Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Southern Civil Rights

One profoundly thrilling part of voting last weekend was the feeling of how far we've come.

I grew up in the South during Jim Crow days. I took segregation for granted until I was 19 or 20, and then the admirably bold civil rights movement brought it to my attention. To my lasting shame, I had never even questioned the obvious and brutal unfairness to "colored people."

But Saturday I got to vote for a black man for president. That man doesn't use race as part of his campaign. But I can't help being proud that my country has come so far.

The reminders of the more racist past are ever close. Note in the picture the Confederate soldier with the American flag at the Chatham County courthouse in the rather liberal and educated town of Pittsboro where I cast my vote. Mostly we don't even see such symbols because we're used to them. It's so easy to not see things.

I devotedly love the South, North Carolina, and the town I grew up in--even though very bad things have been done here. I'm old enough now to have taken some interest in genealogy; I've recently learned that at least one of my direct forebears owned slaves and one of my forefathers was a young doctor who died at the Battle of Second Manassas. I take some pride in the fact that they were prominent citizens of their time and place; I'm not proud--can barely take in--the fact that some of my relatives "owned" people, with all the horrors that entailed. I wonder if there's any possibility that, like me, they didn't see. (Not that that excuses anything.)

At any rate, you can see what I carried with me to vote this time. I wish Ethel Gilchrist, the black woman who was my third parent, had lived to vote this year. I'm glad that I have.

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Debra W said...


I found this post very raw and heartfelt and I admire your ability to admit some very difficult truths about your genealogy. You were brave enough to dig into your families past and find out that yes, indeed, there were some slave owners in there. But what about all of the people who never even bother to try to understand the past of their own genealogy, yet somehow would feel free to pass some sort of judgement on you because of choices that your distant relatives made?

We observe the past to learn from both the bad and the good in people, so that we can learn from those mistakes and not make them again. Hence, I do not hold every German person I meet responsible for the holocaust just because they are German. I like to think that good people are people who look at an atrocity and say, "Never again." You have done that by voting in an election in which we have a black candidate.

Somehow I know that Ethel is looking down upon you smiling and feeling quite proud of you, as well as how far our country has come.

Regardless of what my feelings are about the candidates in this election, I, too, am very proud of how far our nation has come. With all of the reasons people can say that the world is going to hell in a handbag, I am glad that I can look at this election with the feeling that something good is definitely happening here!


Anonymous said...

Hi, Peggy, I returned to this blog this evening b/c your blog piece about early voting was shared on the Chatham Chatlist. I'm glad I did b/c I got to read your narrative above about your experience emotionally about voting. I, too, am proud that my country has provided the opportunity for me to vote for a black man for president. My past experiences differ from yours, but I think we share a pride in voting this year! Greta

Kelley said...

This post and our past conversations on growing up in a culture of shrouded racism have impacted me deeply. I'm glad you share these observations so openly. I learn things about myself.

Peggy Payne said...

Your responses are very moving for me, Debbie, Greta, and Kelley.

I didn't set out to write quite as raw as I wound up doing. Then discovered I had. And found it very useful.

Thanks for your warm responses.

And I like that image of Ethel, Debbie. I pray that you're right.