“Our philosophy of life is that a man must teach his child to increase the goodness in the world more than his father before him… [My wife] is an English teacher. I hope some day to become a teacher of social studies and a high school counselor and advisor. We believe we can, through our teaching, help to eliminate racial and religious prejudice.”
– My dad, Jim Carter, autobiographical essay, 1947
My parents were idealists. One of my mother’s favorite sayings was, “What have you done today to make the world a better place in which to live?” And although she said it with a humorous lilt, I knew she meant it.
As a white liberal child growing up in Burlington, Vermont (an almost exclusively white place in the 1950s/early ’60s), I became aware of racism for the most part in the abstract. I thought racists were very bad, mean people who mostly lived in the South. An unconscious aspect of this belief was that if you were smart enough to know that racism is a bad thing, then you were already better than those other white people who were racists.
Fast forward to the 1980s. I had graduated from Antioch College, lived and worked in much more diverse environments than Vermont, and ended up in the San Francisco Bay Area. Although I had more awareness of institutionalized racism, and the subtleties and complexities of racial issues, I still clung to the belief that I and my family were the “good white people” and the bad racist people were somewhere and someone else (albeit a lot closer than “the South”).
Then, one afternoon in the 1980s at a Carter family reunion in Hampton, Iowa, where my father grew up, he dropped a quiet bomb. He was driving my sisters and me around Hampton, showing us houses he’d lived in, the field where he picked strawberries with his brothers and sisters, and downtown where he used to “monkey around” with his friends. We were on a two-lane highway outside of town when he said in his matter-of-fact way, “Your Aunt Mary told me that our father once burned a cross on that hill over there.”
What?! NO! Our grandfather in the K.K.K.? Dad didn’t know any more than that. My grandfather, James Ellis Carter, had died in 1934 when Dad was eleven; Aunt Mary was gone, too, so we couldn’t ask her. Would we have asked her? Would we have wanted to know?
Maybe it was just once, I thought, scrambling to excuse it, deny its significance. Maybe my grandfather just went along because, because — there was no getting around it –- because he held racist beliefs, anti-Semitic beliefs. How long had Dad known this about his father? Had he forgotten it until that moment, left it buried in the emotional landscape of his hometown until recalled on this tour of the sites of his youth?
I had to know more.
My father described his father as a man who worked very hard, first as a sharecropper and later at Farris’s Nursery. He had a terrible temper, but had lots of friends and loved dancing — in fact, he allowed his children to play music and dance on Sundays, which scandalized their neighbors. He was head usher at the fundamentalist Church of Christ, and one year was elected Grand Master of the local Oddfellows.
Researching further, I discovered that in the mid-1920s, a Ku Klux Klan revival was in full swing, inspired by D. W. Griffith’s popular 1915 epic film Birth of a Nation. The Klan had chapters in almost every state, including Iowa. Their agenda was essentially Anglo-Saxon protestant, white supremacist, anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant, under the banner of “100% Americanism.” In Franklin County, Klan activity targeted Catholics and people involved in bootlegging, gambling, “lewdness,” and other scandalous behavior. Often, the Klan’s introductory tactic was to march into a church service, robed and masked, quote the Bible, and present a cash donation to the local minister. As a result, church members formed the mainstay of the K.K.K. in Iowa. As in other states, the Klan became a force in politics, backing candidates for governor, the U.S. Senate, and local school boards.
But was the Klan active in Hampton itself? When I called the Franklin County Historical Society to find out, I was nervous, feeling strangely exposed, as though even asking about the Klan were dangerous somehow. Some visceral fear that the Klan would find out and target me? That the historian would think I was a Klan sympathizer? Or, more realistically, that I might learn something more I didn’t want to know?
A thick manila envelope arrived with the contents of their K.K.K. file. Heart beating a little fast, I carefully slit open the envelope. A large ad in the Hampton Chronicle invited the townspeople (“Americans”) to a “Ku Klux Klan Klonkave” at the fairgrounds on Labor Day, 1926. The public festivities included music, sports, a parade, national speakers, and fireworks in the evening. Admission 25 cents. There it was. Indisputable evidence. My grandfather could easily have attended this event, been drawn to the excitement. Then a more dreaded thought came: Was he one of the marchers in the parade wearing a white hooded robe? Oh, no. How much easier it was to imagine him as merely a curious spectator!
My dad was three years old in 1926 when the Klan came to town. Was he carried on his father’s shoulders to see the big parade? I notice I’m relieved to find out that the Klan in Hampton apparently did not lynch anyone or destroy homes or businesses. They “only” practiced intimidation, part of me wants to say, as though cross-burning on a family’s front lawn or tar and feathering could not also traumatize and damage people’s lives.
In Iowa, the American Legion, local farm bureaus, feisty newspaper editors, and others organized to eventually defeat Klan-backed candidates and rid their communities of K.K.K. influence. I wish my grandfather had been one of them. The bottom line is that, in the name of moral righteousness and patriotism – which he probably saw as “goodness”—my grandfather was part of a terrorist organization. And if the Klan had not been stopped by others, how far would he have gone along with them? I’d like to think not far, but I have no way of knowing.
As a child, my father was exposed to overt racism, and yet by the time he met my mother in 1946, he felt strongly the need to help “eliminate racial and religious prejudice.” Other experiences in his life had led him to a different view from his father’s. In his generation, racism was still a matter of conscious belief. The ideal was to be colorblind. Nowadays, “unconscious bias” and “white privilege” are becoming part of the mainstream discourse about race. College classes and corporate diversity trainings shed light on this formerly invisible aspect of social conditioning. That means racism isn’t out there, but in all of us, beyond our conscious beliefs and intentions.
As “good white people,” we really want to believe things have changed, and of course, many things have. It’s what hasn’t changed, the conscious and unconscious racism still so entrenched in our culture, that scares and angers me. How would I have related to my Grandpa Carter if he were alive and I discovered this about him? And what can I learn from it now?
One thing I see from looking at the roots of my own unconscious racism, seeing the pre-programmed fears and reactions, is that many white people who espouse racist views, who fear strangers from across the border, across the sea, or across the tracks, are not so different from me. They feel they are protecting something precious. They love their children. They like to dance. However wrongly, they assume they will lose if others gain. They could be family. In fact, they are family. In fact, they are me.
What has been your experience of racism in your family, either past or present, and how have you dealt with it?
How do we begin to talk about racism with our families or our friends, instead of remaining silent or becoming self-righteous, writing each other off?
How might awareness of the fact we are all socially conditioned around race help us find the common ground of our basic goodness as people?