From an early age, I’ve dealt with people who look down on others different from them.
My pre-school years spent in Gibsonton, Florida — then the recognized winter home of the carnies who worked on carnivals and sideshows — taught me to recognize those different than 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 drawfs, 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.
They had “normal” kids.
We saw people with deformations in the grocery store, playing along side us in parks, and we they were friends.
My father had died 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 moved 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, at the time, was segregated.
“That doesn’t seem right,” I remember saying.
“It’s not,” my mother said, “but that’s what things are.”
Between second and third grades, my mother remarried 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 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, where the schools now integrated.
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 other that followed during a half-century of reporting news and photographing events, cemented my hatred of racism and those who support it.
Reported CNN in 2018:
The hate created two Americas. Two realities. Split-screen reactions to the same events, that continued and were exacerbated with President Trump’s victory and time in office.When a gunman massacred nine people praying at a predominantly black church, America wept and asked for grace. But the virulent racists cheered, hailing the gunman a hero for helping to start the race war they dreamed of.When much of America was horrified by the sight of neo-Nazis in their streets in 2017, white supremacists were almost gleeful their views were front and center.And when a gunman stormed into a synagogue, declaring “all Jews must die,” Americans wept over the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in US history. But white supremacists breathed a sigh of relief. One of their biggest targets had been successfully attacked.
“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.
I write this as someone born in America, saw the hate that drove the racists to close the public school I attended in Prince Edward County, Virginia, to illegally avoid integration. I served this as a government operative — and later as a political operative often doing things counter to the American way — and then wrote about that corruption as a newspaperman.
Today, I 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.