It is something? that racism is taught to more children by inaction then by actions. Just too much inaction.

  2. I agree with Neil. People can and do change. Real people like the folks
    we live with, work with, have coffee with, ride the bus etc. Our Mother
    was pretty outspoken as well about any kind of discrimination. Sometimes,
    as little as, “Gee, I didn’t know we still did that-or said that-or I thought all
    that had changed.” Action/modeling-not hard to do really.

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