Learning about Racism in 1959

Guest Post by Casey Hawley

I learned about racism in 1959. Both of my parents taught me to abhor racial prejudice, but they taught me in ways as different as they were from each other.

The literary character my Dad always reminded me of most was Atticus Finch, the wise champion of justice for his black client in To Kill a Mockingbird. My father’s words, advice, and insights into political events were an education few young girls in the ‘50s south would get. I would say that the foundation for my heart for civil rights was built by watching my father advocate for the rights of women and black co-workers in the workplace long before it was trendy. He often stood alone.

But the real outcry of my heart against racism was a lesson seared on my soul by my nonpolitical, innocent, butterfly of a mother. I will never forget it.

In the days of big hair, my mother had decided to take a course in cosmetology in order to learn the techniques of highlights, teasing, and hairstyling required to keep her three daughters and herself at the pinnacle of style. My mother was funny and lighthearted, and thanks to my Dad, she lived a life protected from a lot of the ugliness of life. She was always impulsively embarking on adventures like this, taking courses in real estate, ceramics, nursing, whatever she had fallen in love with at that moment. We were away from her home in Georgia, living in El Paso, Texas where my Dad was stationed with the Army. While attending this latest course, my mother met and became fast friends with Carmen, a Mexican woman with a quick wit who was desperate to work herself out of poverty. Carmen was also unusually dark for a woman of Mexican heritage. Though both women were true artists in their execution of their craft, the science and terminology they had to learn to pass their tests seemed to be more challenging for them than for their fellow students. A sweet bond was formed. They studied diligently together and encouraged each other every step of the way.

Finally, both women had passed enough pre-tests to be allowed to go to Austin and take the State Board Examination. Naturally, they planned to take the long car trip together because by now they were inseparable. I will never forget the day my mother returned from that trip, shaken, pale, and completely devastated by the racism her beloved friend had suffered on that terrible trip. My mother had witnessed firsthand over and over again at restaurants, motels, and service stations the undeserved hatred and mistreatment of a good person by personalities twisted by racism. She lost some of her wonderful innocence as she saw for the first time the evil and meanness that probably had been swirling around her all her life, but that was now experienced through the life of someone she cared deeply about.  She also got an education in the very real danger that persons of color learn to live with from an early age. She saw the practical realities of being hungry and being refused service because Carmen was so dark that she was mistaken for African American. Each time they would get in their car and look for somewhere else to eat or to stay after being rejected, she ached for the humiliation Carmen was going through. Mind you, in that stretch of highway, restaurants and service stations were few and far between. With each rejection, discouragement mounted and my mother saw just a bit of what it was like to be dark complected in 1950s America.

Everyone loved my mother and could not say no to her usually, but her cajoling and appealing and finally outrage could not move the restaurant owners who said my mother could be served and take a plate to Carmen, but that her friend could not be seated. Of course, my mother refused.

Even more painful for her was Carmen’s defeated acceptance of the system. Long ago, Carmen had learned, probably at great cost, that she must never use the clearly labeled white bathrooms. As my mother would watch Carmen meekly go to the bathrooms labeled “colored,” it broke her heart. At first, my brave-hearted mother had said, “Carmen, we can go to the white bathroom together; I’ll go with you,” but Carmen knew that was dangerous for two young women in the middle of nowhere between El Paso and Austin. By the end of the trip, my mother understood too. As she watched what her friend suffered day in and day out, she lost her innocence about the human race and what we are capable of. She never became cynical, but she returned home physically sick from staring racism in the face. It was awful.

Her literal gut reaction to the sickening sight of racism was an indelible lesson to me about how we all should react to this evil. She and my dad had such genuine, heartfelt reactions to racial prejudice that their daughters could not help but know this was wrong. Like our parents, we knew we should advocate for our friends of color and to stand against racism in the places God would take us in the coming years. It is why my sister’s best friend, Claudette, an African American, and she were in and out of each other’s houses all day long. It is why my first book was originally titled, “The Secret Handshake.” I wanted to teach young people brought up in poverty, often black, the same skills and professional behaviors that my son and his friends had learned at their largely white schools in affluent neighborhoods. I wanted the young black professionals I taught in the business school at Georgia State University to have all the advantages my son did—no stacked decks.

My parents also made sure that wherever we moved across the nation that we were being taught the Word of God to strengthen us and guide us through life.  We would immediately connect with a local church and be enrolled in Vacation Bible Schools and Sunday School classes wherever my Dad was stationed. We learned that like our parents’ example on loving our brothers and sisters of all colors, God also loved all people.

I learned in verse after verse from the Bible that Jesus was an advocate for loving everyone and that He made no difference based on ethnicity or culture. Galatians 3:28 clearly states: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

And Paul told the Colossians that they “have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Colossians 3:10-11.

Jesus told us over and over again to love one another:

  • “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  John 15:12
  • “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” John 13:34

And I do not think it was accidental that Jesus made two of the most famous stories from His ministry about the most disrespected people group in His community. Because of their mixed heritage, there was prejudice against the Samaritans by almost everyone. Jesus’ story about the authentic kindness of the Good Samaritan in contrast to the religious people shows intentionality to me. People would have warmed to that story faster had He chosen a Jewish hero for the story, but He specifically chose a Samaritan, a person who would have been looked down on at that time.

Similarly, the heroine of the beautiful story of the woman at the well who brought many people to  Jesus is a Samaritan. (John 4) Nothing in the Word of God is wasted; we see in both of these stories the outpouring of His great love for these people that others looked down on. And how many thousands of people have come to believe that God loves them, too, based on the telling of these stories about a love that does not have barriers of race or ethnicity?

But there is a balance. We love people completely, but that does not mean that anything goes. A wise woman shared this Scripture regarding what is going on during the protests, looting, and riots this week:

The righteous care about justice for the poor,
but the wicked have no such concern, Mockers stir up a city,
but the wise turn away anger. If a wise person goes to court with a fool,
the fool rages and scoffs, and there is no peace.

The bloodthirsty hate a person of integrity
and seek to kill the upright. Fools give full vent to their rage,
but the wise bring calm in the end.  Proverbs 29:7-11 NIV

Your actions related to race matter right now. Lecture with your life.

About The Author

Casey Hawley built a career speaking and writing about communication for people in business. In 2017, Casey decided to downsize her secular business and devote more time to sharing the Word of God in any way the Lord might direct her. She is guided as she writes by 2 Timothy 2:15: “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” KJV


This blog was originally posted on Casey’s website – Adventures in Christianity.