I was in the grocery store the other day when I felt the presence of a Spirit from my youth. I turned around and caught Jerry Lee Braswell sneaking up on me. He started laughing and grabbed my hand and we embraced like the friends we are. Jerry Lee is only one of the many black men this white man respects and knows well.
You see Jerry Lee and I were raised together on a turpentine farm. The farm also grew tobacco and some corn. Tobacco and turpentine were the cash crops and the corn was just to feed the mules that we plowed with or used to pull the turpentine wagons and to feed the many hogs we would slaughter and cure each winter. You could call our farm a plantation but it was a working plantation because I was expected to carry a row just like everyone else.
One cannot work and live in such close proximity with other people without getting to know them well. I learned early on that there is good and bad in every race but it was 1957 and Jim Crow lived just down the road. I didn’t know Jim Crow. Was there a season on him? But things were the way they were because of him. And I was about to learn.
I remember riding the turpentine truck to town one Saturday along with twenty other people from our farm, as hardly anyone had a vehicle back then. Daddy had given me and four other boys, all black, a quarter apiece. My Mother admonished Jerry Lee to look after me, because this was to be my first trip off the farm without my parents, and Mother knew Jerry Lee, the oldest of the bunch, to be level headed and trustworthy.
Oliver Graves, the woods rider, parked in the Winn Dixie parking lot and my four black friends and I headed to the Martin Theater. This would be the second time I ever went to the picture show. The first time was with my Grandfather. Though he was a Hard-shell Baptist Deacon, and most Hard-shell Baptist preachers of the day damned Hollywood and Yankee know-it-alls for everything from hot tea to store bought bread, we watched Samson and Delilah, a Bible picture, and Bible pictures were alright in his book.
We boys were thrilled because we had a quarter apiece and were going to see a double feature, Tarzan, and Lash LaRue. Norman was in line first to buy the 10-cent ticket, then Bubba, then James, then Jerry Lee and then me. When the lady saw me she told me I had to go around and go in the front door and that I could not go with my black friends. Jerry Lee told me it was alright and to do what the lady said. “I’ll be waiting right here for you when the show is over,” he told me. I did as I was told because back then you did not argue with your elders.
When I got home I told my Daddy what happened and asked why the lady wouldn’t let me sit with my buddies and Daddy answered, “It isn’t right but that’s just the way it is, son.”
It had been this way for a hundred years, but change was coming.
I will never forget hearing Martin Luther King give his famous speech on TV from the Washington Monument in 1963 when he asked to be judged not by his race but by his character. By then I was 16 and able to think for myself and I thought it only fair what Dr. King asked, for after all, wasn’t this what we were being taught in Sunday school each week?
Things have come a long way since then but some things and some people haven’t changed. I mean this in a good way because as Jerry Lee and I, now both gray headed, embraced in the grocery store, we each understood the things that have gone before us, each knew that Jim Crow is long dead, at least in reasonable people’s minds, and each knew that character is really all that counts.