From an early age, I’ve dealt harshly with people who look down on others different from them.
Spent my pre-school years in Gibsonton, Florida — then the recognized winter home of the carnies who worked on carnivals and sideshows — taught me to recognize those different from us as nothing more than just other folks, not sideshow freaks.
Gibsonton’s post office had a chopped down section of its counter to serve dwarfs. My mother and I lived near the “bearded lady” and her husband. They rescued us from a flood one year.
The town’s fire chief was “The Giant,” Al Tomaini, who stood 8 foot, four inches tall, and ran “The Giant’s Fishing Camp” when he and his petite legless wife, Jeannie, weren’t on the road appearing as sideshow attractions. Their kids, however, grew up with normal proportions and all their limbs. He taught me how to fish and my mother thought the world of him.
We saw people with deformed bodies in the grocery store, but we didn’t stare. I played with many of them in parks, and we were friends.
When I ran into someone who made fun of any of such folks, I followed my mother’s advice: “Tell the to apologize and, if they refused, kick them where it hurts the most.” After I do so a few times, it didn’t take long for the troublemakers to leave my friends and I alone.
My father had died in an industrial accident when I was nine months old and we lived in Gibsonton until I was five, when my mother decided to move back the area where she was born and we settled into an apartment over the old Hoback’s Furniture Store in Floyd — which is now gone, replaced by the employee parking lot of Skyline Bank.
I made friends with young black kid about my age (his mother worked at the appliance store) but when I started school at Floyd Elementary, he wasn’t in my class When I asked my mother why not, she explained and he and other black kids went to a school “for them” because Floyd was segregated.
I didn’t understand. “What’s segregation.”
“That is why white kids to one school and black kids to another.” She took me by the black school. It was Quonset hut.
“That doesn’t seem right,” I remember saying.
“It’s not,” my mother said, “but that’s the way things are.”
He and I still played together.
Between second and third grades, my widowed mother married a divorced Floyd County man who lived with three kids at their home in Farmville in Prince Edward County. I started third grade in the public school there but the racist school board and a board of supervisors controlled by the Ku Klux Klan refused a federal court order to integrate and opened — at county expense — an all white private school.
Four years later, we said “no way” and left the racists in Farmville to return to Floyd County, which finally had integrated schools.
My exposure to racism, however, did not vanish. At age 17, as a young reporter at The Roanoke Times, I covered rallies of the Klan in nearby Patrick and Franklin Counties and wrote about the hate spouted from the leaders. At one meeting, they showed the vintage silent film, “Birth of a Nation,” directed by D.W. Griffith. It glorified slavery and the birth of the Klan.
In just over three hours, D.W. Griffith’s controversial epic film about the Civil War and Reconstruction depicted the Ku Klux Klan as valiant saviors of a post-war South ravaged by Northern carpetbaggers and immoral freed blacks.
The film became a blockbuster after it’s release on Feb. 15, 1915 and remained more than a hundred years as a recruiting tool of the Klan.
Those events, and others that followed during a half-century of reporting news and photographing events, cemented my disgust of racism and with those who support it.
America today is more divided than at any point of its history since the Civil War and the hate seeps out of the toxic minds of those who want a land where white bigots dominate and anyone else must hide in fear.
Racism thrives in a divided government in Washington and a volatile combination of hate and fear of economic uncertainty after the Great Recession.
America’s racism rebirth came in 2008 with Barack Obama’s election as president. For many, his victory signaled hope for a nation that killed many of its own men, women and children in a Civil War that tore the country apart.
But while millions cheered Obama, others saw him as a powder keg to rally white supremacists. Racism created the Tea Party and used divisions that have existed since America’s birth to spread fear and encourage hate of anyone who wasn’t white, Anglo-saxon and protestant.
In just the eight years between 2008 and 2016, America went from being a nation of hope to a racist land where hate and bigotry dominates our government, our culture and our way of life.
“An era that started with hope and change had how become one of unapologetic hate,” reports CNN.
White supremacists that turned out in droves to vote for Donald Trump and cheer his angry rhetoric of hate hailed a gunman who massacred nine in a predominately black church as a hero who was starting the race war they wanted.
While many Americans shuddered at the sight of Neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville in 2017, white supremacists cheered one of their own who drove his car into the crowd, killing those who protested their expressions of hate.
After a gunman stormed into an American synagogue to commit the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history, the white supremacists rallied to support what they felt was an attack on one of the biggest targets.
“We have a black man in the White House and you need to do something about it,” gloated Ken Parker, a Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon and neo-Nazi. “We would even joke amongst ourselves, we’re going to send President Obama an honorary membership to he the Klan because he’s our biggest recruiting tool.’
At Tea Party rallies their members displayed signs with photoshopped images of Obama as a witch doctor.They called then first lady Michelle Obama “an ape in heels.”
In New York City, real estate tycoon and reality show host Donald Trump called Obama “Muslim’ and questioned his citizenship, saying the president was not born in America.
He used both of those dishonest claims often after his announced his plans to run for president. He called Mexicans “rapists” and “murderers” and denigrated his opponents with slurs and insults.
White supremacists and racists cheered his outlandish behavior. They had found an ally. Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, now headed for prison for multiple crimes, would later testify that Trump never expected to win the election. He ran to try to help his business.
As a businessman, Trump proved his racism. Federal authorities fined him often for housing discrimination. When he owned casinos, managers of the establishments would later testify that Trump ordered them to remove any minority employees from areas where Trump and his wife would dine or play. He ordered a black accountant fired because “you just can’t trust such people.”
As president, he referred to African nations as “shithole countries” and surrounded himself with a lily-white staff. He called the white supremacists who brought violence to Charlottesville “fine people” and repeatedly refused to disown the support and embrace of racist groups.
Trump did not create America’s racism, but he gave it a bigger stage as president because his is one of them — a racist and bigot who uses hate to fuel his base.
He claimed he would “make America great again.” Instead he is destroying it. He, and those who support him, turned America from a nation that thrived into one that died.
Today, we live in one of the two parts of a divided America. That division, for the first time in my 71+ years on this third rock from the sun, leaves me an ashamed American.
We could leave, as may others have done or might do, but we don’t run. We will stay and fight to restore the America that we knew and loved.
We will work with other Americans to get them to the polls to rid our crippled nation of the racist in the White House and the too many other racists and bigots in Congress. As a political operative, I won 95 percent of my races.
Stand with us or stand aside. This is war.