My first powerful experience of the harsh differences between black and white people occurred in 1958 when I was seven years old. My father needed a pouch of Half & Half tobacco for his pipe, and I asked to go to the store with him, because I was sure I could talk him into buying me a Three Musketeers bar—my favorite treat. Five cents could buy a candy bar large enough for two to share, although I didn’t intend to share it with anyone.
We made the quick run to the small drive-in market, a precursor to the eponymous 7-Eleven stores of the future, several blocks from our house. As it was after dinner and getting dark outside, Dad said I should wait in the car while he made his purchase, and I reminded him for the umpteenth time to remember my candy.
A minute or so after he went in I noticed some commotion at the end of the parking lot. I saw a police car and two police officers engaged in some activity. In those days, the all-male Memphis cops rode two to a car. I also heard the most ghastly screaming imaginable, and it began to scare me.
Dad came out of the store and looked toward the scene that was unfolding. He hurried to our car, threw the small bag with the tobacco and Three Musketeers bar in the back seat, and said, “Stay here.” That scared me even more. He ran to the police car and began talking to the police officers who, I could now see, were beating a man lying on the ground. As they began to argue with Dad, I saw him bend over and help the beaten man up to his feet. Dad then started yelling as loud as the cops were. That was shocking, because my father was usually a quiet, soft-spoken man, so this was out of character for him. There was so much shouting that I couldn’t tell what they were saying, but I could sense that the situation was perilous, and I was afraid Dad would get hurt. After several moments, Dad walked the beaten man to our car.
“Hop in the back seat and be quiet,” Dad said to me.
I did as he told me, but I was petrified. My stomach was in knots, and I thought I might vomit, but I sat immobile and afraid to make a sound as Dad opened the passenger door and helped the man get in our car. He was a black man, older than my father I thought, and he had tears running down his cheeks and trickling over a large welt under his eye. He had small pieces of gravel and other bits of detritus in his hair; his clothes were disheveled and dirty, and he was missing a shoe. I thought it strange that he wore no socks. Dad walked around to the driver’s side and got in our car.
“Where do you live?” Dad asked him.
“Onge Moun,” the man said.
Dad smiled at him and said, “Direct me to your house when we get close.”
We drove toward the western part of the city to Orange Mound. Even though we only drove about ten minutes, it was the longest, quietest, most chilling ride of my young life. We arrived at a neighborhood of small houses, almost cottages really; most of them were tidy and neat, and a few were a bit run down and unkempt. The man pointed toward each turn and then to his house. It was one of the neater ones. Dad stopped, and the man, who by now had stopped crying, thanked my father.
“Thank ya, thank ya sir. Thank ya.”
Dad reached across the car, shook the man’s hand, and said, “I was glad to do it. Good night.” Dad smiled at the man again.
As the man walked to his front door, I watched him, bent slightly, taking small steps, wearing his one shoe, and carefully treading on his other bare foot. He turned and waved to us, and I saw his only smile of that night.
On the ride back home Dad’s face was pale, his lips pursed, and his eyes were narrow slits—a sure sign that he was angry, too angry to speak, but I knew that when he calmed down he would explain what just happened. We continued driving and he said nothing the whole time, and I was still afraid to say anything. The silence was so loud it hurt. When we pulled into our driveway, Dad stopped the car and spoke, and I received my first, up close and personal lesson in race relations in the South.
Taking a deep breath and slowly letting it out, Dad said, “Look, son, the police were beating that colored man (people of color weren’t yet called Black or African American), because he was in a white neighborhood after dark. That’s wrong. It’s horrible to treat anyone that way, and I couldn’t let those policemen beat him, so I meant to stop it. We took the man home because it wouldn’t be safe for him until he was back in his own neighborhood.”
“Why, Dad?” I asked.
“There is no reason except hate. When you grow up, if you ever see anything like this happen, you have to stop it too.”
“I will,” I vowed, but wondering if I ever could. “But how do you stop hate?”
He looked at me with sadness enveloping his face and said, “By not hating.”
Dad’s words were reassuring, even if they were puzzling. When I went to bed later, I laid there and thought about the helplessness of the beaten man and my father’s words and actions. I was proud of Dad for assisting the man, but scared. Still, I wondered. At home, our parents taught us never to say bad things about people, and in school we were always admonished to love one another, but if that was true, why did this happen? If God was watching, then surely He did not mean for this to be. It was all confusing, sad, and frightening, and my thoughts and my vivid memory of the sounds and sights of the evening kept me awake long into the night.