Each year at this time, I take time to reflect on a life that has, as a man who is partially white, at the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the heroic civil rights leader who gave his life for the cause of April 4th, 1968, felled by an assassin’s bullet in Memphis, TN.
I was at work in The Roanoke Times newsroom and was soon out on the street covering protests and demonstrations in the city’s Black neighborhoods. Before several of us left the newsroom, however, the man who maintains the write service machines stood up and cheered, and proclaimed “that goddamned n—-r is dead. This is a great day for America.”
He wasn’t the first overt racist I encountered in my life, nor would he be the last.
The first was my maternal grandfather, Walter McPeak, who screamed at his television set whenever a Black person appeared on the screen. As sales manager of Thomas Ford, he refused to sell cars to Blacks, predicting loudly those sold by the other salesmen would be repossessed. My grandmother said she thinks he “regretted” that racism as he was dying from respiratory problems.
For the record, I am not “white.” DNA shows I’m 25% Native American (Seminole, from my father’s side) and another 15% Black Irish (a term for those of Irish descent with mixed genes, from my mother), and about 50% Scot.
Amy, my Lebanese-Irish wife, considered herself “beige,” not White, and we’re both proud of our mixed heritage.
At age 10, as an elementary school student in Prince Edward County, VA, I went from being a public school student to part of an all-white private school mandated by a racist Board of Supervisors and School Board that closed the public schools to prevent federal court ordered integration and our classrooms became makeshifts in fraternal organizations, churches other places that bought into a racist credo.
I head that environment so much that, at age 11, I hid in the woods overlooking a field where the Klux Klan met and took photos, which I offered, along with an essay, to The Farmville Herald, our twice-a-week newspaper, but they turned them down before editor Ben Bowers sent them to the Richmond News-Leader, which published the photos and story and paid me $100.
Some other papers picked the photos and story. While some congratulated me for exposing the Klan’s existence in the county, I was jumped by several students at school and came home with scrapes, bruises, and a bloody nose. The reaction got so bad that my mother considered sending me down to Florida, my birthplace, to live with my paternal grandparents and attend an integrated school there. Instead, she and my stepfather sold the farm in Prince Edward County and relocated the family back to his and her hometown of Floyd County, where the schools were integrated and a new county-wide high school was opening.
Integration in Floyd County wasn’t much of a problem because the Black population was less than three percent in 1960 but I saw a lot of Confederate flags and enough racism to concern me.
In high school, Floyd Press owner Pete Hallman offered me a full-time job as a reporter, photographer, and, when needed, typesetter. Hallman, a longtime newspaperman, taught me a lot and encouraged me to write and photograph the county with an observant and, when needed, critical eye. His wife, Ruth Hallman, was my English and Journalism teacher and urged me to continue writing, reporting, and taking news photos later in life.
The creation of Floyd County High School brought the expansion of sports, and the first football, but some parents told the School objected to including Black students on the team and kept their students from participating because the Buffaloes would play other teams with Black players. When I wrote about that controversy, some readers dropped their subscriptions.
Before school started in 1963, Hallman and his wife, Ruth Hallman, my English and Journalism teacher at Floyd County High, encouraged me to drive my 1957 Ford hardtop to Washington, DC, to photograph and write about Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech during the March on Washington.
On that day, Interstate 81 was very incomplete and the trip involved driving through many towns on U.S. 11 and then U.S. 50 to get into Washington. I left in the dark morning hours and got there about an hour before things began, but managed to get a good spot to photograph a great man doing great things for a country that, sadly, considered him a troublemaker.
I was shunned by students after I wrote about the speech and praised the words of Dr. King. My grandfather, who called King a “godless Communist” stopped speaking to me for a while.
After graduating from high school a year early, I joined The Roanoke Times at 17, the youngest reporter and photographer in the paper’s history, and wrote often about the racial situations in the city and Southwestern Virginia. Several of those stories were honored by the Virginia Press Association.
At the Times, I covered and photographed meetings of the Klan in Patrick County. In one meeting, they showed “Birth of the Nation,” D.W. Griffith’s black and white silent film that showed the birth and murderous actions of the Klan. The crowd cheered every time a Klansman attacks a Black person.
In 1969, I accepted a job offer from The Telegraph in Alton, IL, part of the St. Louis metro area and, ironically, the birthplace of James Earl Ray, the convicted assassin of Dr. King. Alton had its own racial problem, including police officers who gunned down a shoplifting suspect, paralyzing him, and resulting in a court judgment that forced the city to issue bonds to pay it.
In Alton, I learned that racism was not limited to Baptists. A lot of racial comments and insults from Catholics, the primary religion in the city. Because of my writings, I was asked to give a sermon on racism at the city’s primary AME church, A story about that sermon brought angry letters to the editor and slashed tires on my car.
Later, when we left Alton and moved to Arlington County, VA, to work in Washington, DC, I saw, wrote about, and photographed a lot of racial unrest.
Virginia, sadly, was one of the states that resisted the federal proclamation of Dr. King’s birthday as a national holiday. When we left the National Capitol Region after 23 years and moved to Floyd County in 2004, I saw some changes that seemed positive, a popular restaurant, Oddfellas Cantina, owned and operated by a mixed-race couple, a black chief deputy in the Sheriff’s department, but I also saw, and continue to see, an all-white Board of Supervisors, pickup trucks flying large confederate flags from their bed while sporting racist bumper stickers, The racist tea party thrived here, The county voted overwhelmingly for the racist criminal wannabe president Donald Trump.
Virginia, finally, accepted the holiday honoring Dr. King. but for too many years it bundled it with “Lee-Jackson Day” and turned it into a four-day weekend recognized by local and state governments but not federal ones. Finally, during the purge of the overwhelming glut of statues recognizing the treason of those who abandoned their county and joined the illegal confederacy, the Lee-Jackson was finally scrapped by a Democratic governor and legislature.
That change, in our view, made the holiday honoring Dr. King even more special. As a Southerner, I was never comfortable seeing memorials to enemies of our state.