There I was, a six-year-old first grader in Birmingham, Alabama, riding the street car to school each morning. Then, I didn’t notice the two wooden White Only signs mounted on seat backs, one on the right and one on the left of the aisle. They were moveable with two metal pegs at the bottom that fit into the two holes in the metal bars that ran along the tops of the seatbacks.
When I got a bit older, when the streetcars had given way to buses, I noticed the driver would move those signs back when white passengers were beginning to stand for lack of seats. He would walk down the aisle to the seats where the signs were mounted and move them back a couple of rows. The Black passengers would get up and move back behind the White Only signs so the White passengers could sit.
Even then I saw only the motion of the bus driver, not the racial hierarchy he was enforcing. That hierarchy was generally taken for granted by so many citizens, White and Black, that it was considered normal, simply the way things were—and therefore very hard to see; nearly invisible.
In 1910, the confederate monument was erected on the lawn of the Forrest County Court House in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. What else was going on in 1910? I wonder what was invisible then, so normal, that many did not even see it?
In White churches, Methodist and Baptist for example, congregations were singing hymns such as Open My Eyes That I May See, a song that first appeared in the 1896 hymnal, Truth in Song. A very popular hymn, it has appeared in 207 different hymnals over a period of 120 years, from 1896 through 2015.
Here are some of the words, which would undoubtedly have been sung in those churches in 1910, the year the monument was erected on the Court House lawn: Open my eyes that I may see glimpses of truth thou hast for me . . . Open my ears that I may hear voices of truth thou sendest clear . . . . It’s a prayer, unfortunately unanswered, for most of the White parishioners singing the song.
You might wonder how they could have been so blind? As historian William Sturkey points out in his recent book, Hattiesburg, An American City in Black and White, “Between 1890 and 1910, White Mississippians lynched nearly 350 African Americans.” Open my eyes. Open my ears. How could they sing that song (pray that prayer) with so much violence around them? I don’t know.
Fast forward 110 years. Too many of us White citizens have been afflicted by that same blindness and deafness. How have so many of us been so blind--that we did not see the police violence visited upon black men by police officers; that we did not hear the loud calls for justice. I don’t know.
But NOW, we have seen and heard the truth. For too long we have been shackled to Jim Crow and the myth of White supremacy. As King reminded us, “No one is free until we are all free.”
Conville, a native of Alabama, is a retired communications professor from the University of Southern Mississippi.