I, too, have a dream.
I dream that reconciliation is possible between estranged family members; between races and ethnic groups; between enemies and warring clans. On the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I dream that this brilliant and crazy species of ours can find more and more common ground; that we can learn to listen and hear, not just judge and hate; that we can learn to communicate, non-violently; and that perhaps we can evolve more and more from love rather than from fear.
I have my own experience with this. It was Aug. 10, 1965, in Greenwood, Mississippi. Without warning, the blur streaked towards the left side of my face. ‘Delay’ de la Beckwith’s fist plowed into my left temple, spinning me partway around and knocking me down on one knee.
With his three buddies positioned behind me, the next five seconds could mean the difference between life and death. Delay was a 19 year-old Ku Klux Klan foot soldier and I was 21, Canadian, and a civil rights worker with SNCC – The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.
The previous summer, the bodies of three, young civil rights workers, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were found buried in an earthen damn in Mississippi. They were chased down and executed at the side of a road by 19 men, most of whom were KKK, including a deputy sheriff.
Delay’s full name is Byron de la Beckwith, Jr., and his KKK lineage is infamous; his father, Byron, Sr., was a founder of the Mississippi White Citizens Council and a high official in the KKK. In 2001, he was sentenced to life in prison for the assassination of Medgar Evers, Mississippi field secretary of the NAACP, whom he shot in the back in 1963. The story was later told in the Rob Reiner film Ghosts of Mississippi .
Right now in America, fresh with Trayvon Martin’s tragic death and the subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman – and on the heels of Barack Obama’s second term as President – sectarian mistrust and the potential for violence is, perhaps, higher than in many decades. The Southern Poverty Law Center tracks and monitors hate groups in America. Before Mr. Obama came on the scene they were tracking about 1,000 hate groups. Now, the number has risen to about 2,000.
What is going on? Are we doomed to hate? To the prejudice that underlies bullying and violence? To regenerative wars? These are critical national and global issues. And what of Delay? Is he still Klan? Would he like to take another swing at me, perhaps finish the job?
In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against segregated schools in America; but the Justice Department gave individual states until 1970 before full implementation was mandatory. By 1970, in Mississippi, the essentially all-white ‘Academy’ system was in place. Today, more than 90 per cent of whites go to schools that are almost exclusively white. More than 90 per cent of blacks go to schools that are almost exclusively black.
It was only three months ago that one Georgia high school held it’s first integrated Prom, and not to the credit of the local educational or political establishment but due to the courage of four women seniors, one white and three black, who stood up and said enough: let’s change this. And it was only five years ago that one Mississippi town finally ended its long practice of a separate Black Prom and a White Prom; a black Homecoming Queen and a white Homecoming Queen, triggered by the actor Morgan Freeman offering to pay for the whole prom – if it was integrated.
It is almost universally accepted that prejudice is a learned behavior, patterned on what others feel, taken on without original reflection. I remember going with my father and my older brother to our local playground when I was 5 or 6 years old. It was deserted until a young black man approached my father. I don’t know what happened, only that angry words were exchanged and as he walked away my father muttered, under his breath, “black bastard”. Those were the only racist words I ever heard from my father or mother. In fact, I was named after Paul Robeson, and my folks were proud of my civil rights work.
Filed and hidden deep in memory, it wasn’t until I was in Mississippi, 15 or so years later, that these words surfaced. It was a blistering hot day and at the deserted intersection of two rural, dusty, dirt roads there was a lone general store. I stopped for a Coke and when I came out a young black kid in his teens approached me. “Buy me a Coke!”, he demanded. I thought for a moment and calmly said, “No.” He started to move towards me, more aggressively repeating his demand. “Buy me a Coke!”. I said, “No!” and as I watched him walk away I heard myself think, “black bastard.”
I was shocked. I had never had a thought like that, in my life. I thought, “Who said that? Where did that come from?” And then, as if out of the blue, I remembered my father saying it. I immediately knew that I didn’t feel that way about the kid. This was an old tape, recorded in memory, and I erased it, then and there. Ultimately, isn’t moving beyond prejudice a choice?
To begin to explore all these questions, in the microcosm, I found Delay in Aberdeen, Mississippi, and began a five-year dialogue on film. My goal for the audience, and myself, was to discover, to find deeper understanding, to find compassion. Perhaps, more than ever, we need to ask ourselves: “In our hearts, in our souls, are we truly so different from ‘the other’?”
Gandhi is one of my heroes. Nelson Mandela is one of my heroes. His brilliance, and the courage of many, made the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission a pivotal success. If it was my son who was killed by George Zimmerman could I ever forgive? I don’t know. Perhaps not. But I hope I would try.
Paul Saltzman is a Toronto-based, two-time Emmy Award-winning film and television producer and founder of the non-profit Moving Beyond Prejudice