A 2012 letter to Mr. Leonard Pitts, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.
I am not sure why I feel so compelled to write you. You probably will not even see this email, but I still must do so. I am a 56-year-old Christian white male physician living in North Carolina. I am a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and the University of Alabama School of Medicine. I was raised an “Army brat” as my father was a career infantry officer who served two combat tours in Vietnam. I am a veteran of the First Gulf War as well.
I come from a conservative and deeply Southern background. My mother’s family was originally from the mountains of North Georgia and my father’s family was from rural Mississippi. My ancestors fought for the Confederacy. I was raised by a loving and caring family, but one very much part of the prejudices of the times. Thus, I spent my earliest years exposed to an environment of racism. I am a product of the Jim Crow era.
I have read your column in the local newspaper for many years and, to be honest, I either cursed you for what you wrote or cried as I recognized the truth of your words. Many times, I did not want to read your articles because I knew they would only make me mad, but I did. Why? Because your words pierce my heart as if they were a scalpel surgically cutting out the residual hatred, racism, and prejudice that still lay deep within. So, I continue to read you and I read you, again, yesterday, and I knew I needed to write because … I don’t know how to put it, I just needed to write you.
Thank you for your honesty, as brutal and as hard as it is at times. Often, I want to throw the paper away after I read your articles but I do not because you make me think, you make me feel, you even make me cry as I better comprehend the hate, evil and, injustice of racism still present in this country, a country I love and, once upon a time, swore to defend and would do so gladly even now. I wish I could say that the racism of the past was gone but I cannot. Are things better than during those terrible times of the Jim Crow era? I believe they are but are they where they should be, ought to be, must be? The answer is obvious and Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream remains distant.
Two experiences in my life changed me as a person. After spending many years in the Deep South, where most Infantry posts are located, my father was assigned to the Presidio of San Francisco in the summer of 1969. I was not yet 14 and for the first time in my life, I came face to face with the realness of my own prejudices. Joey Robinson came into my life. He was one of the most popular kids in high school, a star athlete, and he was Black. Despite the fact that I was a tall, skinny, shy, dorky-looking kid with glasses, big ears, and a thick Southern accent, Joey accepted me for who I was. We became close friends and, through him and other Black classmates, I came to understand how wrong were the beliefs about “colored people” that I had already learned in my then short lifetime.
I will never forget the last time I saw Joey. It was the summer of 1972. I was moving the next day to Alabama as my father was given a new assignment. Joey and I went to a San Francisco Giants/Atlanta Braves baseball game. After the game, we returned to my home and said goodbye. I never saw Joey again, though to this day I miss him. What I remember most about that day, though, was not the game but my mother saying goodbye to Joey. Joey had become part of our family. My mother hugged and kissed Joey as she tearfully said goodbye. After Joey left, my father looked at my mother and said, “I never thought I would see the day that you would kiss a Black man.” To her, to all of us, Joey was neither Black nor white. He was “us” – he was me, I was him. (Where are you, Joey Robinson?)
Months later, I am in my Senior year in high school – quite a culture shock going from California to Alabama! I am on the high school football team. The school is well integrated and relations between Blacks and whites are good considering it was Alabama in 1972! The presence of a nearby Army post helped as Black students from military families are very much the norm. Our team captain is an amazing young guy with the appropriate name of Speedy. He was our star halfback, the junior class president, and he was African-American. Everyone loved Speedy! Not only was he an amazing person, but he was also an excellent student, a true leader, and a friend to everyone.
Early in the season, we were scheduled to play a team from a part of northern Alabama known for its racism and the continued presence of the KKK at that time. The week of the game, my high school and the football team began receiving hate mail from the town where we were to play. The mail, as you would expect, spewed death threats and racial epitaphs – we were not to bring our “n …” with us. Speedy, in particular, was targeted. We went anyway.
It was early in the third quarter, we were winning, and Speedy was having a great game when it happened. Speedy runs a sweep to the right gaining 20 hard-earned yards. He is knocked out of bounds within 10 yards of me (I played defense, so I was on the sideline), and as he rolled on his back, well out of bounds, the play called dead by the referee, an opposing player comes running full speed, dives, and spears Speedy with his helmet, head to head, helmet to helmet. It was a clearly late, intentional hit. Speedy laid motionless. He was taken by ambulance to the nearest hospital where we learned late that night he died from a massive brain injury and bleed. The next day at practice, we all gathered as the coaches played and replayed the film of the hit that killed Speedy! We all mourned his death. We were all forever changed by it.
I share this because I am tired of the racism, covert and overt, that remains embedded in our culture and, yes, in our hearts. It will not disappear quickly. It will take the passing of those raised in such a way and the raising and education of the “next generation.” I now recognize that my anger is not toward you. You make me think, you make me question, you make me look deep into my heart and, when I do, I see the racism that still exist. I am angry, but not at you, rather at myself, and it hurts, and I cry. I will continue to read you and, as I do, I pray God will continue to transform me into a person who simply desires to love God and others.
Andy Lamb is an internal medicine physician. He can be reached at Bugle Notes.
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