As South Africans vote, we remember our own apartheid

April 29, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

We're not so good on memory. A president dies, and old painful recollections come alive as if 20 years had slipped into nothing. Most people, it turns out, didn't want to be reminded.

Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, black South Africans are casting votes for the first time in their lives. The pictures break your heart. An old man on crutches standing in line for hours. A woman in a wheelchair saying that for the first moment in her life she feels truly alive. Nelson Mandela, after 27 years in jail, preparing to be president of his country.

It's a wonderful story and a haunting story.

And, for me, it's a story of memory.

I lived in a place that practiced something very like apartheid. It was not that long ago. It was in the American South.

You can say the South of that era was no South Africa, and you'd be right. But I'd say it was bad enough.

I grew up in the '50s and '60s in Newport News, a midsized shipbuilding town in the southeastern corner of Virginia. It was not the Deep South. In those days, they made those distinctions. It wasn't Mississippi or Alabama. There weren't any Freedom Riders. No governor stood on the steps of the state university, screaming about segregation forever. Martin Luther King Jr. didn't stop by a lot.

But Jim Crow was there. He was there every day.

When I was very young, there were restrooms and water fountains marked "white" and "colored."

My story came later, in the '60s, when I was in high school. It's a story I've told a lot. It's a story I think about now because of South Africa and how little removed we are from our own days of pain and wounds that still have not healed.

At my high school, there was a debate team. I was in the eighth grade and thought I'd join. The adviser was a teacher fresh out of college who didn't understand the rules. His topic for debate: Should the public schools be integrated? He should have known better.

Although this was a decade after Brown vs. the Topeka Board of Education, there were not yet any blacks in my school. Virginia was a state that in the late '50s had nearly voted to close down its entire public school system rather than integrate. They kept the schools open, agreeing to integrate. Apparently, though, they didn't say when.

By the time I was a senior, we had one black student in the class. He played halfback on the football team.

Of course, Virginia was a state that believed in separation. The state university was virtually all white and all male. There were black colleges for black students and women's colleges for women students.

In my town, there were three white high schools and two black ones. They didn't play each other in sports. There was a black state high school championship and a white state high school championship. The state even had separate competitions for bands. Everything seemed to be separated by race.

That was life when I set about researching for my debate. I knew an editorial writer at the local newspaper, and I went to see him for help. Into his office walked an elderly blue-haired woman who asked what I was doing.

I explained, and then she asked which side I was debating. When I told her that I was arguing for integration, she asked me, "What would your mother say if you brought home a little colored girl?"

To that point, I had brought home no girls. I blushed, and I said something like, "I don't know, but I think my father would be proud."

I went home and told the story to my parents. My father called his friend the editorial writer, who told him the blue-haired woman was the owner of the paper. This got a good laugh. For a while.

Then we found out she had called the superintendent of schools, who called my high school principal, who called in my debate adviser, who was told that the debate would not take place.

And it did not.

About 20 years later, Virginia, with a black population of only about 15 percent, elected a black governor. Newport News has had black mayors. There have been some improvements. There have been just as many disappointments.

And the racial divide in our country -- although certainly not just that in the South -- remains our most difficult and painful issue.

As I watch the joy now in South Africa and know what that joy has cost to achieve, I remember that. We all need to remember that.

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