Guest Columns

HUDSON: PERHAPS LONG AWAITED NATIONAL DIALOGUE ON RACE CAN BEGIN WITH GLANCE BACK

Our kids are better than we were, Mr. President, but we’re better than most of our parents were

The Colorado Statesman

So, how bad was it? Take my word for it, before Brown vs. the Board of Education, before the federal voting rights act, the fair housing act and the equal accommodations act, it was very, very bad. If you don’t remember the 1950s, then the civil rights crusade of the ‘60s may not make much sense. Separate but equal (wink, wink — probably not so equal) may have been far from perfect, but it incorporated the inherent acknowledgment that every American was entitled to equal treatment, didn’t it? No, not so much! Our first African American president has twice called for a national discussion of race. And twice his appeal has been answered with a resounding silence. We don’t seem to know how to begin this conversation, so I’m willing to stick my neck out and explain how and what I’ve learned about race.

My twin brother and I entered first grade in the fall of 1951 at Holy Rosary Elementary in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Local public schools were bursting beneath an influx of parents (with kids in tow) hired to design nuclear weapons and construct naval reactors at the Idaho Nuclear Reactor Test Site. These immigrants invaded this largely Mormon community from hometowns across America, bringing their attitudes with them. Even at a parochial school it was common to hear playground taunts about “…acting like a Nigger!” While there were no actual Negro students attending Holy Rosary, you got the message that being a “nigger” involved stupidity, laziness, untrustworthiness and irresponsibility. I didn’t have to be a Negro or know one to recognize it probably wasn’t any fun being black.

In the spring of 1954 the U. S. Atomic Energy Commission transferred our Dad to its headquarters in Washington, D.C. After visiting our grandmother in New Mexico, we drove across the country on two-lane, blacktop highways. Just outside Gadsden, Ala. we blew a tire and stopped at the Sears and Roebuck for a replacement. Our parents turned Richard and me loose in the store while our wheel was changed. I quickly spotted a water fountain with the sign “colored” bolted on the front. I was intrigued. Was the water colored? Was this a sweetened, Kool-Aid spigot? Despite maintaining close surveillance, no one ever stopped to drink from the fountain. Eventually, my curiosity got the better of me.

I walked over and turned the knob. It looked just like regular water. It certainly wasn’t colored. So, I bent over and took a sip. Just as I comprehended that it was only water, a huge hand gripped my shoulder firmly and painfully. I turned to see a large, red-faced man who muttered, “Boy, that’s for the Niggers!” Although I was scared witless, I realized something was terribly wrong. Why was this stranger so angry? Why were “niggers” expected to drink from a separate fountain? None of it made any sense.

Nonetheless, I didn’t have to be told that being a Negro in Alabama would be a very scary thing. This was a revelation for an 8 year old. When I asked my parents to explain what had happened and why, they talked about the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Ku Klux Klan and lynching. It was evident they didn’t approve, but neither did they appear outraged by these Southern “customs.” They were accepting although hopeful that time might eventually remedy these injustices. Nearly 60 years have elapsed since that day, and I can still feel that powerful hand gripping my shoulder and the guilty flash I experienced as a result.

At St. Peter’s in Alexandria, Va. my brother and I had Negro classmates for the first time. The Catholic Church practiced an open admissions policy premised on the praiseworthy notion that all souls are equally deserving of both salvation and a ‘no excuses’ education. I had no idea these students were enrolled by parents concerned with the miserable quality of Virginia’s “separate but equal” schools. Their children wore the same uniforms, took the same classes and played the same games with the rest of us. We even served together as altar boys. The only difference I could discern between us was the color of our skin.

Prior to entering sixth grade our family moved across the Potomac to Montgomery County, Maryland where I attended a public school for the first time.  There were no black students at McKinney Hills because they were attending separate (and ostensibly equal) Negro schools. During the summer of 1957, the Montgomery County School Board announced the closure of these schools and the immediate integration of classrooms throughout the county commenc-ing that fall. My brother and I would attend seventh grade at a combined junior-senior high school with a student body that would be about 20 percent black. I don’t know where the county’s Negro schoolteachers were reassigned, but none of them reported to Sherwood.  Looking back I’m sure these students were far more worried about how they were going to be treated by us than we were worried about them.

Student government elections were scheduled for late September, and Chandlee Lewis ran for school treasurer. As Election Day approached, senior high boys began pulling aside junior high students in the hallways, pushing us against lockers with the command, “Don’t vote for Chandlee Lewis, she’s a Nigger!” When you’re 12 years old, nothing is more infuriating than being manhandled by older kids. Chandlee was elected with an overwhelming vote from seventh, eighth and ninth graders, which more than offset her losses among the high schoolers. Everyone was surprised, perhaps Chandlee most of all.

As a sophomore I tried out for the baseball team. Classmate Greg Murphy, a three-sport athlete, was assured a spot at shortstop. Following practice one hot spring afternoon we decided to walk the few blocks to a soda fountain in Sandy Springs. Greg and the other black players begged off. I ignorantly pressured them to accompany us, oblivious to the fact that this business refused to serve “colored.” I realize now that Greg knew exactly what was about to happen. And sure enough, he was denied service. I couldn’t believe it. The soda fountain was the back cover advertiser on all of Sherwood’s athletic programs and here they were refusing to serve my black teammates. Nearly half the white ballplayers walked out with Greg and me, while the remainder stayed behind to order milkshakes.  

I might not have been much of a ballplayer (strong glove/weak bat) but I did know how to cause trouble. As class president and a member of the Key Club, which operated the refreshment concession at Sherwood ball games and was the publisher of game day programs, I persuaded the student government to refuse advertising space to any business that refused to serve every student. We also threatened to march on the School Board if it failed to extend a similar prohibition at every school. By the fall of 1961 the Board adopted our prohibition countywide and the Sandy Springs soda fountain caved beneath a boycott and agreed to serve all Sherwood students.

The most popular local band playing at school dances was a bunch of white kids who covered Little Richard songs. Motown artists dominated the rock charts, and Jim Brown was the best running back in the NFL. Cassius Clay, soon to become Muhammad Ali, was the most promising heavyweight in the world. The times, they were a changin’! Yet, despite common interests, black and white students lived in parallel universes. With the exception of our athletes, most of us left Sherwood without establishing enduring friendships across the undiscussed divide of race. For the next few decades, blacks and whites alike would nudge one another and point with a gesture of the head when mixed race couples entered a restaurant or waited for a movie.

Diversity begins at home

That proved different with my kids. They attended Denver public schools and made many friends among their African-American and Hispanic classmates — friends who regularly trooped through my home. In recent years I’ve learned that on those weekends when I was out of town parties took place at my house that were virtual diversity fests. My daughter was smart enough to clean up carefully before my return.

After graduation my son joined a rock band, and, reinforcing a father’s worst fears, they were actually pretty good. Fortunately their black drummer was picked up by a national act in Los Angeles. Following the subsequent dissolution of his band Byron thankfully decided to try college.

It was only as an adult that I began to forge my own friendships with African-Americans. While serving as a communications officer in the U. S. Navy I was assigned a watch section Yeoman by the name of Leon Hudson. Because of the Navy’s practice of addressing enlisted men by their last name and officers as Mister, we became the somewhat amusing pair of black Hudson and white Mr. Hudson. Leon hailed from Detroit, and we swiftly learned to rely on one another. There’s no time like wartime to discover that skin color is perhaps the least important character trait when safety and survival is at stake. When you report for duty dog tired or borderline inebriated, it’s critical to know you’re working with someone you can trust to cover for you while you take a nap. Leon and I established that kind of reciprocal bond, rank be damned.

I returned from the Navy to my job with the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company in Washington, D.C. During my absence AT&T, the nation’s largest employer, had signed a consent decree with the federal government committing to hire and promote women and minorities. The C&P I had left was, for the most part, a white male enterprise. My new repair crew had nine black and three white installers. Bill Lattimore was one of the more militant, edgy, “black power” workers in our garage. He was particularly perturbed by the ready availability of drugs throughout his community, and he blamed this plague on a conspiracy of police and business leaders who desired to suppress black neighborhoods. I would verbally joust with him on this issue and ask whether he honestly believed there were formal, scheduled meetings where white leaders developed a drug distribution strategy in order to undermine black families?

Drug dealers regularly distributed their wares at 13th and T streets each afternoon at 4 p.m. The junkies began to gather shortly after lunch, and we had adopted an internal policy that no phone orders would be worked within four blocks of this “drop” area after noon each day. Too many of our workers had been mugged and their trucks broken into by desperate addicts short on funds. Bill challenged me one day with the argument that if the phone company, as a private employer, was arranging its business schedule around the dangers of the drug trade, “…do you think the cops don’t know what’s going on?” I realized, of course, that he was right. What was excused as benign neglect in practice played out as a malicious malfeasance. There was reason to be angry.

Before I departed for the Navy, I supervised the test center where Geraldine Anderson ran the dispatch desk. She held a Master’s degree from the Sorbonne and had been promised a promotion into management after a probationary year or two as a clerk. When I returned to C&P three years later, I was astonished to find she was still working on the dispatch desk. I had given her an excellent performance rating, and there was no excuse for this delay. Once I accepted a transfer to Mountain Bell in Denver, Gerry approached me and asked if I would provide an affidavit on her behalf in an EEO complaint she was planning to file. It probably wasn’t a smart career move on my part, but I figured the right hand (Mountain Bell) would probably never figure out what the left hand (C&P) was doing so I agreed to be deposed. Rather than offering her the promotion she deserved, C&P settled for offering a substantial financial payment to have her go away. Happily, Gerry went on to serve as vice president at one of America’s largest natural gas companies. My complicity was lost in the chaos of the subsequent break-up of the Bell System.

Arriving in Denver I was provided a tour of the city by Mountain Bell. They made a point of showing me the “ghetto neighborhood” of Park Hill. I was amused and told my boss that just because black people lived there didn’t make it a ghetto — that I, in fact, had worked in a genuine ghetto and well knew what they looked like. Park Hill appeared to be simply another middle class neighborhood. I’m not sure that I convinced him of that, but he did let me know that Denver contained another group of people I could feel superior to — Chicanos and Mexicans. Since my godmother was Anna Chavez and Hudsons arrived in Santa Fe in the 1850s, I was silently disgusted by his ignorant prejudices.

When I first ran for the Colorado Legislature in 1978, Wellington Webb endorsed my candidacy for reasons that have dimmed with memory and that may well have served a political agenda I didn’t fully apprehend. But, with virtually everyone else in the Denver Democratic Party supporting my primary opponent, I was more than appreciative — I was grateful. Later, when Wellington ran for Mayor in 1991, I stood solidly in his corner as I did again in 1995 and 1999. I’ve also harbored a soft spot for Wilma Webb, who was one of only three Democrats to walk off the House floor in 1982, together with David Skaggs and myself, when the Republican caucus “locked in” their members on the Long Bill. The previous day House Democrats had unanimously voted to stage a walkout against the binding caucus. Yet, when the time arrived, only three of us followed through. Perhaps we were behaving badly, but we kept our word and Wilma’s commitment deserves respect in my book.

The state Capitol still employed elevator operators when I arrived in 1979. Hazel was an amply proportioned African American who was generally overlooked by legislators too self-important to even greet her. She was one of those preternaturally cheerful individuals who can brighten your day and she never missed a thing. Ignored as though she were deaf, Hazel listened attentively to every conversation. If she liked you Hazel served as the Legislature’s “gossip central.” As I was departing late one night she said to me, “What’s the matter with these people Mr. Hudson? I see more him’n and him’n, and her’n and her’n, and him’n and her’n down here than I’ve seen in my whole life. Are they all crazy?”  

“No,” I replied, “I think most politicians are just oversexed.”  

“You’re right about that,” she chuckled, “Yep, you’re right about that!”

Last year we hosted Joyce as our “Obama daughter,” a first generation African American born in New York City, whose parents are from Cameroon and whose father works for the United Nations. Joyce labored criminally long hours for six months turning out Denver’s Democratic vote for the President’s re-election. She chose to remain in Colorado following the campaign, as so many “visitors” to Colorado do, and we helped her move into a Capitol Hill apartment. Joyce and the diverse friends she made during the campaign could produce a “We Are the World” commercial. We know this because they appeared at our door singing carols last Christmas.

Personally I’ve learned that placing my finger on the scales in favor of fairness has been the way I could make things better. I didn’t always have the courage to do that, though I’ve gotten better at it as the years have passed. Perhaps the discussion we need is not so much about race, as it is about being Americans. I can assure you our enemies don’t see the differences or make the distinctions we frequently dwell on. Black or white or brown, they’re more than happy to kill us all. What Americans have historically shared is a commitment to community, to individual responsibility and equal opportunity. Diversity has been our abiding strength and the fear of change our recurring weakness.

The (r)evolution continues

Four years ago when Colorado Senate President Peter Groff stepped aside to accept an appointment with the Obama administration, I sat with his father during the Democratic vacancy election to select his replacement. Regis Groff held the same seat thirty years earlier as Senate Minority Leader while we were serving together in the Colorado Legislature. African Americans had filled this Northeast Denver Senate seat for nearly half a century. Mike Johnston, a white schoolteacher and public education reformer, defeated three black opponents on the first ballot cast by the vacancy committee. Regis nudged me and whispered, “You know Miller, this Obama thing cuts two ways. My folks don’t believe they have to vote for you any more just because you’re black.” 

The President was right: when it comes to race, our kids, all our kids, are better than we were, and their kids should be better still. Fifty years ago this month Martin Luther King gave his “I Have A Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. I was lucky enough to have been there. Our nation continues to inch ever closer to the more perfect union he envisioned. This has been and will continue to prove a halting progress, but I believe the better angels of our nature are certain to prevail one day.

Miller Hudson served two terms in the Colorado House of Representatives. He continues to live in Denver and comment on the political scene.