Golfing world still must deal with club racism

MIKE LITTWIN

April 26, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

The story was so incredible, the circumstances so egregious, the victim so innocent, the guilty parties so damned guilty that, even in Caldwell Parish, La., where David Duke is a popular politician, they knew this was unacceptable behavior.

The headline stripped across the top of Page 1 of the Monroe News-Star read: "Club Policy Bars Black Student From Golf Match."

No one could quite believe it.

"I was surprised," said Sister Marlene Geppert, principal of St. Frederick's High of Monroe, where the student attends, "but not shocked. I've seen prejudice here before. But still, in 1991, it's pretty hard to believe."

It's even hard just to write. But here it is: Dondre Green, a high school senior, accompanied his teammates to a golf match last week at Caldwell Country Club. After warming up with his teammates, who were all white, he was told that he couldn't play because he was black.

His teammates, after taking a vote, decided that if Green couldn't play, they wouldn't play. And then the golf coach called the local paper.

USA Today picked up the story. And CBS News. Before you could say Mississippi Burning, Caldwell Country Club was the new Shoal Creek -- only worse, far worse.

Or was it so much worse?

It was last summer at Shoal Creek -- 15 miles, as the Jim Crow flies, from Birmingham, Ala. -- that everyone discovered many of the top golf clubs in America routinely excluded blacks, Jews, women and other people from membership. This surprised only those who didn't belong to exclusive country clubs. But they were hosting the PGA championship tournament at Shoal Creek, and some of the local blacks objected to this exclusion and threatened to picket the site. Thus, a scandal was born.

The PGA has since cleaned up its act. Now, country clubs that host prestigious golf tournaments are rushing out to enlist a token black member, sometimes two.

Caldwell Country Club doesn't host prestigious tournaments. It doesn't have black members. And it doesn't allow blacks even to play there.

I called to ask the reason for the policy.

"I'm sorry," the woman said on the other end of the phone, "but nobody here is commenting on anything about that."

What would members possibly say? They don't want to walk where black people walk, unless the black person is carrying a drink? They don't think black golfers would be comfortable wearing green pants?

But maybe they're more honest than the people at places like Shoal Creek, where they have a long list of excuses, including that it's only a coincidence, that members have to be nominated, that people have to wait in line, that the lack of black members merely reflects societal divisions. The real reason that there aren't blacks, Jews, women, etc. at these exclusive clubs is because they are exclusive.

I'm always amused when the newly appointed judge or cabinet member, after some pressure, gives up his membership to the all-whatever club to which he belongs, as if that made it better, as if he suddenly became someone different from the person who chose to belong in the first place.

Occasionally, we meet head-on with these ugly realities. It happened last fall to Tom Watson, the golfer, when his home club, the Kansas City Country Club, did not invite Henry Bloch, of H&R Block, to join even though he was sponsored by several top area businessman, including the chairman of Hallmark Cards.

Bloch is Jewish. Watson isn't Jewish, but his wife and two children are. And so, he quit. And even though the club thereafter offered Bloch a membership, Watson has refused to return.

He should have quit because there were no blacks there, but he wasn't married to a black person. Turning Bloch down hit where he lives, and Watson saw clearly what he had to do and he did it.

In Louisiana, many people are embarrassed by this incident. The Secretary of State, Fox McKeithen, brought Green and his teammates to the state capital to meet the governor, who proclaimed it Dondre Green Day. McKeithen, meanwhile, public

resigned his membership from Caldwell Country Club and denounced the policy. What was he saying the week before?

"The neat thing," said Sister Marlene, "is that the players voted not to play. They took the values we teach at the school and applied them. I'm proud of them.

"I wasn't here then, but people tell me that about 10 years ago, they had a similar incident involving a student in the school, and nothing happened. Nobody said a word. Now, it's a big story, and the governor is involved and people are calling from all over the country. Maybe that's progress."

But it's hard to suggest as much to Dondre Green.

"I couldn't believe it," he said at the time.

Now, he knows better.

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