Author Topic: Hillbilly Views: Open Letter to My Beloved Grandson  (Read 1606 times)

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Hillbilly Views: Open Letter to My Beloved Grandson
« on: January 25, 2015, 07:28:43 pm »

Sunday, January 25, 2015
You occupy a unique place and experience in our family.  My grandfather – your double great grandfather – was born in 1868, seven years after the beginning of the U.S. Civil War. He was the seventh son and the last of his siblings born in the state of Virginia.  While a toddler, his family (minus one brother) followed what was probably the Overland Trail  (paralleling what would later be known as U.S. 60) across the Appalachian Mountains. The journey took nearly two and a half years, ending once the family reached (and purchased) their new home at a settlement in West Virginia, near where the Levisa and the Tug Forks merge to become the Big Sandy River. This community would be chartered as Cassville in 1875 and in 1932 officially change its name to Fort Gay.
It was there – in that tiny West Virginia town – that my grandfather grew to adulthood, married, built a house, raised five children of his own, and helped raise nine grandchildren and numerous nieces and nephews. In the tradition of the African griot (or the Appalachian story teller – whichever you choose to call it), he learned the vital historical details and values of his family and passed those on to the next generations of the family.  (Remember that the oral tradition is the way almost ALL of our history was passed on.)
West Virginia was and is now a unique state.  When Virginia seceded from the United States, West Virginia begged to differ and seceded from Virginia.  Why? I suspect that most folks in West Virginia (not being either wealthy or highly educated) had little in common with Old Virginia, economically or socially.  The motto finally adopted by people of the new state was “Montani semper liberi” or “Mountaineers are always free.” It reflects both a strong independent spirit and a determination NOT to be owned or bullied by anyone. (In world history, you will discover that the forces that drove the original Scotch/Irish immigrant population into the mountains had framed much of their future mindset.)

A unique aspect to West Virginia was that my grandfather – a Black man – could register to vote upon reaching adulthood. Actually, 1869 was the magic year when African American men were granted the right to vote in West Virginia. It was 1920 before women got the right to vote. My great grandfather (your triple great grandfather) insisted that his children would vote. They never missed a vote nor did they miss a chance to drill that requirement into the rising generations after them.  They voted and when women's suffrage became legal, their wives and daughters also voted. Around the supper table as I grew up, the news and issues of the day were discussed and never were family members even permitted to think that voting was optional. My grandfather's eyes were watching all of us and it was understood that WE WOULD VOTE!

(Note from your uncle: Contrast this with the experience of your grandfather – my husband – who was forbidden by Jim Crow laws from voting in his native Virginia until the passage of the Civil Rights Act.)

The year that I would turn 21 (legal voting age at that time), I was allowed to register early and vote in the primary because I would be 21 before the general election in November. Since I was in my 3rd year at Berea College, my registration and voting demanded two Greyhound bus trips the 120 miles home. I made BOTH trips. Don't get it wrong. Grampa knew when I should be registered and since he never missed a vote, he also knew when the election came. In that weekly phone call home, he would ask questions that demanded answers.

That spring on Berea's campus, political activity was hectic. The students held a mock political convention in Phelps-Stokes Chapel.  (It was a mock Republican convention sponsored by the Young Republicans club.) Barry Goldwater was nominated, just as he would be nominated at the official convention. I held subscriptions to all the major news magazines, so there was no question as to whether I knew what Barry Goldwater was about politically. In no way did I approve of him or his segregationist views. This was a lighbulb moment for me (an epiphany) – this moment when I realized some striking differences in the thinking between some of my college school mates and me, a young black Appalachian woman. Until that year, I had never considered the differences in thinking that our backgrounds and life experiences had shaped. (Rural, small town, deep South, hill country, urban North, etc.)

For a moment, I will digress (change direction) in my thoughts.  I was well aware of the struggles going on throughout our country. I had seen the confrontations about black folks sitting at lunch counters with white folks, the conflicts about black children and white children going to school together, and – yes – I would see many more racial conflicts. Although I had not seen a conflict when I set foot as a 6th grader in Fort Gay Elementary School in 1954, I had friends who were students at Berea Foundation School (the high school section of Berea College) who had seen the public schools of Prince Edward County Virginia totally CLOSED to prevent integration. The white students went to private schools; the black children went HOME to no schools. Berea offered admission to the Foundation School to some of the school-less black students. This is not an intellectual exercise; these were people I KNEW and although they didn't  talk much about situations at home in Virginia, I knew what they had endured. 
The life experiences of black folk shape our opinions and feelings and our reactions are RELEVANT, but to many who have not shared these experiences, our reactions are incomprehensible.  The inability to empathize or understand is a huge stumbling block to interracial understanding. My grandmother and her eldest child – Uncle Charlie – could catch the train in Fort Gay and ride unmolested to Ohio, but later with her second son – Uncle Carter – the family was relegated to the "blacks only" car because Uncle Carter was of darker brown skin. Your puzzled look tells me that this story seems strange to you, but that was the reality my grandmother had to live with.  The reality I had to live with is that the only hotel in Berea where my father and stepmother could stay when they came to visit was Boone Tavern Hotel, then (and now) owned by Berea College!

1964 was a year of social and political change and racial turmoil was brewing all over the country.  Then, as now, voting rights were a massive issue in many states. The news focused on poll taxes, voting eligibility tests,  and the night riders (also known as the KKK) that would do  ANYTHING to keep black folk from registering to vote.  We faced Mississippi Freedom Summer, the murders of Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner, and many other incidents, along with the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Despair, hope, and yet even more despair and we moved on toward an uncertain future.  In spite of a federal law supporting many of our civil rights, the path into 1965 was perilous because this was the big push for voting rights across the nation. The strategy in January would be an attempt to awaken the nation to the barriers facing African Americans wishing to vote. Representatives of major civil rights groups met to plan strategy and no, I was not involved in the planning or the early execution. As a friend who was heavily involved told me: "Woman, you have too much temper; you would end up dead!  Stay in Kentucky. We'll tell you when it’s safe for you to come!"

I graduated from Berea toward the end of January 1965 and I continued my student job as a regular Berea College employee at the Berea College Press and the Berea Citizen newspaper.   By the end of February, the situation in Alabama was becoming very tense. Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot by a policeman and died several days later. His crime? Trying to protect his mother from being beaten. By the first week in March, the news was traveling and the big confrontation was in motion. A white minister died because he dared to join and side with the demonstrators in Selma.  People in Berea were aware of events in Alabama. Everyone was trying to keep up with the news. People talked about what was going on down there. Finally, a decision was made to join with the demonstration in the final push toward the Alabama capitol steps in Montgomery.  I would be a participant; I would be on that bus.

Was I afraid? No. Should I have been afraid? Probably. I will never forget walking shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of people as we marched through the streets of Montgomery. There are those who say that the final push of the Selma to Montgomery March included 25,000 people. I really don't know. All I know is that I was there among all those people – black, white, whoever. I remember the looks of the spectators who watched the marchers. The faces were NOT friendly early on, but I remember black folks slipping into the crowd of marchers as we drew nearer the capitol building. In the days after the march, Civil Rights worker Viola Liuzzo was chased and gunned down by the KKK. Our bus was on the highway headed home to Kentucky when and near where she lost her life.  We would not find out about her death until after we were safely home.

Fifty years ago, I was one of many.... an insignificant one of many who protested.  Even today I would NOT trade that experience because I know what we did was necessary. My grandfather voted for nearly 75 years of his life. I have voted for 51 years. Your vote is yet to come. Too many politicians today are trying to devise ways of disenfranchising everyday people. Your generation will have to be vigilant and take on the fight.  I wish it were not so, but in many ways the threat to restrict voting rights is just as dangerous in the 21st Century as it was in the 20th. Take notice of the fact that black people were murdered, lynched, beaten, firehosed, and chased by dogs to keep them from exercising their right to vote. Take notice of the fact that in certain places today, people have to stand in line for HOURS in order to vote. Take notice of the fact that voting hours in many places have and are being shortened.  Voting is a powerful weapon and it is probably the most powerful weapon that everyday people have.  If this wasn't so, why would so many people have been hurt or killed to keep them from voting? Why would politicians be working so hard to restrict rather than to expand voting opportunities? Why?