Washington So daunting a question is racism as America's withdrawal this week from the international conference in South Africa reminds us that seeing it through one person's wise and loving eyes is among the few ways we have of rendering it manageable. This struck me last week as I reviewed the work of one of the South's great newspaper editors of the civil rights era, Gene Patterson.
Patterson wrote daily columns for The Atlanta Constitution during the height of the last century's struggle for justice for African-Americans. The columns, collected for a book expected to be published in 2002, speak powerfully to us, confronted as we are in this century with a new chapter in the old struggle.
Patterson, as he puts it, "grew up hard" in a small Georgia town. When he spoke to his readers, he knew what they had come up out of, what they feared, what they aspired to. In 1956, the year the columns begin, those aspirations were to keep things as they were against the gathering forces of racial equality.
"The white Southerner is a man of manners," Patterson wrote in one column. "Sometimes they are very bad manners, and sometimes they are quite good, but they are manners a way of going." In much of the South during these years of upheaval, the very bad manners were evident.
Patterson took note, reporting on the integration of Atlanta's public schools, the integration of the University of Georgia and similar milestones across the South.
But somehow he kept an eye always on the potential among his readers for better. He sought to help them see the salvation for all that lay in righting the wrongs against some. And he leaves for us a jewel of a timely postscript.
It begins with an eloquent summation of our country's struggle with race, including the "stain that we have not yet cleansed" left on our history by slavery. He notes that our forefathers fought his own as Confederates in a war that freed the slaves, only to see Southern whites adopt racial segregation laws "sufficient to hold them in social and educational and economic bondage comparable to the chains of slavery."
Then came the era Patterson knew so well, when "history drew again from the wells of American decency the sweet waters of justice," thanks in part to the sacrifices of two Southerners. Martin Luther King Jr. "went willingly to his physical death for marching his people to freedom from segregation laws." And Lyndon B. Johnson "readily accepted his political death to emancipate his white Southern kinsmen" from the wrongs they were perpetrating.
Still, Patterson writes, slavery's legacy remains today, evident in the inequality of economic circumstances, education, housing and health care. If he could start anew, he would urge us to "strike forward as boldly as America advanced in the two centuries past: to lift up the people we held down for so long, to pay wages for the forced labor whose sweat let us prosper, to cleanse from American history the stain of past wrongs by rising to repay the debt that we owe."
We've done it before, he notes: after World War II, with the GI Bill of Rights. We offered millions of soldiers recompense for the years they gave our country, paying for the higher educations they'd been deprived of, enabling them to buy houses they couldn't have saved for and subsidizing employers who offered them training.
This powerfully profitable investment transformed a generation, writes Patterson. Were we to do it again, in this century, for African-Americans, "a Free America Act might generate a great national thrust toward the final redemption America has searched for and reached for and marched toward, at our worthiest, for a very long time now."
But that was at our worthiest. Today, we whites think little of race. And when we do, we find among the causes of the sufferings of so many of our black compatriots only those explanations that leave us blameless. So readily do we forget that everything about our lives, from our standing in our communities to our economic circumstances, incorporates the tragic truth from our common past called slavery.
Removing the stain seems so unlikely a thing but not, it seems, for Patterson. This wise and loving old fellow, who knows full well how badly we can behave, prefers to concentrate on that other possibility: How much better we can be.
Geneva Overholser is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.